Bishweka Vanny twirled a coin between two pens on his sparse desk as he proudly retold how he rose from rags to riches to build his dream: the Ihusi Hotel, a flashy red roofed property with a pool, a gym, and a lakefront view.
Vanny, who is short and bald with a wide nose, is one of the “Big Men” of Goma, the humanitarian hub of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s war-stricken east. These days, much of the city is connected to him in some way, from the roads, gas stations, and buildings he’s built, to the fast ferries he runs along Lake Kivu, to Goma’s green and clean chukudu roundabout, named for the two-wheeled wooden cart common in eastern Congo. Despite his prominence, he rarely speaks to the press and, as the dynamic often goes in Goma, only agreed to speak with me because I was a foreign (and female) journalist.
Vanny is best known as the owner of the Ihusi, one of a few upscale hotels in Goma serving the thriving NGO and business communities for around $100 and upwards a night. Goma is the capital of eastern Congo’s tumultuous North Kivu province, today a relatively safe area compared to previous, decades where hundreds of NGOs and aid organizations have settled as their base. And business is booming: property values are soaring, the number of paved roads is rising, and there’s even a café baking fresh croissants. Goma’s successes defy the tired war-torn-Africa narrative.
Conflict has become perversely good for Goma’s economy
But the city’s growth has also been incredibly uneven, with many average Congolese barely benefiting at all. Take a boat ride along Lake Kivu dividing Rwanda and Congo and the contrasts could not be starker: the shore is lined with large, walled off villas housing a who’s who of Congolese businessmen, NGOs, and United Nations programs—and just a pocket of land for people to fill their yellow jerry cans from the lake in the absence of running water for the masses.
The huge gap between rich and poor has been exacerbated by decades of war, and critics say conflict has become perversely good for Goma’s economy: it keeps the aid money flowing; arms contracts going; illegal mining and trading with rebels thriving; state neglect and corruption intact; and NGO budgets justified. Along the way, the divide between the Haves and Have Nots has cut deep, as money flows into real estate that consultants working to end the conflict rent for hundreds of U.S. dollars a month, while a few bumpy roads away Congolese struggle to find land they can afford.