The better part of valor is discretion.  Sir John Falstaff. Henry IV, Part 1

With some sense of disappointment, we have altered our plans to avoid Goma and to instead enter Congo via Entebbe and Bunia.

I was looking forward to Goma, even if it has been granted the title of the World’s Most Dangerous City by several sources.  This title was granted due to three pressing reasons, which we felt were manageable risks.  Scheduling our trip through Goma, however, crossed the line with the introduction of a fourth reason.

The traditional three reasons:

  1. Goma has been under threat as part of the ongoing Congo war zone, although the direct risk of bullets flying has largely subsided.
  2. Goma is situated immediately beside an active and threatening volcano, Nyiragongo, which destroyed much of the city in 1997: 
  3. Goma is sitting on a massive carbon dioxide bubble which threatens to suffocate everyone.

Reason #3 is quite fascinating.  Goma is beside Lake Kivu, which apparently is sitting over an area saturated with carbon dioxide and methane.  If there was an earthquake, volcanic eruption (see risk #2), or some sort of seismic shift, it could cause the release of a mammoth bubble of heavier than air gas.  Unless the winds were very strong that day, the possible cloud of CO2 could suffocate everyone in the lower elevations.  CO2 suffocation frequently happens in association with volcanic emissions around the world.

On August 21 1986, at Lake Nyos, in Cameron, Africa, a massive cloud of carbon dioxide was belched after an eruption that killed around 1,700 people and 3,500 livestock nearby and injured thousands more. It’s estimated that 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 was released in the event and as CO2 is denser than air, hugged the ground in a layer thought to be 30 metres deep for quite some time and distance before it dissipated, suffocating humans and animals in its path. The outgassing also caused large waves that destroyed trees and other vegetation close to the lake.  The Lake Kivu gas concentration is believed to be much larger, although it would likely not travel down a slope as at Lake Nyos.

Now we have a reason #4.  We expected eastern Congo to be relatively violence free during the election period.  However, with a major opposition candidate being from the east, there have been several reports of clashes between supporters in Goma.  There appears to be roving mobs of supporters and being in their path would not be a good thing.  There is also a reported risk that flights could be grounded on the day we planned to fly out of Goma, leaving us with the possibility of an extra five days in Goma.  The bottom line is that it is not an ideal time to visit Goma.

Fortunately, rerouting through Entebbe has worked out very well.  The added cost of flying to Entebbe by Air Uganda is essentially equal to what we saved by going to Kigali in the first place.  This new schedule allows us to start our work at the hospital a day earlier than originally planned, but we will arrive well rested after having an extra day in Kigali to shake off any jet lag.