Vanessa Jados always had a thing for fine bakery and fresh croissants—so much that when she was pregnant with her second child, she kept craving crusty, rich, and buttery pastries. But her war-weary hometown of Goma in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo didn't have croissants, fine bakeries, or cafes.
"My husband had to travel across the border to Rwanda to bring me good croissants. It was difficult," explains the 29-year-old croissant lover.
But the difficulty of fulfilling her cravings as a pregnant woman gave her an "a-ha" moment for a business: Shortly after giving birth, she opened Au Bon Pain in May 2014 – Goma's first boutique bakery.
Au Bon Pain is secluded in a building on one of the major streets of Goma, but the café doesn't require signposting or advertisements—the unlikely smell of delicious bakery easily gives it away. Despite the occasional UN peacekeeping helicopters hovering in the sky and the aid delivery or army trucks passing in the street, inside the chicly decorated café is a different world.
Decades-long war and volcanic eruptions in Goma turned this idyllic lakeshore town into a place where most food entrepreneurs would rather avoid. But as the conflict is dissolving, the food landscape is beginning to change in Goma, thanks to local food entrepreneurs like Jados. Recent years have seen an emerging cafe and restaurant scene populated by new Western, Lebanese, Indian, Thai, West African, and even Latin American establishments.
"I am proud of Goma and I want people to have a good time here," says Jados, who was born and raised in Goma. Jados was sent to study in Belgium when she was 12 years old and she returned back home at the age of 23. The 11 years during which she was away have been an eventful time for Goma: The town has suffered from the consequences of the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda in 1994; has seen rebels take over the town and recruit child soldiers; and on top of that, in 2002, a volcanic eruption destroyed a third of the city and forced approximately 400,000 people out of their homes.
But all these things didn't discourage Jados from permanently moving back home. She said she could return back to Belgium if she wanted, but is determined to stay and make her beloved hometown a better place.
"It's absolutely stunning here. We have a beautiful lake, wonderful nature and mountains. But all people talk about Goma is war. With this café, I want to create a different kind of conversation about Goma and Congo. I want people to have good experiences about Goma, too," adds Jados, who shines with joy and passion when talking about Goma.
In order to make Au Bon Pain a success, she brought all the bakery equipment from Europe and trained her local staff with the help of a French baker.
Although Au Bon Pain and other food establishments in Goma are regularly frequented by expats, peacekeeping soldiers, or aid workers, many locals are beginning to enjoy the offerings of the up-and-coming food scene, too. As there are many Congolese who continue to climb to the ranks of the middle class, the number of local people at Au Bon Pain keeps rising.
"Congolese people deserve good croissants too, just like people in Europe," says Jados, who reckons she'll have more and more local clients in the next years.
Babby Waliso Ndume is among those who were born and raised in Goma and appreciates fine food and frequents the establishment of Jados.
"I love it here. The food is more expensive than the other places in the town, but it's worth it. It's delicious," he says.
Although Jados is doing her best to source all her ingredients locally, she still cannot fully run a high-end bakery while solely relying on local products. She imports brown flour and chocolate from Belgium. Doing business in a conflict zone has its unique hardships, she says.
"There's a very hard burden of bureaucracy. There's limited infrastructure in Congo, so we regularly face power cuts and water shortages. They all add up and make things expensive and difficult. I had to buy a generator for the power cuts, which was very expensive," Jados explains.
Nevertheless, cafes and restaurants in Goma like Au Bon Pain are much more than just eateries: They introduce a sense of normalcy and a fresh hope to a war-torn city. They also provide a public space where people can come together and start a dialogue.
Many movements that changed the course of history started in cafes. In Goma, even if the conversations might be interrupted by the loud noise of a military helicopter every now and again, it's entirely possible for a new revolution for peace to start in these cafes. And after all, everybody deserves a good croissant.
Didem Tali was an African Great Lakes Initiative Fellow of the International Women's Media Foundation.