KIBATI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Madeleine Kembe digs with a small hoe into boulders of cooled lava. Some are the size of her head, others bigger than the 1-year-old child strapped to her back.
It would take a bulldozer several hours, but the mother of three is determined to finish the job with her crude tools. Kembe’s home stood here until May 22, when molten lava from nearby Mount Nyiragongo engulfed her neighborhood. The volcanic eruption killed at least 31 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes in eastern DRC.
“I have to rebuild my house,” Kembe says, breathing heavily as she tries to overturn a huge lump of cooled lava.
Other people are clearing their plots too, but they’re mostly men. Kembe is doing it alone because her husband, who was a motorcycle taxi operator, died in a road accident a few months before the eruption, she says. She now lives at Kayembe, a temporary camp the local government set up with support from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Deplorable living conditions in the camp are leading many people displaced by Mount Nyiragongo’s latest eruption to defy the government and start rebuilding — even though the area remains in the path of one of the world’s most dangerous volcanos. Residents say authorities have been slow to find a workable plan to resettle them. Many contend they would rather return than continue to live in Kayembe or to move to resettlements the government plans to build outside the eastern city of Goma.
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Around 1,500 residents at Kayembe share just six pit latrines. There is no running water. People rely on containers of water supplied by a government agency; but there’s never enough for basic cleaning, heightening fears of disease. Cholera, especially, which saw a 30% decline in cases and deaths from 2019 to 2020, is now a major concern, according to UNICEF.
In June, the agency reported 59 cases and one death in North Kivu province, where Goma is located. Reported cases at Kayembe have strengthened people’s resolve to leave and rebuild.
Kembe and her children have avoided sickness, she says. But some families like Geneviève Masika’s haven’t. Masika says two weeks after arriving at Kayembe, two of her three children began experiencing severe diarrhea. They were diagnosed with cholera.
“After they recovered, I decided to go back home and rebuild to avoid the possibility of my children getting sick again,” Masika says.
Government officials are scrambling to reassure people that relocation is a better option. Minister of Defense Gilbert Kabanda says military engineers have already built nearly 700 temporary shelters on the outskirts of Goma. It’s a short-term remedy, pending planned redevelopment of the city, he says.
But recently, strong winds knocked down many of the structures, raising doubts that people will ever leave Kayembe.
René Mpuru, director general of the government-run Superior Institute of Architecture and Urbanism, says plans already are underway to build two permanent settlements 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Goma. Authorities want to relocate not only those displaced on May 22, but all residents living in zones that were declared uninhabitable based on the lava flows of the 1927, 1977 and 2002 eruptions, he says. There are nearly 60,000 people living within those areas, Mpuru says.
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“Unlike in the past, when relocation plans failed because of lack of funding, the government has already secured money from the World Bank for the current effort,” Mpuru says.
But Marrion Ngavho, president of Coordination de la Société Civile du Nord-Kivu, a human rights organization based in Goma, says it will be difficult to convince people to move away from the city.
“It will take strict measures to prevent them from rebuilding in this area,” Ngavho says.
Many residents say if they left Goma, they would lose their jobs. Masika, for example, says her husband would have to leave his work as a security guard earning 80,000 Congolese francs (about $40) a month if they were forced to move out of Goma. She would agree to move to one of the homes military engineers are building. But short of that, she says she won’t leave Goma.
“I will rebuild a house on my old plot, and no one will stop me,” Masika says.
Kembe, too, is concerned about having to relocate far from Goma and leaving her job as a house cleaner, which she says she needs more than ever now that she is widowed. The job pays $50 monthly, barely enough for her family, but her boss often gifts her children’s clothes, and 2 kilograms (about 4 pounds) of meat every week.
“Leaving Goma would mean giving up all that,” she says. “How would I feed my children?”
But Prince Kihangi, the provincial deputy of North Kivu, says people shouldn’t worry about their jobs.
“Where a new community is formed, there are always going to be opportunities for new jobs,” Kihangi says.
Goma’s exponential population growth puts more people at risk and makes the relocations necessary, Kihangi says. Between 1984 and 2010, Goma grew by an annual rate of more than 10%, according to the Democratic Republic of Congo Urbanization Review, which the World Bank published in 2018. Currently, an estimated 670,000 people live in the city.
“This relocation plan is extremely important,” Kihangi says.
Kembe and other residents, however, say they aren’t prepared to give up their jobs now for future ones that aren’t guaranteed. Kembe already has obtained planks and roofing sheets for construction, she says. She admits that she is worried about the danger of another eruption, but it’s a risk she’s willing to take to protect her livelihood.
“We have learned to live with the volcano,” she says. “If there is another eruption, I will run away, and come back again.”