"Goma is seen as a place with no life, where everyone is in desperate need of foreign aid; a place in need of pity", tells me Arsène Tungali. This 25-year old is fresh out of his Young African Leaders Initiative training in Washington - Obama's flagship program where a selected few from across the African continent are chosen yearly to learn what it takes to lead their countries towards positive change in a sustainable, responsible way.
Back in his native Goma, a city on the Eastern boarder of the Democratic Republic of Congo, ravaged by civil wars and refugee crisis following the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, escape is not on his mind but a master plan of how to reverse the negative trajectory of the young population of his hometown.
With the YALI program opening doors, Arsène is travelling the world, building the network of like-minded game changers, yet Goma is always on his mind. "I miss the people, the hardworking mother on the corner of my street, the vibrancy of the city especially on the main road: you hear different types of music everywhere, from small shops to cars with open windows. Despite everything, Goma people will always show you a smile on their face."
When I arrived in Goma for the first time in GPS-tracked 4x4 jeeps, reassuring my mother that security measures were monitored on the highest level, I was anticipating a UN-patrolled ghost town. Little did I expect to be gripped by the energy of this place, sandwiched between a majestic Nyiragongo volcano and the breathtaking silky blue of the Lake Kivu.
This city charges you with its truly unique landscape, its youthful, vibrant atmosphere and passionate people who are keen to step out of the difficult past like a lizard out of its old skin. Arsène is one of many inspirational people who I met during my stays in Goma that prove that one individual can bring about change - a phenomenon slowly dying out on our side of the world.
"Growing in an unstable region has given me the kind of courage no one can imagine. I have witnessed poverty, killings, murder, destruction and all those consequences of war, which has led some of my pairs to lose hope. Most of them have decided to do nothing but I have had the opportunity to think differently. I am driven by a big desire because I don't want to see my kids and future generations live in the same situation like the one we grew up in. I always work hard so that I don't have to be asked by my kids Dad, what have you done to change things around you? and have no answer"
Community outreach programs and forums where future leaders exchange ideas are some of the most common projects that young people set up to drive change. In 2011, Arsène started an organization called Rudi International after vising a school where he asked children How do you see your future? and seeing confusion on their faces. They give to primary and secondary kids the opportunity to go to school by paying their school fees and supporting them with various developing after school activities and camps.
Building the future for its youthful population is at the heart of Goma's current development and not only through empowerment projects but also culture initiatives. Festivals, dance competitions, art galleries and youth centres created by locals and international organisations are spreading across the city as mushrooms, building on the creative talent of the city. Even musicians from the capital, Kinshasa, cannot ignore the youthful fan base of Goma. The lively spirit, perfect antidote too all the stereotypes, is captured in this Goma-produced version of Pharrell Williams "Happy"
Despite the absence of roads and western-type infrastructures, Goma isn't a place that requires pity, if anything it is an inspiration and a reminder of the force of the human spirit. I almost don't believe I'm writing this but Goma is a happy place, and I'm yet to unlock the puzzle of this mystery. Perhaps it's the vitality of people there, particularly the younger generations, like Arsène who make us, the sulking Europeans preoccupied with "first world problems", feel like there is a greater purpose in life.
"Young people in African countries are driving change and I can say there is hope for the future. So many of those I have worked with are tired of and are against the way things are being managed by current leaders, and are eager to work differently when they will be taking power. I am optimistic that in the next 20 years or so, Africa will look differently because so many positive plans of actions are being developed by the younger generation today."
The optimistic speak is right off the Young African Leaders Initiative handbook - the skill of talking about the future of the African continent with this fluid confidence. It seems like Arsène has mastered both worlds - a youth leader in his community and an ambassador of his people to the rest of the world. The more I meet people like him through my work across the continent, the more I realise that this dormant volcano of young initiative and passion will erupt soon and change our perceptions of the African continent.
How did it feel sitting 5 feet away from President Obama and listening to his speech, I ask Arsene. "It helped me understand that everything is possible and that nothing should prevent me from reaching my dream. There is hope."