For nearly two decades, North Kivu's provincial capital Goma has been synonymous with armed conflict, instability and humanitarian distress. It has been one of the main focal points of the insecurity that has long dominated the region, as it was once again in late 2012 when it was captured by M23 rebels before they withdrew days later.
For many, it is difficult to believe Goma could be a source of good news. But earlier last month, the city erupted in colourful celebration as 25,000 people descended on College Mwanga, close to the bustling Virunga market, to attend the Amani Festival.
Centred around a main stage – above which a banner proudly read "Playing for Change, Singing for Peace" − thousands of Gomatraciens were joined by visitors from across the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and elsewhere.
The festival, which ran from 14 to 16 February and was organised by a team of motivated individuals, had been scheduled for 2013, but ongoing military operations meant it was too risky. Now, however, things are different. Congo’s numerous conflicts are far from over, but the suppression of the M23 has allowed musicians and artists from across the Great Lakes region to gather and perform in the name of Amani – Swahili for “peace”. Their message is clear: However much the eastern DRC, and Goma in particular, has suffered from war, there is also a different story to tell.
This story is told by countless volunteers hustling and bustling to keep up with security demands, logistical matters and the tight time schedule. And it told by performers such as Lexxus Legal, a rapper from Kinshasa known for his outspokenness over the country’s social and political challenges.
On Friday evening, he moves the crowd with pushy and melodic hip-hop songs, frequently stopping a song abruptly to deliver messages of peace and reconciliation. The latter are well received by a multinational and multi-ethnic public nodding to the beat.
The next day, Innocent Balume, one of Gomatraciens’ idols, steps on the stage, introducing himself as a “Mutoto wa Congo”, a child of Congo. Though he still a teenager, his songs enchant all the generations present.
The exuberant mood on the plain of College Mwanga is addictive. Innocent is the last act of the festival’s second day and even Martin Kobler, the head of the country’s UN mission, has come to witness the musical messages for peace.
In the midst of thousands of festival visitors, Kobler and Goma’s mayor Kubuya encourage their whole entourage to dance, just before Innocent summons them to the stage. If it was not also a bit of a ‘winning hearts and minds’ kind of move, one could have thought the UN chief was a member of Innocent's crew.
Sunday turned out to be the most crowded day. After obligatory church, people came in masses to the festival. A hymn performed collectively for the late Brigadier Mamadou Ndala, a hero for Gomatraciens since the defeat of M23, gave everyone goose bumps and gave the sense that the whole city and its surroundings were about to sing together. Similar moments occurred again later in the afternoon when Congolese rumba star Lokua Kanza played the final chords of the festival’s first edition.
Goma and the surrounding region still face a series of massive challenges as it tries to maintain its fragile peace, but the Amani Festival conveyed another message worth sounding: that Goma is not only the epicentre of multiple wars but a place where Congolese and their neighbours can unite in joy and hope.
Photographs by Christoph Vogel.
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For further reading around the subject see:
|End of an Era? What Next for the DR Congo now that the M23 has been Defeated?||M23's Congo Cadres: The Rebel Movement with a Taste for Local Politics||Say My Name, Say My Name: How "Shout-outs" Keep Congolese Rumba Fighting Fit|