Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo Report of what it's like to live there - 04/26/16
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?
First tour as a foreign service family, but I was born in the UK, grew up in Canada and moved to the US for college, so I've sort of been an expat somewhere all my life.
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?
Jacksonville, FL - it's a LONG way - 8 hour (usually overnight) flight from Kinshasa to Brussels or Paris, then another 7-8 hour (usually day) flight to Washington or New Jersey, then another 2-3 hours flight to Jacksonville.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Family member of US Government employee
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
We live in a large (4/4) single family home in a compound of 8 houses all occupied by USG employees. Each house has a pool and we have a public courtyard where the many (many) children in the compound are usually found playing. At the right time of morning the commute from here to the US Embassy is about 15-20 minutes, but at the wrong time of day traffic can be bad enough that the same trip can take 1-2 hours. There are lots of apartments, usually in newer buildings - most are quite large and many are located closer to the embassy than we are. There are a few other single family homes, but probably the majority of people are in apartments.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You can find most non-speciality items here - for a price. The COLA here is 50%, so if you are here on the USG's dime you are compensated for the extra cost (and this is a consumables post for USG folks too). Fresh fruit and veggies that are in season are plentiful and not terribly expensive, but if you want fruit/veggies that are not grown here because of the climate (ie: berries, asparagus, broccoli) then you will pay for them (US$20/pint of strawberries, US$15/bunch of asparagus or broccoli), however, on the flip side, you might be able to pick an avocado out of your back yard...
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
More salsa, a UPS for power outages, that's pretty much it.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There is no such thing as "fast" food. There are some restaurants that are faster than others, but there is no such thing as a "drive through," nor are you just going to "pop" in somewhere and get take-out in 10 minutes or less. There is a burger place called Hungabusta that is close to the US Embassy, as well as a fried chicken place called CFC - the food isn't too bad. The most popular "faster" place is a Lebanese restaurant called Al Dar - which is good and pretty cheap. There are actually quite a few pretty nice restaurants here - a couple of good Italian, Greek, Indian, Thai, Chinese etc...there is even good sushi! BUT - cost is high. A sushi meal for 2 is going to set you back at least US$100-$150. Most dinners at good restaurants are going to be close to US$50/person. You can order in pizza (pretty good pizza) for about US$25 for a large pizza and a drink. There are LOTS of good patisseries - and bread is very cheap and good.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
During dry season black files will be the bane of your existence. They carry no diseases, which is good, but they itch like CRAZY. Mosquitoes carry malaria and yellow fever here, so you have to be inoculated against YF and you have to take an anti-malarial, but we have found that, for the most part, the mosquitos are not plentiful where we live. We have mosquito nets over our beds, but I don't think I've actually seen a mosquito in our bedroom. Native Congolese generally have malaria multiple times in their lives, so the prevention is important, but, that said, they haven't bothered us too much in terms of biting. The ants also basically own Africa, so you'll have to give up trying to eradicate them - they can be kept out of the house, but you do have to be diligent. There are other bugs of course (this is Africa), but overall we haven't found them to be any worse or different than in the Southern US (ie: there are large roaches (or Palmetto bugs if you are Southern) but they don't hurt you and don't carry disease, so you just have to get over seeing them occasionally).
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We use the DPO and pouch. There is no national postal service here.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Very available and quite cheap. We pay our housekeeper/nanny US$20/day, and our driver and gardener about US$15/day. The average wage for Congolese is US$2-$3/day, so it is a good wage for them.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The US Embassy has a gym for a monthly fee (not sure what). Many of the apartment buildings have gyms. There are yoga, crossfit, Zumba and other classes available in various places and for various costs. You can always walk the "River Loop" for free as many people do.
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?
No credit card use - this is a strictly cash society. It is dollarized, so you can use US dollars everywhere (except literally a dollar bill, which they do not accept) or Congolese Francs (CF). A couple of the large international stores (Shoprite - a South African grocery chain; Ocra - a US owned "Target" type store) technically take credit cards, but no one uses them. USG employees can cash checks at the embassy, and there is an ATM inside embassy grounds. I've never used any other ATM's but other people do regularly use them without a problem - just don't do it alone or at night.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Yes - I know there are both Catholic and protestant services available in English, but I don't know the details.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You do not need to know the local language (Lingala) but you do need to know some French (the national business language) - almost no one speaks English here. You can manage without French, but it is much, much more difficult.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. The streets/roads are a disaster, there are basically no sidewalks, I've seen two ramps while we've been here - one at the US Embassy and one at the British Embassy. There are people here with physical difficulties, but life is harder for them I guarantee it.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
We are not allowed to take local taxis or buses. There is one train that runs once on Saturday a.m. from Kinshasa to Matadi (a port city) and returns from Matadi to Kinshasa on Sunday a.m. We have taken that train and it was wonderful as an experience, but you are unlikely to use it as a form of transportation.
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?
Bring a 4 wheel drive if you can. The roads are bad - lots and lots of potholes, many unpaved. You cannot import a car over 10 years old, which will be quite amusing when you arrive here and see many of the cars on the street (which are falling apart and are way older than 10 years). Toyota is probably the best bet (we've got a 4Runner and there are a dozens around). The country is left hand drive like the US, but because so many cars are imported from South Africa there are a lot of right hand drive vehicles as well. I've never heard of a carjacking.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes. We pay US$100/month for 50GB which will roll over if unused so long as we re-up prior to the expiration of the month. We have 3G on our phones which we can also use as hotspots. We stream Amazon and Netflix without any major problems. The biggest issue is that the power goes out at least once a day (only for a few minutes and most places have generators that go on quickly) so if you are using a router it will go down and then you have to wait for it to reboot. We have a VPN built into our router and it works well.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Airtel, Vodocom and Orange are all here. We brought our own phones (one Android and one iPhone) that were unlocked and bought SIM cards here - we refill them monthly and the cost is not prohibitive (I put US$40/month on my phone for calls and 3G). The Embassy also provides phones to both employees and EFMs here (with a small monthly allowance for the EFM - USG employee gets work calls paid for and gets a monthly bill for personal calls). We used Airtel and have been very pleased.
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?
No quarantine. Pretty easy importation (rabies shot). There are vets - a Belgian vet where many people take their pets, and there are now several vets at Zoogle, a large pet store run by City Market.
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?
Employment opportunities for USG employee family members are good - there are several jobs going begging right now because people can be picky. That said, the USG process (security clearance, approval from DC etc...) can take months and is very annoying. If you have French finding work on the local economy is not that difficult either.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Many, many, many, many. The DRC is the bottom of almost every "world" list there is - there are hundreds, if not thousands of ways you can help here.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Congolese dress well - especially considering the heat. Suits for the most part at work; even wandering the streets you will not see people in shorts or sweatpants. Most women wear long dresses/skirts - often in traditional fabrics. Showing knees as a woman is somewhat risky (and uncomfortable). Within our USG compound people are in shorts and t-shirts, but you don't see a lot of that kind of dress on the streets.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
This is considered a high threat post and there is a lot of poverty here, so we do not drive with our doors unlocked or our windows down - ever - to avoid the theft of purses, phones etc... That said, it is most petty theft that is worrying here. We have 24h guards in front of our home/compound, and the security officers at post keep the community apprised of what is going on in the city. This year (2016) is supposed to be a presidential election year here and people are on higher alert because of the political tensions, but we have never seen any focus on Americans and we have never worried about any kind of attack on Americans (or most expats) - if the security situation escalated here it would be because of internal issues that might tangentially affect the expat community, not because the expat community was targeted.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Malaria is here - though not a lot of expats seem to get it (probably because many take anti-malarials) and that is probably the biggest risk. The medical care is spotty - there are hospitals and doctors, but USG employees get medevac'd for even pretty routine procedures (ie: appendix, root canal). The health unit at post for USG is amazing, but for a bit problem you will likely be leaving Kinshasa for Jo'burg or London.
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?
People burn a lot of trash here, so there is a constant "whiff" of either burning, or waiting to be burned, trash. You get used to it, and I haven't felt like it has been particularly unhealthy. It is very humid as well, so for some people the humidity might make the air quality less than desirable.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Food allergies - bring your epipen. My seasonal allergies haven't been too bad here, but it will depend on what you are allergic to. Bring lots of antihistamines!
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
A dry season (June-September) which is cooler (70s-80s F), but more overcast and cloudy, and a wet season (September-May) which is hotter, but sunnier. I've heard that DRC has more thunderstorms than anywhere in the world because of its location and we do have some doozies, but generally it rains like mad for 2-3 hours and then it stops and the sun comes out. I love the weather here as I am not a fan of the cold and love being able to wear summer clothes, and lounge in the pool, practically every day of the year.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Most people send their children to The American School of Kinshasa ("TASOK") and it is considered a very good school overall. Other people send their children to the French School (Lyce Francais Rene Decartes). Our daughter has not yet started Kindergarten (though will start this year) so we have no particular experience with either school yet. Most people seem generally pleased with both schools.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
I have no idea. I assume TASOK has more ability to deal with special-needs children than most of the other schools do.
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?
Yes. Our daughter is at a local international school with English, French and Montessori options (she is in French) which I believe takes children as early as 18 months. Cost is approx. US$2500 from September to June. I am not aware of any schools that run through the summer, though there are camps. There is also a British daycare (Busy Bees) and a Belgian daycare (Les Oisillons), and the French school takes children starting in pre-kindergarten (3-4 years). Les Oisillons is the most expensive, but none are as expensive as daycare in most US cities (ie: DC). Most people here have household help - and thus a nanny - who keeps the children in the afternoon (school ends usually at noon for daycare/preschool) and over the holidays.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Most school have some sports programs, but I'm not familiar with most. I know my daughter's school has karate and soccer (football here).
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community is relatively small and very tight knit. I would say generally the morale is pretty good - at least among our friends (mostly families). This is an amazing place for kids - I have no idea how my daughter will readjust to a US life without constant playmates, a nanny, a pool and 12 months of outdoor play weather, but if you are single it may not be as much fun.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Lots of dinner, brunch, lunch parties on the weekends, excursions to see the Bonobos, kayak on Lac de ma Valle, boat outings to sandbanks on the Congo River, dinner out with friends - there is an overwhelming number of things to do if you want to get out of your house. Our social calendars are filled to the brim almost every weekend with fun things to do either with friends, or organized through an expat group or the Embassy.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
In my opinion it is great for families - lots of other families, kids are around each other all the time and we all make our own fun together (lots of brunch, lunch, dinner etc... parties). There appears to be a lot of options of things to do for singles and couples - and there are quite a few decent restaurants, but I suspect that this would be a hard place to be single if you wanted to meet anyone "special" - there just isn't a large enough community for that.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Better than some African countries/cities in that there are fewer arcane anti-gay laws, but I have no idea if there is any LGBT scene here (and I tend to doubt it as I've never heard or seen anything about it).
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
I have not experienced any, though I believe that Congolese women are definitely expected to be the primary homemakers. I once mentioned to a Congolese man that my husband had taken 12 weeks off to stay home with our daughter when she was born (I was working full time as an attorney before we joined the FS) and he laughed out loud then said "impossible, no man here would, or could, do such a thing." DRC is majority Catholic (though you will see some sign of many different religions) and if you are Caucasian you will be one of a very small minority, but I have not seen any overt (or even subtle) prejudice.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Visiting the Bonobos (apes that are only found in DRC), visiting Zongo Falls, trips to sandbars in the Congo River, sewing with the amazing pagne (material) here, growing a fabulous vegetable garden, buying fabulous art and hearing wonderful Congolese music, eating avocados, mangos and bananas from the trees in our garden.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Take a boat out onto the Congo River and find a sandbank to spend the day on, visit the Bonobos and Lac de ma Valle, take a city tour, go horseback riding at Circle Hippique, take the train (there is only one) to Kisantu and spend the night at Mbuela Lodge and visit the Botanical Gardens, go vegetable shopping at the Marche.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Art - paintings, masks, wooden/clay sculptures; pagne (local fabrics) which are beautiful and cheap (6 yards for US$10-15).
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It is a unique experience to live in Kinshasa - it is not a city or a country with any real "tourist" population and so most of the world has never been here (and will never be here) which allows for a really fascinating daily life. The weather is hot, but manageable - we have a "dry season" from June to September, and a wet season thereafter - but the wet season is full of huge amazing thunderstorms and then bright sunny (and hot) days, so it is not rainy all the time. We have also been able to save money here - if you are a USG family the COLA is high and the post differential is high - the prices here are surprisingly high as well, but if you can learn to live without the most expensive imported things (ie: a bunch of asparagus for US$15) then you can definitely save money. The biggest advantage in my view, however, is the tight-knit community here. We make our own fun and we have lots of it.
10. Can you save money?
Yes - if you don't travel outside the country too much and don't eat broccoli and strawberries every day (or eat in restaurants all the time). We are saving quite a bit of money without too much hardship, but we eat local, in season food as often as possible.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Nothing - I came with very (very) low expectations and I have been (and continue to be) pleasantly surprised. If you show up expecting things to be like the US you will be disappointed (hugely).
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes. I'm looking forward to doing a "first world" tour next, but I am so incredibly glad and thankful to have had this experience. The friends we've made here in this expat community will be friends for life.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Entitled attitude, winter coat (and all other winter garb), white shoes (cause they will get DIRTY).
4. But don't forget your:
Sense of adventure, love of fresh tropical fruit and veggies, pool and sand toys.
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
Virunga (documentary nominated for Oscar), Benda Bilili, and Viva Riva
6. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Congo: The Epic History of a People (David Van Reyrbrouk); Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingslover); Dancing in the Glory of Monsters (Jason Stearns).
7. Do you have any other comments?
There are lots of things that are hard about living in Kinshasa (hence the reason it is a hardship post) - but almost a year into our tour it is clear to me that there are a lot of things I am going to miss very much about this city, this country and the people here - both expat and Congolese, and I wouldn't trade this experience for all the paved roads and pubic transportation in London!