"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

3.13.2006

oh, great light of the world, fill up my soul

I realized that I haven't posted many pictures lately; sorry about that. It's often really awkward to take out a camera here, and you can be arrested if you snap a shot in the presence of police or military personnel (official or otherwise), which pretty much rules out most public areas in Goma.

So these pictures are from the gardens around my apartment. The northern end of Lake Kivu is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been – it reminds me of Switzerland with mountains surrounding a clear blue lake. In the colonial era, the Kivus, especially the areas around what is today Goma (in the DRC) and Gisenyi (in Rwanda), became a combination playground/investment opportunity for the Belgians. The high altitude means that malaria is less of a problem here, and the weather is really pleasant. It rarely gets above 80 degrees, and there's a long rainy season (February-April), a long dry season (May-September), and short rainy season (October-December), and a short dry season (January) that tend to be very regular rather than being subject to droughts and flooding like elsewhere. Because the cities are built at the base of the seven extinct Virunga volcanoes and the two active volcanoes in Congo, the soil here is some of the richest in the world. That plus the climate means that things grow – quickly! In a good year, farmers will have three harvests of the same crop. This is especially true on the Masisi plain to the northwest of Goma, which is why that land is so contested (see Mr. Florida's dissertation in a few years for more – much more – on that).

It also means that you can take a cutting from any plant, stick it in the ground, and it will take root and grow into a new plant. I've seen this elsewhere in tropical climates but never seen things grow as quickly as they do here. So here are some of the beautiful flowers in the gardens at Karibu, some of which have been pruned back and grown again since I arrived. Karibu is one of the rare green spots in Goma proper; because of the lava flow, much of the land that could support agriculture in the center of town is now solid rock, meaning that people can no longer feed their families from their gardens.

This combination of climate and soil made the Lake Kivu area very attractive to the Belgian colonists, especially since their country is so small that aristocrats couldn't give land to all of their children. The Kivus became a place where a lot of the second sons of wealthy Belgians came to try their fortunes at growing coffee or pyrethrum (a flower that makes a natural insecticide). Goma and Gisenyi were the center of economic, financial, and social life for the Belgians (and many others) who came to exploit the territory's riches. You can still see the relics of that era in the grand boulevards that are Goma's main street and Gisenyi's lakefront drive, the roundabouts that obviously used to have beautifully-maintained gardens, and in the wide verandas of some of the older homes, hotels, and shops. On the Goma side, most of this is now buried under lava and the vestiges of ten years of war, refugees, and a total lack of government maintenance or control. Given the geologic situation, it's not likely that much of that will change. Even the mayor says that Goma should move, or else it will probably be destroyed the next time Nyira erupts.

(Oddly enough, my friend Emmanuel told me yesterday that the original colonial settlers of the region picked Goma's location because there was another lava flow to the west. They assumed that subsequent eruptions would follow a similar course, and so built the town directly on top of the domed chambers that fill with lava and split open during an eruption. Oops.)

Of course, the Belgians were probably the worst of the European colonizers in Africa. King Leopold used the Congo as personal property to be looted until Belgium took over the territory due to an outcry in Europe over human rights abuses in the territory that was pointed out by some late-19th century British missionaries and an American diplomat. Belgian rule, however, was just as harsh and the colonial administration did almost nothing to train any Congolese to run an independent state, and instead actively tried to keep the population from becoming too educated so they wouldn't overthrow colonial rule (there were almost no university graduates in the country at independence, in contrast to British and French colonies which had at least trained civil servants and other bureaucrats to run their countries). If you'd like to know more about the mess that King Leopold and those who followed him made (which I would argue created the legacy of bad governance that continues today), Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost is a great, well-written, engaging work of history. If you're interested in learning more about the history of the Kivus in a good memoir, check out Rosamund Halsey Carr's Land of a Thousand Hills.

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