Emma, one of three brothers behind the creation of the Yole Center, performs for a crowd in Goma. (Enough/Olivia Caeymaex)
GOMA, North Kivu, Congo – The combination of years of conflict, natural disasters, and resource-rich land that is at once a boon and a driver of violence might lead one to believe that this region of Congo is cursed. Yet setting foot on the ground here, you feel a certain fascination. Its natural characteristics make the political and humanitarian challenges all the more dramatic. Its breath-taking Lake Kivu seeps deadly carbonic gas. Volcanoes surround the opposite side of Goma, one of which, Niyragongo, erupted seven years ago, pouring lava into the streets of Goma and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee.
And yet people have rebuilt over the lava, over the blood, and gunpowder.
If you walk in the streets of this poor looking town on a Saturday afternoon, you might just be lucky to witness one the most uplifting expressions of hope in Goma. Around 3 in the afternoon you will see a crowd gather at the door of Yole Center, a small cultural center created by three brothers a few years ago. Street kids barge in with the hope of hearing and seeing some of Goma’s young artists.
If you get a chance to talk to brothers Petna, Sekombi, or Emma, they will explain how it all started. The initial project emerged in Kampala, where Petna created a cultural center for refugees from Congo, South Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia. After the lava from Niyragongo volcano swept over half of Goma in 2002, Petna felt it was time to share his experience back home after gaining international recognition in using art for positive social change. At that time, most of the youth in Goma and artists had either joined the army, become alcoholics, or drove taxi moto (one of the most common transport in Goma), Petna recounts.
The first time I witnessed a jam session at Yole I was amazed by the
twinkle in the children’s eyes, the raw talent of the artists on stage, and by the energy they put in shouting “Yole” (“all together”) in unison. On a personal level, Yole Centre was a very welcome respite from my typical work day, where most conversations revolve around the security situation and the devastating humanitarian conditions.
Petna wanted to use art for peace and to inspire youngsters to dream beyond the gunshots. Yole Center enables children to practice art from music to film. It exposes everyone to their own creativity, encouraging them to express themselves in a peaceful manner. But Yole is not limited to its opportunities for children and its Saturday afternoon jam sessions. The founding brothers also sought to use art to show to the rest of the world that eastern Congo is not only made of war and victims.