Images via Jessica Hatcher
Riding through the streets of Goma accompanied by a team of armed Uruguayan United Nations peacekeepers, Jude Law looked up, punched the air, and shouted out in elation. Sod London, I'll take Congo any day, he said - or words to that effect. Law, 41, was experiencing the elation that commonly strikes when visitors show up in Africa's most enduring and deadly war zone and, at times, find a place more vibrant and alive than their own home.
The next day, on September 21, US hip-hop artist Akon played to a crowd of perhaps five or six thousand people in the capital of North Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The event was organised by Peace One Day, a London-based advocacy and networking group that attempts to achieve peace around the world for one day a year, and makes films about its work.The movement dates back sixteen years, to when a Briton called Jeremy Gilley decided to create a global day of peace. He petitioned governments, who brought a resolution before the UN General Assembly, and the day was universally established in 2001. He likens himself to Mrs Jarvis, who invented Mother's Day in 1908. "We made the day famous - not ourselves."
On the afternoon before the concert, Law addressed journalists at a press conference: "Your job is to spread the word — in a positive way", he commanded. The local and foreign press corp bristled, but I attempted to suspend cynicism — for one day.Eastern Congo's landscape is majestic and diverse but plagued by a tapestry of militia-men who exploit its vast mineral wealth, rape with such regularity that for some it becomes mundane, and recruit children with impunity. The provincial capital, Goma, however, it is bustling with industry and its streets are calm. Critics of the festival pointed out that you cannot simply call a ceasefire in North Kivu, a province thousands of kilometers from the capital that is twice the size of Belgium and has thirty or so warring parties embedded in its forests. Nor are Goma's residents, the audience of Akon's gig and its accompanying peace messaging, either the problem or the solution to the war.
"There's such cynicism towards people, and so many pieces written, fun poked towards people genuinely trying to do good, it's a cliche," Law said in an interview. Perhaps it has become a cliche - but in Goma I found it is also representational of opinions on the ground."Don't tell me it's about peace," a 29-year old Congolese peace activist, Micheline Mwendike, said of the Akon gig. Her letterbox-red nails flashed as she gesticulated with frustration. "It's about dancing and singing. To sing and to take a moment of joy is good — but you have to choose your moment. We are killing values for this short moment."In choosing to dance, instead of use Peace Day to talk about good governance, she said, a valuable opportunity was being missed: to talk about justice and impunity, to talk about the diabolical state of North Kivu's roads, to talk about the leaders who show no interest in providing basic services, to talk about the obstacles to peace. "If there are no solutions, the future generation will be in the same position as today," Mwendike said.
Josiana Nzuki, a 15-year-old sucking a red lollipop on a break from school, took a deep breath, and started to speak almost in a whisper before finding her voice. "My mother used to tell me, if there's a problem, don't look at the impacts, look for the roots. Here in Goma, you won't find the roots," she said. Nzuki thinks Akon and Jude Law should be out in the countryside, seeing the armed groups' fiefdoms for what they are. "This festival is useless. I'm not interested."
A senior international aid worker literally held his head in his hands with opprobrium. "They might as well call it the Peace One Day mining company —they're mining these people," he said — mining them for the film they will distribute globally, for photo opportunities, and for their own sense of self worth. "It is exploitation."The aid worker didn't criticise Jude Law or Akon personally, but the world order that makes concerts like this possible; a system that is "really askew" in which the West always wins. "The balance of profit is always heavily in our favour," he said. "It's a misguided emotion: that a bit of care, of love, can make a difference. What this needs is not sentiment or emotion, it needs your clarity".
The gig took place on the runway at Goma airport, which the government agreed to close for the weekend. Young men streamed in covered with a light film of Goma's trademark volcanic dust from the nearby Mount Nyiragongo. They walked past the broken planes that litter one end of the runway, their feet sticking to the melting tarmac in the midday sun. At the other end, they found the gargantuan stage with the flexing arm of a remote-control camera boom. The event streamed live, and will form part of Peace One Day's next film.Congolese warm-up acts included a rapper Lexxus Legal from the capital, and a comedian, Mbukuli, interspersed with peace messages from Law and the organisers. Then, the loudspeakers started pumping out a dirty dirge. Akon, in black PVC trousers, diamond studs, and a black hooded cardigan, burst onto the stage. The people of Goma responded. Police strained to hear on their walkie-talkies. "Ladies say yeah!", he shouted, communicating in neither Kiswahili nor French. The crowd, who couldn't understand, echoed distorted versions of his chants. "I wanna make love now now now now," he sang, to an almost all-male crowd.
The music was intoxicating, the stage-craft ambitious. At one point, Akon stepped into a giant clear plastic ball and surfed the crowd — though the audience of five or six thousand wasn't quite dense enough so he fell three times, and at one point a team of robo-cop style United Nations police went to the rescue. The speakers pumped out gunshot sounds for a few seconds, but that was quickly cut off. Foreign aid workers cringed at the song, Smack That, which glorifies domestic violence. Much of the audience looked bemused, but those at the front kept up the arm-waving and screaming. "It's amazing!" said one British aid worker as he drifted past aglow.As quickly as it began, it was over. The young crowd swarmed out. A few turned their attention to stealing phones as the VIPs drifted around in post-show euphoria. Akon posed for excited children on a military vehicle, then nearly ran some over on the way out. Shafts of yellow light fell between the dissipating crowds. Above them, the volcano was half-submerged in clouds."I was really surprised he put so much effort into it," one international visitor said. Her unspoken words followed in my mind: This is Congo, after all.Reporting supported by the International Women's Media Foundation