Dodging lorries, lava and war, Congo's skaters feel reborn

Serge Makolo leads his speed skating teammates during a training in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, September 16, 2021. REUTERS/Hereward Holland

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - When the Nyiragongo volcano erupted in May, Serge Makolo only had time to grab his roller skates and a fistful of medals before the magma swallowed his house on the outskirts of Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Everything else was lost under the river of molten rock, including the skates, cones and helmets he used to train younger skaters, whom the 24-year-old calls "world champions of tomorrow."

Makolo, a medallist at several local and regional meets, is eager to win more competitions so he can get money to rebuild his academy, whose recruits currently have to share the remaining equipment, training in relays.

The eruption killed at least 31 people and destroyed around 3,000 homes on the outskirts of Goma, a city that tens of thousands had considered a refuge from the decades of bloodshed that has plagued the east of the country.

"The stresses of wars and eruptions evaporate when we skate," Makolo said. "Skating makes us feel alive, reborn again."

Large portions of the city's roads remain unmetalled or are scarred with potholes, but as the city's roads have improved, so too have the opportunities to skate.

Five mornings per week around 100 young people slip into lycra, strap on speed-skates and jockey for space with charcoal lorries, aid agency four-wheel drives and chukudus, Goma's famous wooden scooters.

Despite the challenges, Makolo and his friends are undaunted. Five of them have set their sights on the 2022 Francophone Games in Congo's capital Kinshasa.

In September Makolo attended a national competition in Kinshasa, scooping a gold in the individual 42km (26.1-mile) discipline, and four other medals in team events.

Roller speed skating appeared in the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in 2018, so Makolo is hopeful that, if it becomes a full Olympic sport, he could add a gold medal from the world's foremost athletic event to his collection.

For Dabiel Katshunga, president of North Kivu province's roller skate league, the Francophone Games will be a chance to show a different side of his homeland.

"North Kivu is not only wars, not only conflicts, not only the volcano, but there are also good sides of our province, especially the athletes," Katshunga said.

(Reporting by Djaffar Al Katanty; Writing by Hereward Holland; Editing by Richard Chang)

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