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Around the crowded streets of Beni, at the heart of eastern Congo’s long-running conflict and ongoing Ebola outbreak, are many things you might expect. NGO vehicles. United Nations peacekeepers. Heavily laden motorcycles.
And then there are the skaters.
None of the Dream Team Rollers, as the city’s only competitive in-line skating team is called, have seen an ice rink. But here, where fighting has dragged on for years, even navigating the roads’ ready-made obstacle courses is its own kind of reward.
“You feel zen when you do it,” says Alice Nguru Bagheni, a lanky law student. “You don’t think of anything else.”
The team began two years ago, with the self-sufficiency that is common here – by necessity. Humanitarians speak of “Congo fatigue,” the idea that the world is tired of giving to a place whose fortunes never seem to improve. A U.N. base sits at the city’s edge. But more than 600 citizens have been killed since June 2017. Among them are Ms. Bagheni’s brother, uncle, and grandparents.
“I am trying to be careful, and be safe, but also to be present and just live my life,” she says as she tightens the straps on her skates, and stares into a smooth stretch of pavement ahead.
The roads that slice through this city in Congo’s eastern borderlands are not for the faint of heart.
Motorcycles loaded down with cords of firewood or one-too-many passengers swivel between hulking United Nations peacekeeping tanks. And lately, both compete for space with dirt-streaked SUVs emblazoned with an alphabet soup of nongovernmental organization logos: MSF, UNICEF, ALIMA – the most visible signs of the massive international response to the Ebola outbreak still simmering across the region.
But as 22-year-old Alice Nguru Bagheni straps on her rollerblades on a recent morning, the pandemonium barely seems to register. While car horns and roosters squawk around her, she hurtles herself forward on one of Beni’s main roads, shooting past vegetable hawkers and signs warning residents to sleep under mosquito nets to avoid malaria.
“When people see me do this, they say, ‘It’s not just any girl who could do what you do,’” she says. “And I say, ‘You underestimate us.’”
A lanky law student at a local university, Ms. Bagheni is one of four women who compete for the Dream Team Rollers, the city’s only competitive in-line skating team. At least twice a week, she and her teammates rise at dawn to run speed drills up and down the city’s few paved roads.
None have seen an ice rink – at least outside of YouTube – but they dream of becoming the Democratic Republic of Congo’s first Olympic speedskaters. In the meantime, it turns out that navigating Beni’s ready-made obstacle course on four wheels is its own kind of reward.
“You feel zen when you do it,” Ms. Bagheni says. “You don’t think of anything else.”
For her and her teammates, that zen is a rare gift in a place at the heart of eastern Congo’s long-running military conflict. Despite a large U.N. base huddled behind barbed wire at the city’s edge and legions of casques bleus – U.N. peacekeepers in their signature blue helmets – patrolling the streets in armored cars, Beni remains a frequent target for the militant groups hiding out in the lush rainforests that encase the city. More than 600 civilians have been murdered in and around the city since June 2017, many by a Ugandan rebel group called the Allied Democratic Forces. Among the victims are Ms. Bagheni’s brother, uncle, and grandparents.
“I am trying to be careful, and be safe, but also to be present and just live my life,” says Ms. Bagheni as she tightens the straps on her skates and stares into a smooth stretch of pavement ahead.
The Dream Team Rollers was founded in 2017 by Joel Kavuya, a veterinary medicine student, who was introduced to the sport when he ran into a young American on blades at a youth conference in Tanzania. Soon after, he bought himself his first pair of secondhand blades and started spending his afternoons falling into black holes of professional figure skating videos on YouTube. He was especially taken by the elegance and athleticism of pairs ice dancing.
“It felt like I was seeing people do the impossible,” he says. And if they could, why not him too?
It’s a common attitude in eastern Congo, a region long overlooked by both the national government in Kinshasa and faraway donor nations. (Humanitarians in the region speak of an international affliction called “Congo fatigue” – the idea that the world has grown tired of giving to a region whose fortunes never seem to improve.) The result is a kind of brusque, no-nonsense self-sufficiency. The government power grid doesn’t work? Fine, band together with your neighbors to buy a generator. Can’t find a job? Buy a big bag of charcoal, divide it into smaller bags of charcoal, and voilà, you’ve started your own business.
In Mr. Kavuya’s case, what he wanted was a skating team. So he created a skating team. The rules were simple: You had to buy your own skates. And school came first. Drop out, or start failing your classes, and you were off the team, no second chance.
At first, his numbers were small. But as crowds began to gather at the team’s practices, membership grew. Today, he has about 50 skaters, ranging in age from 8 to early 20s. They compete in races across the region, and some have even won awards.
One of them is Chakila Melchois, a stern 17-year-old who earlier this year took first place in a 14-kilometer race (8.7 miles) for women in the nearby city of Butembo.
“When I saw boys were doing this sport, I thought, why not me too?” she says.
Like many coaches, Mr. Kavuya sees all kinds of life lessons in skating, and often speaks in earnest taglines reminiscent of inspirational posters and Nike commercials.
“This sport demands you believe in yourself,” he says. “If you don’t, just like in your life, you’re just going to fall over.”
Ms. Bagheni never doubted she could do it, she says, from the moment she first saw Mr. Kavuya speeding around the city’s main roundabout last year. From then on, she stashed away money whenever she could by selling used clothes in a local market. When she had $25, she bought her first pair of skates, and took her first wobbling ride.
It look her about a month to learn how to move like the skaters she’d seen on YouTube, she says. But now she glides lightly over the cracked pavement.
“These Congolese ladies are strong,” says Isaac Muhindo, a motorcycle taxi driver, slouched over his handlebars watching the skating practice as he waits for customers on a recent morning. “What they’re doing, it makes our city look good.”