Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo Report of what it's like to live there - 01/21/17
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?
No, I have lived across Africa and Europe, including other French-speaking posts.
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. The trip is most of 24 hours, with a stop in Europe. Most people fly through Brussels or Paris.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing varies dramatically in quality, but is more than adequate. I am in a spacious, but older, apartment building in a quieter part of Gombe. Others have more modern apartments in busier parts of the city or stand alone houses. Most apartment buildings have pools but not gyms. Commute times vary widely depending on what neighborhood you are in--15 minutes to 2 hours.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Compared to other posts in Africa, the selection is amazing (but really, really expensive--$15 for a pack of tortillas!) Embassies and most NGOs supplement staff salaries significantly to account for the cost difference, so this is something to keep in mind if negotiating your salary. There are dozens of small grocery stores, and Portuguese/Lebanese/Indian products are widely available. There are few things you can't find if you're willing to pay triple the going rate in the US and/or accept frozen instead of fresh products.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Craft beer, soy sauce (only available in tiny bottles), bread flour, coffee beans.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Congolese food is really bland compared to much of the local food in the rest of Africa, and the best options are grilled chicken/fish with plantains or fries. For international food, pizza is always a popular option, and there are various European restaurants running the gamut from Spanish to Portuguese to Belgian to French (all expensive). Chinese/Indian are also good options. A couple of Western restaurants have a supplementary sushi menu that varies in quality, but you won't find much in the way of other international food.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Insects are especially bad. In addition to mosquitoes, there are black flies that cause horrible, itchy bites (and seem immune to anything but DEET). Many houses are infested with insects and cockroaches. You can get sprays locally but not glue traps, so you may want to bring some.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO. No local postal facilities that are reliable.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
The going rate is about $15-$20/day and you can find a variety of help. Many people have drivers, cooks, housekeepers, gardeners, and nannies. It's also very easy to hire someone to do a combination of these roles.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Most housing and some restaurants have small pools. Gyms are very expensive, crowded, and mostly attached to hotels. There used to be a running/walking path by the Congo river, but now it's closed (possibly indefinitely). It's really not safe to walk/run outside except in a tiny area, so I recommend bringing workout equipment such as exercise machines, dvds, yoga mats, and free weights if you like exercising. These things are available in Kinshasa, but at low quality/ridiculous prices. If you don't use what you bring, you'll be able to sell any of the above for the original purchase price. Also note that workout clothing should be modest (unfortunately, women really can't run outside in shorts, tight pants, and/or tank tops without attracting a lot of unwanted attention).
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?
Credit cards are not a viable option. Certain ATMs (e.g. one at a grocery store near the US Embassy) are guarded and safe to use.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You must have French or you will be unable to communicate in daily life. Push for language classes before arriving at post if possible, as local options for learning are not very good. Those without French tend to be much more isolated and frustrated with local life.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. The roads are terrible and most buildings are not accessible. Even office buildings rarely have elevators. Popular weekend outings (e.g. visiting the bonobo sanctuary, hiking) are not friendly to those with disabilities.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
None of the above are safe. You will need a car that can handle rough roads.
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 an SUV with four wheel drive. Everyone who has one of these is happy and you will be able to sell it locally when you leave. You may want tinted windows to help with the bright sun. Parking is not a problem and you will always be able to find space, even with a larger car. Do not bring a small/compact car--it won't be able to handle the potholes. It's theoretically possible to get by with something like a Honda Accord, but people who have these are limited to only certain parts of the city with good roads and can't travel outside of Kinshasa on weekends.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
I'm convinced high speed home internet does not exist. Internet is ridiculously expensive, goes in and out, and only sometimes allows streaming. Frequently, downloads time out halfway through when the service cuts out. Most people buy a wireless router and use cell phone data, as this is faster than hardwired internet. If you bring a router, get one that is "unlocked" and can accept cell phone SIM cards (or just buy locally--around $75). During political protests, the government sometimes cuts off internet access for days at a time.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
The best local provider depends on your specific location/building. Most people use Airtel, Vodacom, or Orange and refill credit monthly. You can try them all out since SIM cards are cheap. Bring an unlocked phone.
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?
Teleworking is a great option if you can get it. Local NGO and embassy jobs are available, but don't expect to be hired immediately. If you can, bring business cards in English and French (double-sided) with you.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Typical for Africa--business casual, with jackets needed at formal events. For women, bring outfits that cover shoulders/knees to avoid unwanted attention. Bring all your work outfits and shoes with you--there are not good shopping options in the city, although tailors can adjust/repair Western clothing as needed.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Petty theft is common and it is not safe to walk outside except in one or two areas. You will get used to living in your car and parking right in front of the place you want to go. Harassment by beggars and street children is common and can turn dangerous if you are alone and accosted by a large group. However, it is safe to go to nearly all restaurants, supermarkets, sporting events, etc.--you just have to drive there.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
All manner of tropical diseases are present, but the largest concerns are insect related. You'll need an antimalarial and should bring a lot of high quality bug spray (e.g. Deet, Picaridin) as the mosquitos and flies are intense and are not deterred by herbal repellents. Also bring antihistamine and plan to bleach fruits and vegetables to disinfect them, as diarrheal diseases are rampant.
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?
The only issues with air quality are when neighbors burn trash, creating noxious fumes from the plastic. This is case-by-case and there's no way to predict if it will be a problem for you or not. Overall, the air is pretty fresh, especially outside of the city center.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Many local foods are made with peanuts, so if sensitive, I would stick to Western food.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Morale at post is low and most people try to get out of country once every few months. Two things that often sap people's resilience are traffic (which is horrible and stressful to drive in daily) and boredom. While it has its benefits, Kinshasa is not a relaxing city to live in and not an easy place to blend in. Being constantly targeted can take its toll. It's best to bring lots of games and equipment for hobbies with you to fill free time and to plan regular travel.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
I think the climate is fine, although you do need air conditioning. There are wet and dry seasons. Year-round, the weather is in the 80s and 90s, with varying humidity depending on the time of year. Bring rain gear and breathable shoes that can get wet.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Morale is low compared to other places I have lived, and very few people choose to stay longer than they must. Many leave early and/or try to spend a lot of time out of country. Unfortunately, recent political tension, the resulting uncertainty, and security restrictions put in place by embassies and international organizations have contributed to this low morale. The political situation shows no signs of improving, so these factors are likely to continue.
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?
Organized hobby groups are surprisingly rare (there isn't even a regular running group), but there are many house parties. Expats all hang out in the same places, so after awhile you start to meet people.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
In my opinion, this is not a good city for single people or couples. The happiest people tend to be families with kids who hang out with other families with kids and socialize through the embassies or schools. Many regular social activities and gatherings are centered around kids.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
It would be very hard to be out in Kinshasa. Unfortunately, this is an extremely Christian city and judgement from locals is strong.
5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Zongo Falls is beautiful and there are a good number of restaurants to try. The best times have been hanging out with other expatriates.
6. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
There's a small movie theater in Gombe that shows new releases for very reasonable prices.
7. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Yes, handicrafts are amazing (even compared to other places in Africa). You can get great wooden carvings, masks, paintings, and knick knacks. The process of buying/bargaining for these is quite stressful, but you can find real gems for little money if you are thick-skinned and persistent. Tailors are relatively cheap, so you can have unique clothing made with local fabric.
8. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Because so few people choose to come here, I think of Kinshasa as "the land of opportunity" for finding interesting jobs with a high level of responsibility. There is a lot of need here, so you (and family members) can be choosy about what job to take. Most employers offer generous supplements to the usual salary, so it's possible to save cash even with the high cost of living.
There are enough restaurants that you won't get easily bored with them and it's possible to find most food imports you could want.
People with kids in the schools also seem really happy--there seems to be a good community there and I've heard the quality of education is high.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Kinshasa is a rough city, rather than a friendly one. It's not possible to blend in as an expat, and security risks mean you have to take precautions (such as driving everywhere) that make you stand out even more. Compared to other places I've been, it's quite hard to make local friends or authentically experience the local culture.
Also, it's really difficult and expensive to travel out of Kinshasa. Most travel in country is impossible due to the poor infrastructure and security risks, and flights to other countries are quite expensive.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
No, while I love Africa and there are some definite high points to life in Kinshasa, I would choose to live almost anywhere else in Africa before coming back here.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
High heels. Between the grass, steep staircases, and horrible roads/sidewalks, you want sturdy flats or wedges!
4. But don't forget your:
Sunblock (not really available locally).