Living beneath a volcano

GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — The streets are corrugated with black volcanic rock, while far above a pool of lava glows red in the night sky.

The volcanoes in the eastern Congo, near the border with Rwanda, haven’t caused havoc to air travel like Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull — in fact, most days in Goma are punctuated by the conversation-stopping roar of planes constantly ferrying aid in or minerals out — but they have killed hundreds of people in recent years and forced tens of thousands to flee.

Some enterprising Goma residents have launched a business of taking tourists on a trek up to the Mount Nyiragongo volcano.

Experts say Goma is the most volcano-threatened city in the world, with a million inhabitants at risk. The people of Goma have grown accustomed to living next to active volcanoes, and despite warnings that a future eruption could happen in the middle of the city, they refuse to move.

“There’s no place like home,” said Metha Bendera, a 63-year-old civil servant in Goma. “I’ve spent most of my life here, and my children know only this place. Most people are building here, so I have to build, too. It would be very difficult to leave.”

When Mount Nyiragongo erupted in 2002, it covered a fifth of Goma with lava, including part of the city’s airport runway. Today the volcano is still smoking, although scientists explain that Goma’s volcanoes haven’t caused the same ash problem as in Iceland due in part to the fact that the smoke doesn’t rise to a level that affects aircraft.

Only eight miles away from Nyiragongo is Mount Nyamuragira, described as Africa’s most active volcano — it has erupted 26 times since 1938. The last eruption was in January, causing problems for thousands of villagers who normally collect rainwater for their main drinking water. The volcano activity made the rain water too acidic to drink.

Within six months of the 2002 eruption of Nyiragongo, more than 100,000 displaced Goma residents were back and have since built more homes and businesses than before, drawn by economic opportunities in the city. Some parts of Goma look as if the city’s mix of shacks and mansions had been plunked down on a distant planet, set into a foundation of ubiquitous black, bubbly, oddly formed volcanic rocks, frequently used to build walls or ground down to make bricks.

“People are accustomed to the volcanoes since the 2002 eruption. They look at it as normal,” said Innocent Badriyo, a technician at the Goma Volcano Observatory.

“The destruction gave them the opportunity to build bigger houses. Today you can’t even recognize the places where the lava flowed across [in 2002] because so many houses have been rebuilt.”

The volcano observatory on the outskirts of Goma, funded by foreign governments and the U.N., closely monitors seismographic data to try to give residents advance warning of future eruptions.

The observatory has faced setbacks, such as the theft of computers and expensive equipment during the wars of 2006 to 2008. Goma’s volcanoes are in an area riddled with rebel groups that routinely rape, kill and steal from civilians.

In addition to monitoring volcanic activity, the observatory runs educational campaigns to teach locals, in particular schoolchildren, about volcano safety, such as what to do during an eruption and how to detect “mazukus” — pockets of deadly gases that can bubble up from underground at any time.

The observatory staff is also preparing plans for risk mitigation and evacuation for when Nyiragongo next erupts. There is a system of colors and sirens to advise the population if they need to evacuate Goma; outside the observatory, a tattered flag hangs above a faded billboard warning residents of the different levels of alerts.

An eruption in 1977 killed as many as 2,000 people after a lava lake burst and sent magma racing at speeds of up to 60 miles an hour. For some people, there wasn’t time to flee.

In 2002, an eruption in the same volcano fracture sent lava pouring further south and into the city. According to scientists, a new eruption would likely happen even more south and perhaps right in the city itself. “It is a weak region and magma has followed this route before,” said Badriyo.

Metha Bendera, the civil servant, is convinced Goma is a good place to raise his family, which includes 15 children, despite the risks.

“We’ll be warned to leave the town some days or weeks before,” he said. “So I’ll be able to leave.”

Read more about volcano tourism and see a photo gallery of the volcanoes in eastern Congo.