Goma: Stories of Strength and Sorrow from Eastern Congo
Goma: Stories of Strength and Sorrow from Eastern Congo

Goma: Stories of Strength and Sorrow from Eastern Congo

by Theodore Trefon, Noel Kabuyaya

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A city of more than one million people caught between volcanic eruptions and armed conflict, Goma has come to embody the tragedy that is the Democratic Republic of Congo. Often portrayed by outsiders as a living hell, Goma is seen as a city of promise for many inside the country. Drawing on a rich tapestry of personal narratives, from taxi drivers to market traders, doctors to local humanitarian workers, Goma provides an engaging and unconventional portrait of an African city.

In contrast to the bleak pessimism that dominates much of the writing on Congo, Theodore Trefon and Noël Kabuyaya instead emphasize the resilience, pragmatism, and ingenuity that characterizes so much of daily life in Goma. Resigned and hardened by struggle, the protagonists of the book give the impression that life is neither beautiful nor ugly, but an unending skirmish with destiny. In doing so, they offer startling insights into the social, cultural, and political landscape of this unique African city.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786991409
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 01/15/2018
Edition description: 1
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Theodore Trefon is a senior researcher at the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa and a lecturer in environmental governance at ERAIFT/University of Kinshasa. His previous books include Congo’s Environmental Paradox, Congo Masquerade, and Reinventing Order in the Congo, all published by Zed. Noël Kabuyaya is assistant professor of human geography at the University of Kinshasa.

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Mathilde Musole is an independent-minded businesswoman with pluck. Clever, hard-working and tenacious – like the city of Goma – her life has been a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs. Her indefatigable drive to take charge of her destiny, her resiliency in the face of adversity and her near-permanent smile are her dominant personality traits. Most people call her Aunty Mathy, Da Mathy (da is short for dada, which is the Swahili word for sister) or Mama Teacher. With multiple irons in the fire, she is not easily intimidated by hard work or the need to think creatively.

Mathilde was born into a Bashi family on 28 December 1963 in a small village near Bukavu in South Kivu, the second to last child of eight. Her parents did not send her older sisters to school because they considered their future to be that of wife and mother. 'Girls learn to take care of a household in our family – not waste their time in class. In my case, however, my father changed his mind.' When she was four years old, her father (a cook for priests in a Catholic mission) and her mother (a market woman) decided to send her to live with an older sister in Bukavu so she could go to school. The quality of teaching in the city was significantly better than in her native village. 'I studied hard and finished primary school without any difficulty and then followed a teacher-training curriculum in boarding school at the Lycée des Soeurs Noires in Katana near Bukavu.'

Over the years, Mathilde would return to her village to visit her parents. 'One summer – I was fifteen and pretty – my father accepted to marry me off. The suitor paid the traditional dowry of two cows for my hand but agreed to wait until I finished school to finalise the marriage.' Upon graduation in 1981, Da Mathy made it clear to her father that she did not want anything to do with her fiancé: 'Schoolgirls shouldn't be forced to marry,' she argued. She had in fact made her own plans with another young man, François, also a Shi and a trained nurse. Her father reluctantly came to accept her choice and offered to return the two cows to the jilted fiancé. 'He withdrew his claim on me but for reasons that I never understood, he refused to take back the dowry.'

Mathilde learned to like studying as a high school student and dreamed of going to university in Kinshasa. 'I had the talent to succeed but my dream was put on hold for want of money.' In the meantime, and with the intention of putting money aside for further studies, she worked as a statistics analyst in the provincial administration of primary, secondary and professional education (EPSP) in Bukavu. François was anxious to get married but Mathilde's older brothers did not agree, preferring to see their little sister continue her education. Despite their veto, the young couple went ahead with their marriage and rented a house in Bukavu where Mathilde continued to work. Her first setback took the form of sexual harassment by her boss at work: she quit and took a job as a primary school teacher in the Bukavu district of Ibanda. 'That's where I got the name Mama Teacher that has stuck with me all these years.'


Despite bringing home two salaries, the young couple was quickly confronted by the difficulties of making ends meet when their first daughter was born. The Zairian economy was in a tailspin as a result of hyperinflation, low levels of investment, decaying infrastructure, corruption and low salaries. Two years into their marriage, François needed to come up with a plan, so he decided to go back to school. He enrolled at the Butare branch of the National University of Rwanda to study pharmacology, leaving his wife and daughter behind. He shuttled back and forth between Butare and Bukavu for three years, a phase during which Mathilde continued to teach. After graduating, François found work in a pharmaceutical trading company in Gitarama, Rwanda, and a year later, in 1987, he was promoted and transferred to Gisenyi – the Rwandan city just opposite Goma. Mathilde was able to arrange for a transfer from Bukavu to Goma, where the reunited couple settled.

Goma at the time was still a small city whose activities were centred around the newly constructed international airport, catering to the expanding tourist business, the main attraction being the Virunga park. As an inexperienced schoolteacher coming from a sleepy administrative town, I was dazzled by the fancy hotels – Grands Lacs, Mont Goma and the Ritz. I nagged François to take me out dancing in fashionable nightclubs Saturday nights, basking in the pleasure of my new environment. I loved going to bustling Birere on weekdays to do my shopping. I can't forget how impressed I was by the khadhafis who weaved in and out of the labyrinth of busy alleyways – allegedly so dangerous to the uninitiated.

Salaries in Congo/Zaire tend to be lower than those in neighbouring countries. With the money François was earning in Rwanda, he was able to buy a motorbike to commute between Gisenyi and Goma. The motorbike was an indicator of the couple's improved standard of living. Likewise, François conceded that he was earning enough money to cover the household expenses and pressured Mathilde to stop teaching: 'A wife who has children to bring up shouldn't work.' A year's worth of savings allowed the couple to buy a large plot of land in Himbi, where they planned to build their house. They thus participated in the first postcolonial expansion of Goma – at the time, Himbi was mostly vacant land with a few cultivated fields. 'Compared to today, prices were insignificant. In 1988, we bought 3,200 square metres of land for 150 Zaires [around $80].'

Mathilde took responsibility for negotiating the purchase. In 2014 she sold an eighth of the land for $10,000, which testifies to the inflation in land prices. In 1990, as the area where they had their land was becoming urbanised, it was again Mathilde who took charge of validating their ownership, first with the neighbourhood officials and then with the municipal land title office. Although she did the best she could to preserve the full size of their lot, she was unsuccessful. 'For a little bit of land, people will do anything. I had to give up part of the lot to keep the peace. Our future neighbours got some but most went to the agent at the land title office. I wasn't too upset because I thought that maybe he could help me down the road.'

Once they were in possession of their title, they built their house of wooden planks, typical of the Goma style of housebuilding. Mathilde oversaw the construction, allowing François to concentrate on his work. 'We were delighted to say goodbye to our landlord and move into our own place. Without having to worry about rent, we were able to furnish the house with expensive things. Thanks to our ingrained savings mentality, we could fulfil another dream – shared by everyone from South Kivu – buy a house in Bukavu – which in our case was a second residence.' It took them two more years of saving but the little brick house in the nice residential area of Ibanda in Bukavu was theirs. 'For Bashi people like us, owning a home in Bukavu means that we have conquered poverty!' Today, however, Da Mathy admits that she would not leave Goma for Bukavu because Goma presents far more 'tempting business opportunities'.

Mathilde convinced her husband to allow her to start work again, arguing that she knew how to space out her pregnancies. She hired a young Hunde boy to take care of domestic chores so she could 'pick up the chalk' once again. 'Being with children and having them call me Mama Teacher filled me with pride.' She recommenced in a public school (the Tuungane Institute) and then taught at a better-paying private primary school (Les Volcans), where she stayed from 1987 to 1995. 'As in many other Congolese families, the money I earned was mine – François' money was ours – to spend on living expenses. He agreed I could do what I wanted with my money so I put it in a savings cooperative.'

They were not rich during those years but comfortably off: neither parents nor children felt deprived. 'We had everything we needed and couldn't see any dark clouds on the horizon – but then lightning struck.' In January 1995, François died suddenly from kidney failure. 'I was devastated by his death.' A paternal aunt from Bukavu took in her oldest son, but no one in the family helped her with the other three children. 'I had to adapt, forced into playing the double role of mama and papa.' Her first concern was to maintain a material standing of living comparable to the one they had before François died.

'I needed to find work that paid better and got lucky with a teaching job at the Belgian school in September 1995. That job allowed me to keep the kids well dressed and well fed while keeping the house up. I was even able to save each month, putting something in the savings and credit cooperative.' Her children were allowed to study at the Belgian school too, something she was grateful for. Maintaining this rhythm, however, came at a high cost: 'I worked liked a dog!' For two years, 1995 and 1996, she got up at 5 am to prepare her lessons and get the children dressed, washed and fed. 'I knew that I had to be demanding with myself if I was to avoid losing my job.'

This struggle lasted until February 1996 – when the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo entered Goma. As the rebels came, the expatriates fled – including the Belgians. Before leaving, the Belgian school director asked Mathilde, along with the Tutsi father of a student at the school, to take over the interim management during what proved to be a hectic transition. The school's finances suffered as students left, and this had a direct impact on Mathilde's salary. 'To make matters worse, my co-manager did not hide the fact that he expected me to become his mistress. My refusal led to further problems because he was able to push me out of my management responsibilities and take full control of the school.' Mathilde maintained her teaching job temporarily but the stress of being sexually harassed and the worry about being sacked led her to have a nervous breakdown. This was the beginning of another period of precariousness because she was not paid during the two months of her hospitalisation. Her attempts at receiving compensation were fruitless and her fear about being sacked came true. 'This experience didn't do much to improve my opinion of our Tutsi neighbours.'

Without any source of income, Mathilde had to start again from scratch, realising that her savings would not last long. She decided to take a chance and bought a stock of used shoes to sell. 'I didn't know anything about the used-shoe market but was able to see how other women were organised. It was not very complicated.' Nevertheless, the earnings did not reach her expectations and she abandoned that trade. Her next commercial venture was selling fresh milk and street food. 'Every morning, I'd get up before 5 am and walk over to Gisenyi with my 20 litre jug and walk back home with it full of milk. I wasn't going to waste money on a motorbike taxi! By 6 am, I would be back at the house mixing doughnut dough and deep-frying it on my little brasero.' Once the doughnuts were ready, she would wake up her daughters who would sell them on a makeshift table in front of the house – along with a few other items such as sugar, candy, spices and soap. During that time, she would be selling the milk door to door. Although the family was making ends meet with these activities, Mathilde became aware that the rhythm was having a negative impact on the girls' school results. The energetic widow consequently transitioned into yet another venture.

This time it was selling used clothing, an important business in Africa that exists because of donations from Europe and America. The idea came to her thanks to advice given by some friends from Bukavu, where the trade first developed in the region. 'My girlfriends and I would pool our money to buy large loads of used clothing imported via the Kenyan port of Mombasa. There was a lot of solidarity between us in terms of sharing costs and divvying up earnings and in selecting who wanted what from the stock.' Her acumen for the business came easily as she learned by doing, focusing on four categories of clients and goods. The first category comprised 'nearly new' items that she would sell to priests and sisters from the approximately fifty Catholic congregations in and around Goma. 'I liked doing business with them because they didn't quibble over prices.' Second were items in decent condition she would display at the Virunga market; third, loads she would sell in bundles to buyers from neighbouring villages who would in turn sell them item by item. Last were wholesale bundles she would take to Sake on market days for either sale or barter for foodstuffs (beans, cabbage, potatoes, and so on) that she would sell in Goma for a profit. The used clothing chapter in her life was successful and she was able to hire a seller for her stand in the Virunga market and a housekeeper to take care of domestic chores.

Driven by a mix of ambition and a fear of relapsing into poverty, Mathilde used her second-hand clothing earnings to invest in a bar, which, thanks to her many friends and acquaintances, attracted a large clientele. Located on a busy street near the Himbi II goat market, she served food and drink on an array of white plastic tables. 'I had a big freezer that kept the beer nice and cold. My guests could sit out on the front terrace if they wanted to watch the passers-by; others could enjoy the discretion of private rooms behind the main courtyard. There were always chicken parts, fish and pork on the charcoal grill to accompany the beer.' After a while she also invested in a sound and light system for a little discotheque space. 'I had both regular customers and plenty of one-time visitors.' Based on her success and public relations shrewdness, Mathilde convinced Bralima (one of the major breweries) to grant her an exclusivity contract, which boosted her bar business. Most importantly, Mathilde was able to exploit the arrangement to sell Bralima products wholesale. She combined this with beer and alcohol imports from Bujumbura, Kampala and Dar es Salaam. 'The fear of being poor again had dissipated. No more young widow remorse for me – I had become a real businesswoman.'

The spirit of financial independence gave Mathilde the confidence to take control of her sentimental affairs. She admits that 'masculine tenderness' is a welcome thing after years of solitude but is clear with respect to her suitors' intentions: 'Men chase after me because they want to get their hands on my money. I give in now and again but pick and choose. I don't want anything to do with a man who is either rude or domineering.' Her choice leans towards men who are 'tender, committed, thoughtful, caring and ready to cater to my whims'. Even when she has happened upon such a man, she remains adamantly opposed to remarriage. Independence is a priority and she insists that she would not want anyone 'to boast that they have contributed a single iota to my accomplishments'.


Da Mathy, like most other Congolese citizens, is subject to the demands of civil servants and other types of state agents. When she put together the file for her first job, her marriage certificate, the birth certificates of her children, and the land title were just a few examples of the requirements that initiated her into the idiosyncrasies of local administrative reality.

I figured out quickly that you have to deal with the boss in the back office – not the clerk that does the leg work or sits at the window. When possible, I've avoided even going into a public service office because once you get in, you are like a mouse between the claws of a hungry cat. Those guys pretend to be so busy that helping you would be a major inconvenience; they make you feel guilty and helpless at the same time. Even after you have emptied your wallet, there are no guarantees that you are going to leave with the paper you went in for. To avoid all this, my strategy entails establishing friendly relations with the big men.


Excerpted from "Goma"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Theodore Trefon and Noël Kabuyaya.
Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface and acknowledgements
Chronology of events in and around Goma
Introduction: A city in search of its future
1. The ups and downs of a businesswoman
2. The amazing wooden scooter
3. Charcoal is life
4. A stonecuttrer’s paradise
5. Goma’s public health challenges
6. A pragmatic humanitarian
7. Everybody loves beans
8. The motorbike taxi solution
9. Private security for hire
10. Gembloux-Goma return
11. Village boy makes good
12. Gilded youth in search of their future

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