Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo Report of what it's like to live there - 03/02/17
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?
This is our 4th tour with State. Previous tours in southern Africa and northern Africa.
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?
From the Midwest, USA. Plan 24+ hours from anywhere in CONUS. Most fly through Paris or Brussels. Frankfurt is always best for travel with pets.The arrival here is difficult. The airport does not recognize many services normally associated with Diplomatic travel and is chaotic at best; your expediter is your first best friend. The normal traffic/drive from the airport into Gombe is best described as Frogger meets Grand Theft Auto--though our motor pool staff is up for the challenge. If you can choose to arrive on a Sunday, traffic will be calm, light, and relatively smooth.
3. How long have you lived here?
25% of the tour down, 75% to go.
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 is hit or miss. There are few beautiful, charming homes in the housing pool. Many are in small compounds. Some have private yards and a small pool. Most folks are housed in apartments, most with amenities like rooftop lounge or pool, and some with a small gym.
Traffic is ridiculous here and therefore commute times are long even for short distances. I recommend using the shuttle to and from work and using the 30-60 mins each way to read, catch up on emails via BB, knit--virtually anything that does not cause you stress! Living here saps your resiliency, adding unnecessary stress is unwise. Carpool with friends for errands like grocery shopping because company is always nice and it feels more like an outing versus drudgery. Learn the city and practice your driving routes on Sundays!
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Everything is between 2-4 times more expensive here vs Whole Foods and Trader Joe's in DC. Household cleaning supplies are not the same quality and are VERY pricey. Most food things are available if you are willing to look and wait sometimes months for them to come in. I looked for pine nuts for 6 months before finding them. 6 oz cost me $25 which Igratefully spent because I finally found nice fresh basil and wanted pesto right now vs waiting for Amazon. I should really own stock in Amazon...
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Lysol cleaning liquid, laundry soap, lemon oil for wood, windex, pine nuts, nut milk bags and nuts to make nut milk, coffee beans, beans (black, and white are locally available, red and pinto are rarely found), peanut butter, mexican food makings, specialty flours, disinfectant wipes for home and travel, hand sanitizer, more bug spray, sunscreen (not available here!).
Hairspray, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, sunscreen, face wash, nail polish remover. More games/puzzles/crafts.
Craft beer or cider. Weirdly, ice cube trays and bins; locally not readily available and ice is at a premium. More ziploc baggies, bug proof pantry storage bins, ant bait, roach killer, bug zapper lights for outside, tikki torches and citronella oil for the pool, the list could go on. Fortunately most things are available via Amazon or whatever. Focus your consumables (if you get them) on liquids you can't live without. This doesn't really go here but I will include it anyway: BRING A SPARE SET OF TIRES (4 or better 5) FOR YOUR CAR!!!
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Greek food is easy to get and great. Good restaurants are here but all are pricey. Lots of vegetarian options. Pizza, Indian, and Thai food are available via delivery. A large pizza from O'Poeta (decent) will cost you $25-$30 and it is more akin to a thin crust medium in the US.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Ants, roaches, and termites abound. Learn to love the geckos and lizards that live in your houses because they eat them!
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO and Pouch. Nothing reliable locally that I am aware of.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
We pay our gardener $50 per week and our housekeeper/nanny $100 per week.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Three (+?) of our USG housing pool apartment buildings have small gyms with mediocre equipment that you can use. Many hotels have nice gyms but want you to also pay for pool and or spa access as well, which is pricey.
The original River Loop has been closed indefinitely and the alternative is fraught with cars, beggars, and potholes. Therefore walking/running out of doors is not really a great option anymore though several ladies still do it in groups. I disagree with another poster on this issue: spandex and tank tops are perfectly fine and you will see plenty of Congolese wearing them while exercising too. Obvious expats turn heads and get unwanted attention no matter what we wear or do. It is unavoidable. But you may wish to wear long sleeves and leggings/pants anyway due to the bugs!
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?
Some expats I know use credit cards locally but I haven't ever tried. I use the ATMs at the USG compounds only. I only use cash (USD or CF) for all purchases city wide. USD will result in CF change and generally you lose money on the exchange rate. I get smaller bills from the cashier for getting close to the total price for my purchases but NEVER 1's, as these are not accepted anywhere.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Catholic mass is available in English on Sundays at 9, International Protestant Church of Kinshasa services on Sundays at 11.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Must. Have. French! Lingala is even better. Roughly 20% of the population will have some English. This is not generally enough to have a conversation or get directions.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
It can be very difficult to get around here. If your physical difficulties hinder your mobility then I think it could be tough. Most buildings (including the Chancery and JAO) have no elevators and are multiple stories tall. This is not an ADA-compliant post!!
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
None of the above are safe to use, and for USG personnel we are not allowed. Must carpool, or drive everywhere you want to go.
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?
High clearance 4X4 SUV. Period. The local city roads are too much for a small car or even mini van. You CAN get around town in them but your options to avoids pedestrians, protesters, potholes, and traffic jams are even more limited without clearance. To enjoy the Zongo Falls, Bonobos, or really any outside Gombe areas you will need a sturdy 4 wheel drive.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Hahahahahahaha!!! This is a pipe dream. Okay seriously speaking, I have heard rumors that you can get a router installed (vs a wifi puck via the cell phone dealers) at home for a $3000 set up fee and pay $300/per month for unlimited "high-speed" which can occasionally stream videos and may even sometimes support Skype/Facetime etc; but does not run out if you choose to watch videos on YouTube or Facebook. Most of the time internet is unreliable at best no matter where you get your service from.
My wifi puck supports Vonage roughly 60% of the time, and I use Facetime/Skype without video and get ungarbled conversation about 50% of the time. I pay $100 for 25GB used over 3 months OR 50GB used over 30 days. The time of day is a large factor in the quality of your internet. Where your housing is located in Gombe (or the greater Kinshasa area) will determine which internet (cell) provider you should use. For example: River Loop area has best service with Airtel but Airtel service is terrible out near Shoprite.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Everyone ends up with 2 phones. Work phone (or Embassy provided for spouses) and personal phone. Must be unlocked to use a local SIM card.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Formal dress needed for the annual TASOK (international school) Gala and Marine Ball. Normal daily work attire is mostly business casual except for certain offices where jacket and/or tie are expected. Even then, most keep them hanging on the back of the office door until necessary.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Yes. Doors and windows on your vehicle must remain closed and locked at all times. People will try to open your doors (yes, even while driving) to steal what they can grab. If your car automatically unlocks all doors upon placing it in Park, I strongly recommend you have this feature disabled prior to shipping your vehicle to post or learn how to do it on YouTube.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Local health care is unreliable at best. Most head to Health Unit or else go on medical evacuation for care beyond Health Unit's capabilities. Local hospitals require French and the quiet yet firm ability to fight for what you think you need. Also, you must pay in advance for service.
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?
In the rainy season the air quality is better but there is a lot of smoke. During the dry season the dust is so heavy that it makes the sky seem hazy and holds in the heat and smoke.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Environmental allergies will be hard to manage unless they respond well to an anti-allergy pill. Dust and smoke are rampant, as are mold and mildew.
Bring what you need to eat with you or plan to ship from Amazon. Some gluten free items available hit or miss. Some non-dairy items available hit or miss. Almond milk was available last year for $15/liter but has recently been unavailable city wide for past few months. Just found it for $23/liter.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Resiliency is key, a positive attitude is tough to sustain here. Do anything to avoid extra stress because everything here is difficult. Make yourself be mindful. Exercise regularly. Eat well. Sleep well. Socialize. If you find yourself in a rut, reach out. The community here is pretty strong and we do what we can to share the burdens of this hardship post.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
TASOK is fantastic. We can't say too many good things about it. Beautiful 40 some acre campus with open air hallways and good food.
One drawback, your kids will need real bug spray daily and will need to reapply after swimming, PE, or even just mid-day. The bugs are terrible over there. My children wear longs sleeves and pants to school (and hate it) as well as use lots of repellent. We even also treat their clothes with Picaridin because otherwise the mosquitoes bite through their leggings and thin fabrics.
2. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Lots of after school activities and things for school age kids to do.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
This depends on the day. Morale was low leading up to the political unrest last year. The uncertainty of who would have to go, when we would leave and return, and where we would be sent was tough to bear. This will likely all start again September 2017 based on what the government does with the newly scheduled election process.
Normally, morale is good. People get out, people socialize, people entertain, people stock up on groceries and plan activities at home. My advice? Make your home into a sanctuary from the daily stressors of Kinshasa living. If you have kids, bring lots of activities for their entertainment while at home for Shelter-in-Place times and bad weather.
Overall this post is easy to manage once you have your expectations in line with reality and make the effort to get out, socialize, and get about town.
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?
Eating out, river trips, socializing with friends, joining small clubs and groups. Many community activities. Our CLO office is fabulous!
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I can imagine how difficult this post might be for singles. Many that I've known have curtailed, but it could be that they were too introverted. No one makes it as an island here; having someone else to bounce your experiences off of is vital! Families have an even better time because many children bring a certain entertainment value all their own. Many activities are designed inclusive of children.
4. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Evacuations to Brazzaville were very pleasant! Making new friends has been a joy.
5. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Check the Congo Bongo newsletter, we always have something fun going on!
6. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Lots of artisans here selling many different items.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How hard it would be to get a job.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Cold weather gear, dry clean only items, road rage, and picky eating habits.
4. But don't forget your:
Swimsuit, sunscreen, bug spray, sense of humor, and treadmill.
5. Do you have any other comments?