AFRICA MONEY-In Goma, adversity brings opportunity, no prosperity

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo Tue Dec 4, 2012 11:56am EST

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo Dec 4 (Reuters) - A decade after this Congolese border city was covered by lava spewed from the nearby Mount Nyiragongo volcano, Goma resident Barwani Bwashi has found use for the dark debris.

"It's very useful," he said as he pointed to a makeshift metre-high wall built from the volcanic rubble that marks off the small yard in front of his modest, one-window house.

Bwashi, who works in a local cigarette factory, said he and his family had broken up the hardened lava with hammers.

Elsewhere in his neighborhood, far bigger walls built from the lava surround compounds. In one yard, a foundation for a house has been constructed from it while outside toilets are also perched on top of the lava rock. It is a defining feature of Goma architecture.

Leave it to Goma's long-suffering but resourceful residents to find opportunity in adversity.

After the volcano blew up in January 2002, much of the city was brought to a standstill as the red-hot molten lava coursed through its streets and spilled into homes and businesses.

The city was on edge again in November after it was captured by rebels from a group called M23 who took up arms eight months ago against the government of President Joseph Kabila.

The rebels quit Goma on Saturday under a deal brokered by regional powers but not before they had seized their own opportunities.

Reuters reporters observed them helping themselves to munitions and weapons in Goma's port on the north shore of Lake Kivu that were left behind by the Congolese army. Police and residents also say they looted some shops.

Goma, which lies on Congo's eastern border with Rwanda, has long been a focal point of conflict and crisis.

It has been occupied by rebels before and Rwanda has twice invaded the region to pursue Hutu rebels who fled after carrying out the 1994 genocide that killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

The region has also been plagued by conflict because of its mineral wealth, including gold, tin and coltan. The latter is crucial to the construction of mobile phones.

SURVIVING NOT THRIVING

In what can only be described as a hot-spot economy, the city's hotels have done a roaring trade as journalists, aid agencies and military observers descended on the city, as they have done periodically in the past.

Others also profit behind the smokescreen of conflict.

According to the United Nations, corruption in the army includes Congolese troops running illicit mining operations in the country's east. Few locals see any benefit.

It all highlights the precarious nature of an economy where opportunity often seems to arise from the ashes of adversity, be it a volcanic eruption or rebel occupation.

Unlike the lava underpinning Goma's new houses, it is hardly a solid foundation for development or economic growth or the orderly accumulation of wealth and capital.

A functioning state would surely help. But there is little evidence of that on Goma's mostly dusty and unpaved roads that are scarred with bone-jarring pot holes. Open sewers emitting a foul stench are strewn with garbage and infested with flies.

Many of the locals are stuck in a cycle of subsistence and survival, using anything that comes to hand. Volcanic rock is useful precisely because it is free in a place where few people have a lot of money to spend, let alone save or invest it.

In Goma's colourful street-side markets, rural women hawk their meagre wares, mostly smoked fish and produce they have grown themselves, or items such as sandals.

On Monday several who spoke to Reuters said they were glad the brief rebel occupation was over but the disruption meant few people had money to buy their goods, not least because the banks remained shut.

"It's a problem because people have no money," said one middle-aged woman who gave her name as Francoise as she tried to sell sandals and flip-flops.

Other women sat stoically in front of their produce. One was selling locusts - a local delicacy - gathered in the countryside, while others offered a few onions or tomatoes.

Their life is clearly one of raw subsistence but the volcano that dominates Goma's skyline has also provided them with the means to at least get by.

Volcanic ash has, over the centuries, enriched the soil with a fertility that can be seen in the riot of lush vegetation that cloaks the region's rugged hills in stunning shades of green. If you have a garden plot here, almost anything will grow.

This enables people to survive.

But with conflict never ending and the prospect of Nyiragongo erupting again, few can thrive. (Reporting by Ed Stoddard)

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