AIII #24: The ‘Gomenyi’ borderland: “It’s not always all about war”

The ‘Gomenyi’ borderland: “It’s not always all about war”

(picture provided by the author)

Stéphanie Perazzone


As noted in a wealth of political science literature and journalistic accounts dealing with eastern Congo, the province of North-Kivu as a whole and its chef-lieu Goma, are sadly known as the scene of continued socio-political violence, which is often framed in ethnic and economic terms. Described as a “beggar with diamonds in his pockets”[1], the DRC is routinely depicted as a paradigmatic case of state failure, despite being one of the world’s largest reservoirs of natural resources. ‘State failure’ is a western political notion defined as a country’s partial or total lack of organized control over its population and territory, thereby bearing the grim consequences of extreme poverty, war, misery and organized crime. With dozens of active armed groups in the region, and a highly contested political arena, North-Kivu thus perfectly illustrates a case of state decay and social anarchy. Goma and its ‘twin’ cross-border city in Rwanda are construed as two antagonistic urban centers characterized by social, security and wealth inequalities. For instance, authors such a Doevenspeck and Mwanabiningo [2] depicted Gisenyi and Goma as too antithetical and comprising too limited meeting grounds to be seen as a ‘friendly’ and potentially peaceful borderland, because social and political discrepancies rendered such space overtly fragmented. It is remarkable indeed, that both cities, although created at the same time, evolved in different ways since the early 1990s: as Gisenyi developed into a peaceful well organized and secure 70,000 inhabitant town, Goma’s population exploded to reach possibly 1 million souls but lacks public infrastructure and hosts the world’s largest UN peacekeeping operation. As a borderland, the Goma-Gisenyi area has thus been observed and investigated mostly in war-related terms until quite recently. “Transborder” cities and “borderland”[3] are terms used to depict geographical areas, which are characterized by “a transborder transition zone of cultural and social overlap”[4].

Indeed, it has been recognized at times that examining the intricate relationships between and among what I used to call the ‘Gomenyi’ people during field work in Goma, reveals an alternative and subtle yet crucial, image of daily life in this war-torn area. While cross-border trade does entail its share of challenges, including financial abuses from state officials, harassment and physical threats, Rwandan-Congolese relationships – as people of both nationalities interact through education schemes, businesses, parties or family affairs – are not necessarily fraught with violence and insecurity. This is not to deny the immense suffering and deprivation experienced by most people in the Congo, but perhaps understanding the complexity of ‘frontier’ relationships necessitates a less deterministic approach. Following Kopytoff’s concept[5], an urban frontier zone can be defined as overlapping a national border area, which, similarly to the notion of borderland described above, is politically open and contested by endogenous and exogenous forces seeking to exert social control and authority and exhibits high trans-border mobility. For instance, official border posts do play a role in such interactions, but many other meeting points can be found in informal settings as people cross borders daily through common gardens, houses and courtyards. Congolese and Rwandan urban dwellers intermingle everyday as they craft and implement livelihood strategies and in the process, exchange and share cultural and socioeconomic characteristics to the point where “these dynamics also… [impact] on the identity processes of Goma’s (and Gisenyi) inhabitants”[6].

Jeune Afrique issued an article[7] a few years ago describing these very daily interactions, which entail official and informal, visible and subtle, conflictive and cooperative elements. As traders sell cows, big yellow oil canisters, tomatoes and other types of foods, others commute everyday from once city to the other for other businesses. For various financial or quality-related reasons, some Congolese students go to specific universities in Gisenyi and Rwandans attend universities and school in Goma; visit friends and family members on both sides; go out at night in Goma’s night clubs and ngandas notorious for their festive and permissive ambiance; go to the cheaper hairdressers of the Birere district; or seek medical assistance, which is often of better quality on the Rwandan side. During my own fieldwork, I, too, came to notice such friendly, cooperative and mutually giving relationships, which in the dire situation of the Congo can prove surprising. Interestingly, investigative inquiries into the long history of borderlands and their potential role in fostering peaceful attitudes have not merely triggered the interest of academics and journalists. In terms of operationalizing international development aid, the World Bank in 2011 had noted “exploiting the potential for cross-border trade will be an important element of growth and poverty reduction in the region and a key mechanism for enhancing stability”[8] as commercial, social and cultural exchange have grown extremely dense and diverse within the Rwandan and Congolese urbanites despite war, deprivations and endemic poverty. I remember Congolese friends in Goma discussing their country’s complex and conflictive relations with Rwanda: one of them eventually said, with a smile on his face: “but it’s not always all about war”.


Stéphanie Perazzone is an IR and Political Science PhD candidate at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. In a bid to question the ‘state failure’ discourse prevalent in countries like the Congo, she is working on developing a multi-disciplinary approach to daily state trans/formation dynamics at the micro-level in three important cities of the Democratic Republic of Congo: Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Goma. She is building her expertise on urban studies, conflict, state fragility, ethnographic field research and Africa’s Great Lakes Region.



[1] Kabamba, P. (2012).”A Tale of Two Cities: Urban Transformation in Gold-Centred Butembo and Diamond-Rich Mbuji-Mayi, Democratic Republic of the Congo,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 30, no. 4

[2] Doevenspeck, M., and Mwanabiningo, N. M. (2012). « Navigating uncertainty: observations from the Congo-Rwanda border ». In Subverting borders.

[3] Büscher, K., and Mathys, G. (2013). Navigating the Urban “In-Between Space”: Local Livelihood and Identity Strategies in Exploiting the Goma/Gisenyi Border. In Violence on the Margins: States, Conflict, and Borderlands.

[4] Büscher and Mathys, 120.

[5] Kopytoff, I. (1987). The African Frontier: The Reproduction of Traditional African Societies. Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

[6] Vlassenroot, K., and Büscher, K. (2009). The City as Frontier: urban development and identity processes in Goma.

[7] Tshitenge. (2007). “Goma-Gisenyi: la coexistence pacifique”, Jeune Afrique, May 20 <;

[8] The World Bank. (2011). « Facilitating Cross-Border Trade between the DRC and Neighbors in the Great Lakes Region of Africa: Improving Conditions for Poor Traders », Report No.:62992-AFR, June.


2 Responses to “AIII #24: The ‘Gomenyi’ borderland: “It’s not always all about war””
  1. sperazzone says:

    Reblogged this on sperazzone and commented:
    Blog article originally published on Christoph Vogel’s Amani Itakuya II Essay Series on August 17th, 2015.

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