Just Below the Surface

DR Congo, January 18, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joni Kabana for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Joni Kabana for Mercy Corps

Goma is proof that appearances can be deceiving.

This morning, we rode along winding mountain roads past bustling villages in Rwanda to reach the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There we caught our first glimpses of Lake Kivu, one of Africa's biggest lakes — and, at nearly 5,000 feet elevation, one of its highest. The entire body of water is skirted with lush green forest, some spectacular houses and flowers that are too beautiful to be believed.

Yet below the lake's placid waters are deadly quantities of methane and carbon dioxide gases. Volcanic activity can release the methane and cause a massive explosion, while a simultaneous release of carbon dioxide can suffocate nearby residents. The timetable for this event is unknown — but it will be catastrophic for the more than two million people who live within the lake's basin.

Lake Kivu is almost too fitting a metaphor for this part of eastern Congo, where nearby perils threaten the area and its people almost constantly. The prolific vegetation throughout Goma conceals jagged pieces of lava rock, hiding the scars of a volcanic eruption that nearly destroyed the city just six years ago. Rebel forces lurk in pristine rainforests. And all along the city's outskirts, tens of thousands of war-displaced families huddle in whatever shelters they can construct from natural and donated materials — hoping to return to their villages, but waiting for the next catastrophe.

As I type this, I'm listening to boisterous Congolese music coming from a nearby bar. Someone is having a birthday party. People are singing along, whistling, whooping and hollering.

There is some broader cause for celebration: news of a truce between one of the main rebel groups and the Congolese government. It was agreed upon right here in Goma just yesterday. It's been greeted with skepticism; people don't quite know what it might mean. I hope to find out more tomorrow.

For now, though, there is joyful music in Goma amid the dangers hidden in one of the most beautiful landscapes I've ever seen.