Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo Report of what it's like to live there - 04/10/19
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've also lived in Europe and Southeast Asia.
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?
Southern U.S. Total travel time is about 30 hours, transiting through Europe.
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?
U.S Embassy housing is a mix of apartments, homes on small compounds, and detached houses. I don't think anything is smaller than three bedrooms, and some of the houses and apartments are large and very nice. Construction quality varies, but usually leaves something to be desired. Commute times to the embassy range from 10-30 minutes, depending on traffic. It generally takes longer to get home in afternoon traffic than it does to get to work in the morning.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries are quite expensive, but you can get almost anything if you're willing to pay for it. You'll definitely use your COLA. There are a number of grocery stores that cater to expats and carry mostly imported goods from Europe, South Africa, and UAE. The types of produce available is pretty limited, many people employ a gardener to grow favorite vegetables which cannot be bought locally or are obscenely expensive. If you are up to it, the local produce markets generally offer better quality and prices than can be found in stores.
Household supplies are easily available in most stores, I did not use most of the cleaning products I brought in consumables.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Craft beer is the only thing I really missed. You can order nearly any dried goods and many household products from Amazon or Walmart through pouch or DPO. I was surprised by how much can be purchased locally, I definitely would have shipped less food and cleaning products in consumables if I'd known.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are a number of good restaurants covering almost all major international cuisines, but I did get bored with almost everything after two years. Expat-favored restaurants tend to be pricy (usually $100+ for two people), but you get used to it.
Delivery and take out options are growing, though ordering delivery is often a bit of an adventure since Kinshasa does not have standardized addresses. It's much easier if you're comfortable giving directions in French.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
It's the tropics, insects are a part of life. I had a persistent issue with ants in my house and mosquitoes are everywhere. There are also black flies that bite, but they aren't as ubiquitous as the mosquitoes. There are also rodents, but they are less of an issue than in any major American city I've lived in.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Pouch or DPO. DPO takes ten days to two weeks normally, pouch is usually two - four weeks. DPO allows liquids, but has more stringent restrictions of package size than pouch. You'll learn which option is best for which purpose quickly enough.
I did have one letter sent to me through DRC post, which I was rather surprised to receive... six months after it was sent.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Almost everyone at the Embassy employs household help of one sort or another. Household staff are very affordable and generally good. I paid $25/day for a housekeeper who came once a week to clean and do laundry, and also gave a little cash on the side to my landlord-provided gardener to wash the car and do odd jobs. Other employ gardeners, nannies, cooks, drivers, etc.
If I were to go back, I'd probably get a part time driver. Shopping in Kinshasa is not obvious if you aren't a local and can be extremely time consuming, making it difficult if you work full time. Having a person who knows where to go to get things and has the time to deal with Congolese inefficiency and/or bureaucracy is worth its weight in gold and will make your life a lot easier.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The embassy gym is in awful condition and not conveniently located for most embassy personnel, because it's on a different compound from the chancery or USAID compounds. There are gyms in most of the major hotels, and many people end up purchasing their own exercise equipment. It's difficult to workout outside in most areas, though the "river loop" area is popular for jogging.
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 didn't use my credit card much, but most hotels take them, and a number of expat-oriented restaurants and grocery stores accept them. ATMs are all over the place, and are generally safe. Some don't work well with foreign cards, but you'll find ones convenient to you that work with your debit card. I never had an issue with skimming or fraud.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You really need French. Very few Congolese speak English, and French is the dominant language of the expat community (though there are plenty of Anglophones too). Congolese are patient and will do their best to work with you if your French is limited, but you will experience a language barrier.
Learning some Lingala (the first language of most Kinois, and one of DRC's four "national languages") will make your experience in Kinshasa more culturally enriching and interesting. Lingala is not particularly difficult to learn if you have the time, the grammar is simple and the vocabulary is only 1000 or so words (with French filling in the gaps in common practice).
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
YES. Kinshasa's infrastructure is not good. There are very few sidewalks, no ramps, and elevators are not common. The embassy itself is far from ADA compliant; there are no elevators and they only recently installed wheelchair ramps and handicapped-accessible bathrooms.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
No. Embassy personnel are prohibited from using local taxis and buses. Crime involving taxi drivers or other passengers is extremely common. There is no mass public transit. You should definitely bring a car or purchase one locally. The embassy allows you to self-drive motorpool cars after taking a short training, which eases things while you're waiting for your POV to arrive.
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?
RAV4s are by far the most popular. Most of the roads in Kinshasa frequented by expats are paved, though massive potholes are common. You don't need a massive 4x4, but something with some ground clearance is a good idea. I brought spare parts in my HHE, so I never needed to purchase something locally, but I think parts for Toyotas and other Japanese brands are available.
Carjacking isn't really a thing, but I've heard street kids (called "shegues") will open your doors and steal whatever they can grab, so it's advisable to drive with doors locked and windows rolled up.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet is a pain in Kinshasa. It's slow, unreliable, and generally frustrating to deal with. Some housing compounds come with their own boutique set ups, which generally seem to be the best option. The rest of us have to fend with the local cellular network or installing your own satellite internet system.
I found GoogleFi to be the easiest option, though it definitely isn't the fastest option.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I had a local SIM for a while but you have to add credit in-person at stores, which is time-consuming and annoying. I switch to GoogleFi, which allows you to use any of the local providers. This is great, because various companies often have temporary outages or random slow-downs. It was also much cheaper than paying for local data, which runs $50-$100/mo depending on how much data you use.
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?
There are few vets used by expats.
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?
Spousal employment is a challenge. There are theoretically many EFM jobs at the embassy, but the paperwork process makes this harder than it needs to be.
On the local economy you'll be limited if you don't have French. People with experience in the NGO sector will probably be better off than most. Most embassy spouses either don't work or work at the embassy.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
There are plenty of volunteer opportunities if you seek them out. Many people volunteer at orphanages or with local NGOs.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business to business casual, depending on your job. I usually did not wear a jacket unless I needed to go to an outside meeting and often didn't wear a tie, but some sections are more formal than others. Congolese are fashion conscious, but it isn't a faux pas to dress casually as an expat.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
DRC is rated "critical" for crime, though I personally think this overstates things in Kinshasa. Expats mostly experience petty crime like purse snatching and pickpocketing. The crime is generally not violent, and I never seriously feared for my physical safety in Kinshasa. The Embassy was closed for six days in 2018 due to a terrorism threat, but this isn't yet a major concern for day-to-day life in my opinion.
During my time it was also very common to suffer some moderate harassment from local security forces, who are poorly and inconsistently paid and therefore resort to demanding bribes and petty extortion to make a living. This isn't as bad as it used to be, but it is still a problem. Diplomatic license plates seem to help a lot with avoiding this.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Malaria is a serious threat, there were several cases within the embassy community during my tour. Local medical care is very limited, so people get medevaced to Pretoria for even minor issues. I was briefly hospitalized at the local expat-oriented emergency clinic (run by French doctors), and received adequate care. The embassy health unit is excellent.
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?
Kinshasa's air quality is quite poor. Cars are not kept in good condition, everyone burns their garbage, and most Kinois cook by burning wood or charcoal outside. The Embassy began purchasing home air filters in 2018 and has been slowly doling them out. During the dry season the air gets particularly bad, which is a shame because it's the one part of the year when it's cool enough to enjoy being outside.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
I don't know of any major allergy concerns. Celiacs or those who prefer to eat gluten free may have some difficulty and will probably have to ship in food.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
It is overcast with almost no direct sunlight for most of the dry season (about three months), which I personally didn't enjoy. I found it hard to spend time outdoors due to the heat and mosquitoes, and living behind walls topped with barbed wire can definitely take a toll on you over time. If you don't speak French I would probably be socially isolating, though the embassy is decently large and fairly tight-knit.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It it tropical; hot and humid almost all year. There is a dry season, which lasts roughly June - August/September, when it is cooler and does not rain. During the rainy season highs are usually in the 90s with oppressive humidity, getting into the 70s at night. The dry season highs are usually low 80s, getting into the 60s at night.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
I don't have children, so I can't speak in detail. Most Embassy kids go to The American School of Kinshasa (TASOK), though there are a few other options. Most people seem happy with the school, especially younger kids.
2. 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 day care available, and many people choose to just employ a full time nanny for little ones.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community is smaller than you would think, given Kinshasa's size, but there is definitely a community. Morale varies, but I think it's generally good.
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?
There isn't a ton to do in Kinshasa. People tend to eat out a lot and attend cultural events hosted by other embassies (the British and French are good for this). There are some informal sports clubs. Some people have been trying to get a Hash together but haven't yet managed to get it off the ground.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I found it very difficult as a single. The Embassy was very family heavy during my tour, and I found socializing in Kinshasa to be difficult. Families do better, and there is an especially good community for families with young children.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I'm not sure about the legal status of homosexuality in DRC, but it is definitely not accepted culturally. I don't think there is much of a gay community, but I don't really know. LGBT colleagues seemed generally dissatisfied.
5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
Not really. I found Congolese to generally be very transactional about relationships; I never experienced friendship for the sake of friendship, there was always an angle being worked. The socioeconomic disparity also makes things difficult; there isn't much of a middle class in Congo. Most people are extremely poor, and the very, very top is obscenely rich (and most likely got there via....).
People certainly treat westerners differently, both likely due to the aforementioned transactional attitudes and also as a legacy of colonialism.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
It's definitely a patriarchal society, women will experience discrimination and, unfortunately, probably be harassed to a certain extent. The country is overwhelmingly Christian, mostly Catholic but with large communities of other denominations. There are some Muslims, but it's a very small community. Congolese tend to wear their faith on their sleeve, but I found them to be generally respectful of others' differing beliefs.
There is some tension between different ethnic groups in Congo, but it's mostly below the surface. There is definite tension between Congolese and people from neighboring countries, especially Rwandese.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
I didn't especially like living in Kinshasa, but I did enjoy every opportunity I had to travel within DRC. There are some possibilities for personal travel in the provinces surrounding Kinshasa, which I highly recommend. Zongo Falls in Kongo-Centrale province is popular and a nice weekend trip. My personal favorite was going to see bonobos in the wild a few hundred kilometers north of Kinshasa. That trip involved substantial planning and was not cheap, but was easily one of the coolest things I've ever done. DRC is a really beautiful country, hopefully the security situation calms enough that people can take advantage of the amazing opportunities for tourism such as seeing gorillas in the east, climbing Mt. Nyaragongo, etc.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Boat trips on the Congo river are fun, and you can camp at a nice park just outside Kinshasa. There are more and more entertainment options in Kinshasa all the time. In the past few years a bowling alley and movie theater have opened, along with an "adventure park" out by the airport. Kinshasa also has an excellent fine arts and music scene, if you're into that.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Kinshasa has some great local art, and a lot of the usual tourist trinkets. Tailoring is very popular, especially using the vibrant local "pagne" fabric.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Kinshasa has more amenities than many West African capitals, just owing to its size, though I found it to be much less developed than capitals in east and southern Africa. DRC is an insane country and definitely makes for an interesting place to live, though that comes with a lot of frustration.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Hire. A. Driver. Trust me. It'll make your life so much easier if you have a go-fer that can get things done for you.
And don't overthink consumables, you can get almost everything. Focus on beer and wine if you drink (liquor is easily available and generally inexpensive).
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
No. Kinshasa was interesting, but I wouldn't choose to repeat the experience if offered the chance.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Sense of urgency and desire for things to be organized.
4. But don't forget your:
Malaria pills and deet.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
There are many good books on DRC. I recommend:
King Leopold's Ghost (covers Belgian colonialism)
Dancing in the Glory of Monsters (The First and Second Congo Wars, 1997-2003)
Congo: The Epic History of a People (an excellent ethnographic history of DRC)
In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo (the end of the Mobutu era)
Stringer: A Reporter's Journey in the Congo (life in post-war Kinshasa)
6. Do you have any other comments?
Things are changing in Kinshasa right now with the change in government. It's an exciting time, and I'm hopeful that things will improve.