Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo Report of what it's like to live there - 11/24/12
Personal Experiences from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
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?
Washington is about 20 hours total via Paris or Brussels. One can also fly through Addis and Istanbul.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
(The contributor is affiliated with the U.S. Embassy and has been living in Kinshasa for a year and a half, a fourth expat experience.)
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Families generally get a large house with a yard and often a pool. Singles and couples generally get apartments or duplexes, though some have houses. The shortest commutes are around 10 minutes and the longest is maybe 40, but it really depends on the time of day and traffic. The roadwork mentioned in previous reports is mostly over, so traffic downtown is a bit better.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Virtually everything is available, although often it is a European or South African brand. Prices are more expensive than in the US, especially for meat, cheese, and imported produce and juices. But it's all manageable, and sometimes you're willing to pay whatever it takes to get what you want. US liquor and wine are available, but not beer. There are a growing number of higher-quality grocery stores with more reliable stock and better prices.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
I would have maxed out the consumables shipment on toilet paper, napkins, paper towels, and other paper products. Anything in the toiletry, hygiene, paper products category here is much more expensive and quality is weak.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
No US fast food, but there are fast food joints (Nando's, Hunga Busta, Hector's Chicken, Al-Dhar, Aladin). Prices are higher than in the US, but not impossible. Good pizza for some reason is much more expensive, though it is available for delivery ($20 per pizza).
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes are certainly a nuisance. Roaches are also common. Some houses have termite issues of varying severity. Sugar ants are very, very common, especially if you are a slob. Also lots of other cool insects outside that are not a problem. A kid that loves bugs would enjoy the DRC.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Embassy personnel use the DPO and the Pouch. Kinshasa does have DHL.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
It is extremely easy to find help, but the quality varies dramatically. English-speaking domestic employees are very hard to come by, as English proficiency is rare and highly sought after in the employment market. The basic wage is $10/day, but some people pay less and some more. You can also expect to be regularly asked to subsidize education, health care, and other expenses for a wide array of relatives.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The Embassy has a gym and there are gyms available at the Grand Hotel and a couple other places.
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?
I have never done it, but I know if can be done.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Yes, all major denominations. Lots and lots of missionaries here.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
Newspapers, not so much. TV, there is DSTV from South Africa. Installation is pretty expensive. Some Embassy houses have AFN dishes, and if you can find a decoder you can watch US TV.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
French is absolutely necessary. Lingala would be helpful for anyone who actually wants to interact with the majority of the people in Kinshasa. Swahili is also spoken some.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
This is not a good city for disabled people. That said, the city is full of polio victims, war and accident victims, and persons with various other disabilities, and they're all managing to get by through some amazing ingenuity. But there are no handicapped spots, ADA compliant facilities, or handicapped washrooms.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Not safe, but definitely affordable.
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?
Four-wheel-drive would be essential to drive outside the city. Thanks to a lot of road improvements in town, you can get by with just about anything for the work commute. When it rains, the potholes and flooding can get pretty absurd. Most common expat cars are Xterras, Rav4s, Ford Everest/Explorer. Rich Congolese here drive Range Rover Sports or Land Cruisers, others drive Tatas, Chinese cars, Mercedes, and many derelict and second-hand pieces of junk. There are some motorcyclers in Kinshasa.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
No. Low-speed is available for not less than $100/month. A fiber-optic connection that will greatly improve things is a couple years away.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Most people who work have two numbers with either Vodacom, Tigo, or Airtel, as network coverage varies.
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?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
There are at least two vets, who are fine. No kennels I am aware of. Getting the pets in and out of the country has not been especially problematic.
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?
Yes. Many in the Embassy, also with NGOs. Teachers can find work.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
The U.S. Embassy is business dress for some and business casual for others depending on the position. The Congolese government and other embassies are pretty much uniformly business dress, while NGOs and Monusco are more casual. It can get very hot in business dress at receptions and lunches, so try to bring light materials.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Embassy houses are very safe, with 24-hour guard. About town, you need to keep your car doors locked at all times and your wits about you. The biggest issue is theft and harassment from street kids while you're stuck in traffic. People generally limit how much they walk on the street and drive everywhere. Runners generally stick to the river loop, which is very safe, or run in pairs, although there is a hash that goes all over. I'd say it's getting slightly safer.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Malaria: people use nets and pills. Some allergy issues in the fall. Cholera and ebola have both broken out in the past year, but they do not really affect the expat community. There is a Belgian-run medical center that can do triage on serious problems and do surgery if need be, but generally everything serious is a medivac to South Africa. There are said to be good dentists.
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?
Moderate. Depends where you are in the city. In the diplomatic neighborhoods it's perfectly fine, although there is some dust and allergens. In other parts of the city there is a lot of car-exhaust pollution, burning trash, and other particulate. The city is generally dirty, though over the past year they have made a pretty good effort to clean up parts of it.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Hot and sunny with regular and very big rainstorms from September to about April. Cloudy and cooler with very little rain from May to August. From November to about March, the middle of the day is really quite hot, but it's usually manageable the rest of the time.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The American School in Kinshasa (TASOK) is what you think an African school should be like. Beautiful campus, very happy and engaged students. The Jewels School is another English language school that is more rigorous than TASOK and has a Montessori program for younger kids. There are also French and Belgian schools.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
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?
Preschools: Jewels, Les Oisillions, Busy Bees, and others.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
For older kids, yes. Younger kids, it's mainly swimming and whatever private lessons you might do (horseback riding, tennis).
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Large. Lots of NGO people, UN people, Embassy people, missionaries, some investors and entrepreneurs. Again it's not limitless, but there are a lot compared to other posts in Africa.
2. Morale among expats:
Very bad to very good. The post is an emotional roller coaster, but the expat community is very open and collegial. Those who get involved in the community have more fun and find outlets for the quite real frustrations of this city and country.
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?
Dance clubs, dinner parties, dinner out, parties, kids parties, field trips, happy hour at the Marine house, quiz night at the British Embassy, walking or running the loop.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
There is a pretty active nightlife for singles and couples, and expats typically have plenty of money to spend on eating out and socializing. Families with small kids really enjoy it here, as there is no end of playdates and birthday parties, etc. Families with older kids may find there is not enough to do out of the house.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Light-skinned people are often viewed as ATMs here. A long history of exploitation by Belgians and others has created a very strong mistrust between the local population and expats. This can be overcome, but it takes a lot of work. There are also some intra-Congo prejudices, particularly relating to Tutsis, who are sometimes called Rwandans. There is a strong antipathy toward Rwanda.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Visiting the bonobo sanctuary, boat outings on the river, camping, day trips. There is not much non-work-related travel to do inside the DRC, but there are weekend and day trips that are fun to do in groups and with other families.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Boat trips, day trips, camping, golf, tennis, Bonobo sanctuary, tour the brewery, shop for crafts and furniture. The possibilities are not limitless, but there are things to do if you put in a little effort.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Very nice wood furniture, paintings, some copper and other metal art, lots of wood carvings and crafts.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Good weather, good restaurants, large expat community, inexpensive fresh produce, saving money, very good golf and tennis club.
11. Can you save money?
Yes, loads, but not if you take personal trips out of the country frequently.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes. Despite frustrations, the country is fascinating, and the work is very challenging, with much more responsibility than I would get somewhere else. This is a country where you'll see the very best and the very worst of the human spirit.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
anything that you would be devastated if it were to be stolen, broken, ruined, lost, or pillaged. Also leave behind your belief that this will be Africa lite. It is a hardship post.
3. But don't forget your:
books, bug spray, sun screen, sunglasses, golf clubs, camping gear, lawn games, 220v appliances, transformers, battery back-ups, toolbox, and spare parts.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, Jason Stearns
In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, Michela Wrong
King Leopold's Ghost, Adam Hochschild
Station Chief Congo, Larry Devlin
Congo Mercenary, Mike Hoare
Africa's World War, Gerard Prunier