In Congo, Even Ebola Can't Stop Lovers From Dancing

Aug 19, 2019
Originally published on August 19, 2019 6:14 pm

As you walk into Ibiza, a dance club in the middle of Goma, the bouncer takes your temperature, and you have to wash your hands with a bleach and water solution. Then you walk past a little gazebo and into the strobe lights, and you're welcomed by a black-and-white portrait of the late, great rumba musician Papa Wemba. The band, its members dressed in matching silk shirts, is already setting up.

Performers play rumba music onstage at the Ibiza dance club in Goma.
Samantha Reinders for NPR

And just like that, all the signs that a deadly epidemic is raging in this region begin to fade. The guitarist hugs his instrument, coaxing arpeggios out of his electric guitar.

Goma, a sprawling border city of 2 million in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is trying to keep at bay what has become the second-largest Ebola outbreak in history. Since August 2018, the virus has infected more than 2,700 people. And in July, the World Health Organization designated the epidemic in Congo as a public health emergency of international concern.

A hand-washing station outside the Ibiza dance club. To help keep the Ebola outbreak in check, guests are required to wash their hands before entering.
Samantha Reinders for NPR
A TV screen displays an Ebola message outside Ibiza.
Samantha Reinders for NPR

Health authorities have set up isolation centers, and nurses and doctors dressed in protective suits take people's temperatures at checkpoints across the city. But as night falls, Congolese rumba fills the air, and people dance.

Media Joice Kashamba Emmanuela and her boyfriend, Espoir Kitumaini, get up from their tables and begin to sway. The way the Congolese dance rumba is so intimate. They do it in the spaces between tables, the beat fast but the hips slow.

Inside the Ibiza club in Goma.
Samantha Reinders for NPR

"Rumba," she says, "is good, even through war, through Ebola. Rumba is still there, and Congolese keep living." Her boyfriend cuts in to say that dancing also brings people together and that's important at a time like this. Emmanuela looks at him with a wry smile.

Emmanuela and Kitumaini hold each other as the rumba group performs.
Samantha Reinders for NPR

"It's not dance that unites us," she says. "It's love." And one thing she is sure of is that Ebola can't kill that.

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