Congo? The idea of working there scares the bejesus out of me!
I distinctly remember thinking this when meeting members of the East Africa press corps for the first time in (what was soon to be) South Sudan at the start of 2011, as they recounted tales of stories past. Later that year, in November, AFP dispatched me off to Lubumbashi to cover the elections in Congo. I'd garnered a tad more experience since the Juba days, but I was still rather green, and despite the research I had pored over beforehand—or perhaps fuelled by it—I disembarked with more than a little trepidation.
A week there turned into three, and with my assignment over, I left the Katangan capital, flying to Goma, having glibly added a new letter to this acronymous country: the République (presque) démocratique du Congo. I remember being awestruck by the beauty of the landscape as I flew north, along the shoreline of Lake Tanganyika, watching the hills grow, and nestle ever closer to one another. Coming in to land in Goma, it felt like the plane would rip off the roofs of the patchwork of tin shacks that hugged the dirt roads of this infamous city.
That was four years ago, on the 16th December 2011. It's hard to believe so much time has passed; back then, I certainly didn't imagine that I would end up spending so much time on those dusty streets, though I'm still spellbound by those hills. When I was back there a few weeks ago, I was trying to tally up how many times I have driven the winding road between Kigali and Gisenyi, the Rwandan town that borders Goma. It's well over 20.
In 2012, I witnessed the rise—and subsequent fall in 2013—of the M23 rebellion, but also break-dance battles; I spent weeks trekking across remote hillsides, to the depths of artisanal mining shafts, but also navigating the (sketchy) dance floors. I used to think it was the conflict that one must focus on, but after having taken so many pictures of men with guns, I came to realise it was the devouring effects that conflict has on society.
Four years on, going back to eastern Congo feels like going to visit a friend in a nearby city. It's South Sudan that scares the bejesus out of me now.