Amid Strife, Congo's Musicians Fight to Play


(The Root) — Jean Claude "J.C." Wenga, 24, expected to spend the last weekend of August performing in front of thousands of people from across Africa's Great Lakes region at a historic music festival in his hometown of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Indeed, the week before the festival, he was confident.

"Security here has never been an assurance," he said. "But nothing is, really, concerning me." Less than 72 hours later violence erupted, and as international governments and nongovernmental organizations evacuated personnel, the festival was postponed until February.


It would seem that skeptics regarding the Amani (Swahili for "peace") Festival's prospects, who were concerned about potential violence, had been proved right. But perhaps they're missing the point. In the face of ongoing failures to bring peace to eastern DRC, the organization of the festival itself may have been, as Wenga called it, une pierre de contribution — which is a Congolese saying meaning, roughly, a stone in the foundation — toward bringing attention to more than just violence in Goma, which has come to characterize the city.

Goma has been at the epicenter of the violence that has embroiled the region for nearly two decades now. Post-genocide-Rwandan political struggles have been centralized in this country since more than 1 million Rwandan refugees fled across the border into eastern DRC, creating one of the greatest humanitarian crises in history. Regional politics and conflicts have persisted, culminating in the brief capture of Goma by rebel group M23 in November 2012.

Yet despite the images of refugees and rebels that dominate the city's international profile, the people have persisted in living. Wenga is a member of La Maison Jeune, a local youth center in Goma where the Amani Festival was born. The idea was to bring musicians and people from all around the region — Rwanda, Burundi and DRC — to foster regional cohesion and highlight another side of the city.

"People think that this area is doomed. We want to show that there are people there and they are not all just rebels fighting," explains Jean-Benoît Falisse, one of the Belgian organizers of the festival. "It's about showing that citizens can live together … Music is a binding thing for people in the region."

In the final weeks leading up to the festival, everything seemed to be coming together: The remaining funds had been raised, a sound system finally found and the security situation peaceful. But just days before the festival was scheduled to begin, a rocket landed in Goma, killing four — a woman and three children; and heavy fighting erupted between the Rwandan-backed M23 rebels and the Congolese army, supported by a United Nations peacekeeping force with the strongest mandate in history. The people of Goma took to the streets, protesting MONUSCO (the U.N. mission in DRC), which many feel has been far too impotent in the face of violence. Demonstrations have been an increasing occurrence as the people try to seize their own future.

Goma is a city of contrasts, situated right on the Rwandan border and at the base of an active volcano, which erupted in 1994 and then again in 2002 — killing hundreds and destroying La Maison Jeune, which was only rebuilt in 2010. The volcanic rubble still covers the city, giving it a destructive and dark appearance. But despite its violent undercurrents, the city bubbles with color.


At night you can enjoy dinner on Lake Kivu, gazing at the brilliant purple and blue reflections as the sun sets and the smoke billows out of Mount Nyiragongo. The people are emotive and engaging, and many of the youths, who have grown up amid violence, have channeled their struggle into art. There is a vibrant music scene in which hip-hop is particularly popular. At local events, young people sport creative fashions with intricate mohawks and other hairstyles; large colorful, stacked bracelets often running up to their elbows; tight jeans; big, bright sneakers; and trendy sunglasses.

"It's like we live in seasons — not just the dry and wet season — but the season of insecurity; the security can change just like the seasons," explains Wenga. "And then it traumatizes a little, and that's why you see a lot of youth looking to change things, each of them in their own way. We live and hope that our story will change, and that's why we're fighting — trying through music, through songs, through exchanges, through the festival, to promote change, because we believe in it."


The organizers of the festival insist that Amani will still happen, that they still have the support and resources to realize their vision. Whether they are right, their persistence in pursuit of creating positivity — amid the legacy of conflict and against the images of despair — is a success in itself.

Rebecca Rattner is a freelance writer and independent consultant based in East Africa whose work focuses on human rights and governance issues in the region.