Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo Report of what it's like to live there - 01/19/11

Personal Experiences from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo 01/19/11

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

First time living abroad. Have visited Mexico several times over the last 40 years.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Arizona. Two day trip thru Paris or Brussels. Upgrade from the cheap seats to business if you can.

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3. How long have you lived here?

2 years, left in 2010

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Spouse was employed at US Embassy

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

There is seems to be a continual shortage. Mission is hiring more people than it has housing for, what housing that is available is very expensive. There is severe competition among NGOs, the various Missions and others for suitable housing. That being said, the housing is better than some posts. (or so I have been told) Large apartments or houses (3 bedrooms are common), pools, large houses with yards, security walls. Depending on your job and family needs, housing will be assigned. If you are in a stand alone house, you are responsible for lawn/yard/pool care. Others have a shared responsibility and some, the care is provided(apt buildings). All in all the housing is quite decent – one of the benefits of a hardship post. Commute time varies depending on where you live and the time of day. If there is any construction, accidents, holidays all have an effect.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Local stuff is ok. But almost everything is shipped in, and that gets expensive.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Get used to netgrocer.com, drugstore.com, walmart/target/sears/amazon.com. Things here are expensive, not always in stock, not the quality you may used to. If you have access to DPO, most of your stuff is bought on line and shipped. It is cheaper and easier than getting it locally. Good local produce, let the house staff purchase it. As the prices will go up quite a bit if you are not a Congo local. Stock up on the favorite things and ship in HHE. But, be forewarned, your HHE and/or UAB can be held in customs for several weeks or a few months. This is an on-going problem in DRC, people are working towards a solution. But, DRC is a cash country and everyone has their hand out for a little something. If I knew then, what I know now – I would have not brought so much stuff in advance, only to have it sit in Customs for a few months. I would have had the ‘favorites’ shipped to the DPO address and used the on-line shopping for everything else. Car parts, tires, favorite comfort food.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

No fast food like America. But, there are places on the street to get a quick bite. Lots of good places to eat. Pizza is everywhere. Cost varies from very reasonable to high end ($100/person).

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5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?

Lots of local vegetables. Gluten-free you will have to ship in. If you have such major health issues or life-style choices, this might not be the place for you. Congo will not be able to accommodate your needs.

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6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Ants, termites, acid flies, mango worms.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

We used the Embassy DPO. All mail takes much longer than you would expect to come and go.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

There is very high unemployment here. Everyone has relatives looking for work. Get recommendations, set expectations, keep valuables out of sight.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

The embassy has the Marine gym. There is little or nothing else on the local scene.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Don't use them outside the embassy or businesses with proven track records. This is a cash society. You can use the Congo franc or American dollars.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

We didn't find any while we were there. Most of the major beliefs are represented in Kinshasa.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

Not that we found. Our English news was thru the internet. Some people had English newspapers shipped to them.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

French is the main language, and the more you know the better you are. Knowing some of the local language will make a positive impact on the Congolese.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

There is no ADA here. Mission buildings and housing are not easily accessible to anyone with special needs, and there are no special considerations. Movement around town or the area can be very difficult. There are no sidewalks, curbs are broken or missing, and streets in a constant state of dis-repair.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

In a word: DON’T. It is not advised or recommended in any way. Use either hired drivers or the motor pool.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Something you don’t mind getting beat up. It is not a matter of if you will be in an accident, only when. The best bet is a 4-wheel drive SUV type; high clearance, short wheel base, windows tinted with anti-shatter film(the darker the better, it keeps prying eyes from seeing inside), anything mounted on exterior of vehicle needs to secured. There are usually vehicles for sale by exiting Mission personnel, generally for what they paid for them new. Shipping a vehicle can take several weeks to arrive. I will sell our sedan when we leave. I have seen all types of vehicles here – 2009 Mustang GT, BMW, Mercers Benz, Jaguar, Hummer, PT Cruiser, Chrysler 300, all make and model of off brand you can think of. Repair is spotty and parts are expensive. Some repair can be done thru the Motor pool after hours. It is recommended that you ship spare parts/tires to have on hand, or thru a stateside service and have it delivered to the DPO address. A SUV type will allow you to do more of the exploring on the weekends. Road system here is terrible, pot-holes big enough for their own zip code, open storm drains, missing man-hole covers.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Internet is available thru a variety of sources and providers. Be prepared to get recommendations from people, be prepared to be much more than you are used to in the states, be prepared for frequent periods of no internet, be prepared to be asked for money in addition to installation and service fees – ‘didn’t bring enough cable to finish the job” and you as the customer are asked for more money buy supplies. There large internet and cell phone providers and some start-ups. There is the traditional internet, an antenna mounted at residence and cable brought in side thru window. There is a new service where the internet is provided much like cell phone coverage and time charges. All Mission employees and EFM are issued a cell phone and are responsible monthly for any use that is not ‘official’. VOIP (SKYPE) is a popular choice with some people. But, the quality and speed of the internet service will determine how well it works. More speed or more bandwidth will increase your cost drastically. For what I was paying $100+/- in the States is about $1000 here.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

There basically no landline phones here. What ones there are are limited to specific locations: inside the Embassy or JAO. Everyone (locals and non- Mission people) here has a cell phones and uses phone cards/SIM cards. Everyone has at least one cell phone.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

I don't believe so. If you need to have a pet, pick up any of the strays on the street.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

I believe there were very few. Traveling with pets in/out of Kinshasa is terrible at best.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

There are a few within the Mission, but most are usually low paying, part-time, menial work. Plus, there is often a language requirement that is difficult to master. There is little or no work on the local economy. It is difficult/impossible to get a work permit (you have to prove that you have the skills that are not available in local market). There are plenty of volunteer groups that are more than ready for you to donate your time and money to their cause.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Business casual. If women underdress in public, they are subject to un-wanted attention.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Quite a bit! You are on constant watch for pick-pockets, thieves, break-ins, smash and grab from vehicle. You lock all your doors in residence, (what break-ins we have heard about, have been ‘inside’ jobs, maid has given a key to a contract guard or guard used issued key to enter, help will pocket stuff), you pay attention to RSO briefing and their safety/security suggestions, you carry the radio and cell phone with you all the time, you let people know where you are going and then go in a crowd. Very important, you should know where you are all the time and how to tell someone to get to where you are. There are few street signs or markers. There are areas in Kinshasa where you just don’t belong and are inviting trouble by being there. There is growing gang problem, older kids/young adults who prey on the locals more so than the ex-pats. But, there has been at least one kidnapping and robbery of a Mission employee. The best available street map has several errors. When driving-doors locked, windows up, and you are aware of your surroundings. All residences are behind security walls, barbed wire, 24/7 on site security guards(contract), alarm buttons, entry alarm systems, and safe rooms. We rarely go out at night and when we do, it is to someplace we are very familiar with and usually with a group. Women driving alone will draw the attention of very aggressive street beggars or vendors, more so than a man does. Women out and about will draw attention.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Yes, there is constant smoke in the air from the numerous trash piles being burned thru out the area. There is little or no intra-structure to deal with trash and it is very common for people to just burn what ever trash they have. There is no EPA or Clean Air Act here, vehicles have no emission standards to meet and diesel is the fuel of choice. The gasoline is leaded, so anything with a converter is burnt out in a few months of use. In the ‘dry’ season, Kinshasa can be a dusty dirty place with the amount of traffic stirring up things. In the ‘dry’ season there are fires burning everywhere, clearing fields, trash fire that get into the vegetation, careless smokers. Most buildings are concrete and block, so structural fires are not common. There allkinds of water/air borne things to affect you - ebola, HIV/AIDS. monkey pox, etc. The Congo Basin, second in size only to the Amazon, is referred to the Peti dish of the world. CDC has their Regional Headquarters across the river in Brazzaville, ROC and has a big presence in DRC. Small pox, cholera, etc. There is little or no real health care, anything serious(more than first-aid or what can be taken by Embassy med unit) is medi-vac to South Africa. Most if not all of the hospitals are poorly staffed, equipped and supplied.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Yes, there is constant smoke in the air from the numerous trash piles being burned throughout the area. There is little or no infra-structure to deal with trash, and it is very common for people to just burn what ever trash they have. There is no EPA or Clean Air Act here. Vehicles have no emission standards to meet, and diesel is the fuel of choice. The gasoline is leaded, so anything with a converter is burned out in a few months of use. In the ‘dry’ season, Kinshasa can be a dusty dirty place with the amount of traffic stirring things up. In the ‘dry’ season there are fires burning everywhere, clearing fields, trash fires that get into the vegetation, careless smokers. etc.. Most buildings are concrete and block, so structural fires are not common.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Dry season/wet season. Dusty and dirty during the dry season, hot/humid/dirty during the wet season

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

There are some programs through the schools.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Fair. Lots of Europeans looking to make money. Lots of NGOs and embassy employees.

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2. Morale among expats:

ranges from fair to "counting the days until the next trip out".

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

In home or at friends. British Club, golf course. There are lots of opportunities to meet people, dance, bar-hop (can be very expensive), house parties, social outings. There don’t seem to be any problems for singles. But I am married and we have our own social circle of friends, both married and single.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

You make it what you can. There is enough of a social life for everyone.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

We knew a few gay/lesbian expats, and they keep their lifestyle to themselves. This is a country where they kill people they think are witch doctors. Albino Congolese have fled the rural areas for the safety of the bigger cities.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

This is a country just coming out of colonial rule. The Europeans still think this is the Belgian Congo. Even amongst the Congolese there are some tribal and ethnic problems.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Have met some great people and have seen another part of the world. Anyone who has not lived in a third-world country for a while (not visited, but lived there) needs to do so to truly understand how good they have it at home.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Trips on the river, picnics on sandbars, there is some limited camping places, tours of local art galleries, botanical gardens, animal preserve, reptile house. There are tours of the local brewery and glass factory, others can be sought out and arranged. DRC is not a country that comes to mind for tourism. There is the lowland gorilla preserve out in the East, but is difficult to get to and expensive. There are some guides that can take you fishing for tiger fish. Travel outside Kinshasa is limited, roads are terrible and there really aren’t that many places to go. But, make every effort to get out of the residence and take advantage of anything that gets you and out and about. Join the International Women’s Club, do all the tours offered by the CLO, use the embassy boat for trips on the river(didn’t know for a year that there were boats available for use) Ask everyone about how they spend their free time. There are a few sports facilities in Kinshasa for golf(one 18-hole course), tennis, swimming, horseback riding. A Hash Hound club has just started. The Friday nite BBQ at the British Embassy and the happy hour at the Marine House are popular with expats.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Artwork, wood crafts, masks.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

There is the increased cola and hazard pay-that is not that much, all things considered. The increased cola is wiped out by the increased cost of things in DRC.Delights? This is a country coming out of years of civil war, strife, tribal genocide. The infra-structure is broke and not going to be fixed any time soon. DRC is not Paris or London. There are few ‘sights’ that are in any kind of shape, everything seems to be in a constant state of repair or is just broke. That being said, I have meet some great people here, who are all sharing the same thing and who all pulling together to make this as good an assignment as they can. We have made friendships here that will last a lifetime.

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11. Can you save money?

That depends on how much you are paid. Travel in/out is costly, supplies are costly.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

No. Been there, done that - don't need to do it again. Until DRC gets its internal problems fixed, it will be a third-world county on the brink of disaster.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

winter clothes and your ideas of Kinshasa being anything like you would think of Africa. There is no "Out of Africa" here.

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3. But don't forget your:

patience -- and lots of it. Keep an open mind.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Heart of Darkness, Blood River, everything by Michea Wrong, To Katanga and Back, Chief of Station.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Congo, Blood Diamond, Tears of the Sun.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

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