Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo Report of what it's like to live there - 09/26/16

Personal Experiences from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo 09/26/16

Background:

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

No - lived in Cameroon, Dhaka, Cotonou, and spent time in many other countries, especially in Africa.

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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?

Washington, DC. Twenty-four hours -- first to Paris or Brussels, then to KIN.

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3. How long have you lived here?

I was there from 2010-2014

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

USG

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Our house was not huge but it was well designed, airy, and full of natural light and closets. Nice kitchen, and we had a wonderful pool. Our yard was nice, too, but the mosquitoes were out of control, so the only way to enjoy it was by being submersed in the pool.

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

One of the worst things about Kinshasa was the cost of living. Even on the local economy. Local fruits/vegetables were of poor quality, but the only way to feed a family when imported goods were 100x more expensive. You can find almost anything in Kinshasa, though it comes with a price. There are some small mom-and-pop stores that are good -- most owned by the same Portuguese family.

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

We shipped the standard stuff for a consumable post -- a lot of olive oil; bags of Costco dried fruits, nuts, quinoa. We ordered a lot on line -- the DPO was great. My pantry got infested by mealy moths, so I learned that if I couldn't store dry goods in the freezer, I had to use them or not buy them.

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

There are a lot of good options and innovative new restaurants were opening when I left. Belgian bakeries were the best, but the Portuguese bread from the grocery stores, and Portuguese pizza places were excellent, too. But pricy! For beer and pizza, my family of four dropped US$100.

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

Ants and cockroaches are inevitable. You just have to learn to live with them. Mosquitos were awful.

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Daily Life:

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

DPO. No adequate local facilities.

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

Tons available, but of varying quality and cost. You get what you pay for. One thing about Kinois is that they are all on the make, all the time. I don't mean that harshly -- eking out a living there is no joke. Everyone money grubs, from Ministers on down to street sweepers. It's the famous 'systeme D' (for debrouillage, or making do) of Mobutu. It's hard not to take personally, but laying things out in a contract became pretty essential.

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

Not much. Embassy had a very small gym with some treadmills and weights. The Congo River 'loop' in the leafy Ambassadorial part of the Gombe neighborhood was the only place to walk/jog in town. Sunday evenings they were a zoo!

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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?

Not officially advised, but we used them throughout our four years and never had a problem.

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

Protestant and Catholic services. One of Africa's largest orthodox Jewish communities is in Kinshasa, and sabbath services were available in Gombe. A few mosques in town, but no English.

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

French is necessary. Lingala is the lingua franca of western DRC and reigned in Kinshasa. There are people in the city who don't speak anything but. It's not necessary, but is a very easy and beautiful language, and useful.

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

I can't even imagine how someone would survive there.

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Transportation:

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

NO.

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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?

If you are never going to leave Gombe, a small, zippy car for moving through traffic and parking in tight spaces is great. But you will want to move a bit , so something with clearance is better. Auto locking doors is a plus; if you don't have them you will quickly train yourself to lock up first thing you sit down. Segues -- street kids -- can and will try opening doors on moving vehicles.

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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?

Yes, but was crazy expensive when we were there. We paid US$140 month for crappy service. Couldn't stream a thing.

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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?

Vodacom had the best network.

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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?

Yes, there is a good Belgian vet in Macampagne and a good Congolese vet in Limete who made house calls.

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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?

USAID and Embassy had several positions. Local NGOs also. A few spouses worked at the UN but they were already in that system when they arrived in Kin.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Pretty much anything one would want to do. Work with street kids. Support local artists. Volunteer for clean up projects.

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

Pretty formal. Congolese take their fashion seriously, and always look great. Even if in jeans, they are ironed and worn with fancy shirts and shoes.

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Health & Safety:

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

Though petty crime exists, I never worried about car jacking, home break ins, or your run-of-the mill urban opportunistic crimes. Street kids were pretty rampant -- one snatched my chain -- but rarely violent. The worry in Kin was always that the tenuous political situation would boil over and create unrest. While I was there we had two fuzzy 'coup' attempts. Never really fully explained, and just bizarre. Guys armed with spears trying to attack the Presidency; an errant pastor preaching secession. At least those were the formal explanations. One never knew. Elections are always dangerous.

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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?

Malaria, malaria, malaria. Virtually NO medical care in the city, so people got evacuated a lot. Oddly, though, there was a good Belgian dental clinic in town.

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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?

Moderate. I am not sure that the pollution levels were particularly bad, but the constant haze of humidity trapped everything in.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Probably not a post for you. Air conditioning is a necessary evil, and my kids and I would occasionally have minor respiratory issues as a result.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

No more than at any hardship post.

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

Hot and humid. In part of the summer months, it would cool down a bit (67 degrees in the morning), but always with drippy humidity.

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Schools & Children:

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

Most parents were pretty happy with TASOK. Several families, including mine, were at the French school and happy with it. Belgian school was popular, though not among most expats.

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

Not sure -- TASOK had limited abilities.

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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?

There is an English speaking pre-school and a good Belgian one. Nanny care is most popular.

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

Through the schools. Portuguese school had a very good soccer program. Hellenic Center had tennis lessons, along with Greek lessons!

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Expat Life:

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

Pretty big -- UN is still a huge presence, and there is a large diplomatic and NGO crowd, and growing numbers of private sector individuals.

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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?

Kinshasa was fun, fun, fun.. Lots of house parties, crazy expat parties at the UN contingents and random places/events (Oktoberfest, anyone?). The Congolese like to have a good time, and are more than willing to share their fun. The music scene, though not what it was 20years ago, is still amazing. Do NOT miss the opportunity to see a live concert of a major star. They play in venues in Gombe, and you will never see anything like it.

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

Kinshasa can be good for anyone who makes the effort to get out and meet people and try new things.

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

Not openly.

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

Gender equality has a long way to go, but open harassment is not really an issue. Congolese are extremely proud of their national identities -- they are Congolese first, and other identities come in a far second. People from the Kasais are sometimes criticized for taking over parts of the country, monopolizing businesses, etc. but there is little outright hostility. Political rivalries could be more problematic, though generally among the Congolese elite. Most Congolese just want to make a living and enjoy their family and friends peacefully.

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

The Congolese are amongst the most warm and fun people I've ever lived/worked with, and I would love to work with them again. Cold beers and roasted goat meat listening to amazing music. Congo River trips. Concert after concert. Dancing rumba. I was fortunate enough to travel to eastern DRC multiple times, and the scenery there is breath-taking.

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

Music. Shady cold beer spots along the river.

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

It's sad, but a serious African art collector can find some amazing pieces -- masks and carvings, and museum quality Kuba cloth -- for very little money.

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

You'll never experience something like it again.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

How bad the produce is. There really is not an alternative, though, so there wasn't anything I could have done with that knowledge.

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

Again and again. Hope to go back again in another capacity.

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

Most valuable possessions, and any uptight pretensions you have.

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4. But don't forget your:

Treadmill if you like to walk/run, and dancing shoes.

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

Dancing in the Glory of the Monsters, Blood River by Tim Butcher, the Congo Wars by G. Prunier, series of documentaries by Thierry Michel.

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