Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo Report of what it's like to live there - 05/01/22

Personal Experiences from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo 05/01/22

Background:

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

Experience in West and East Africa, and Eastern Europe.

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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?

From USA. Most common travel route is departure from East Coast of the US, 8-hr flight to Europe, long layover, and then an 8-hr flight from Europe to Kinshasa. It's a full day of travel.

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3. What years did you live here?

2020-2022.

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4. How long have you lived here?

Two years.

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

Diplomatic Mission.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

I live in an apartment close to the River Loop. It is spacious, modern (compared to some of the standalone houses or older buildings in the area), and has a nice balcony. We have a small building pool on the ground floor. On a good day, it's a ten minute drive to the Embassy. On a bad day, it can take an hour.

In general, housing here is good but not great. Satisfaction largely depends on someone's attitude. I think the greatest determinant of satisfaction comes down to where you want your social center to be. Singles and couples without kids are more often placed near the downtown areas and River Loop, and families with kids are more often placed in a gated community in a more suburban neighborhood where there are lots of other families with kids.

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

You can find just about every food item you'll need in Kinshasa. The issue is cost. Most staples (grains, certain veggies, tropical fruits like oranges and bananas, breads, etc) are American prices or sometimes cheaper, but certain items are prohibitively expensive. Expect to see 3-10x the American price on certain items like berries, tortillas, good salsa, certain cheeses, leafy greens like lettuce, ice cream, etc.

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

It's challenging to find items to make Mexican food here. Consider shipping lots of black beans, salsa, tortillas. Bring preferred brands of bug spray and sunscreen, as some of the options here are less effective. I'd also recommend packing workout gear, if exercise is important in your life. There is very little outdoor space for running, and embassy and local gyms aren't great. You will not regret bringing a treadmill and any other gym equipment for personal use.

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

There's a large Lebanese community here so it's easy to find good falafel, hummus, and other Middle Eastern foods. Expat favorites include an old Greek restaurant (next to an ancient-looking Greek Orthodox church), a few Italian restaurants, a few Indian restaurants, and a few Chinese restaurants. There are a handful of popular local Congolese restaurants.

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

Mosquitos are an issue at certain times of the year. Lightweight long sleeves and pants, or ample bug spray, is enough for adequate protection. Housing comes with mosquito nets but I don't feel a need to use it outside of these few weeks when the mosquitos are especially bad. There are some occasional ants in the kitchen but nothing too crazy.

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Daily Life:

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

Mail through DPO and Pouch. It usually takes Amazon packages about three weeks to arrive. It's slow but works just fine.

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

Lots of household help in Embassy houses here. The services depend on family and house type. We have a cleaner who comes once a week and the cost is very reasonable. Other families have substantial help with childcare, cooking, pool and yard maintenance, and driving. It is very common and easy to find household help in the Embassy newsletter or word-of-mouth once you arrive.

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

The Embassy has a gym which was closed throughout COVID. I think it recently re-opened but has some restrictions regarding timing and number of people allowed in at one time. Local gyms can be very expensive if you're seeking American-quality equipment or services.

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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?

Credit cards are becoming more common. They're currently accepted at some of the upscale restaurants and expat grocery stores. I've always found it safe to use these services. Otherwise, Kinshasa is a very cash-based economy, with both Congolese francs and USD accepted everywhere. There are a few ATMs scattered throughout Kinshasa, and also a reliable ATM at the Embassy.

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

French is very important for daily life! Outside of American and European circles, very little English is spoken in Kinshasa. It's important to arrive with at least some basic French speaking and listening abilities. The Embassy offers free French classes but they are poor quality. There are private language schools and tutors available. Outside of Kinshasa, you will not encounter any English, and even French becomes less common.

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

This would be a challenging place for someone with physical disabilities. The roads do not have sidewalks, and the Embassy buildings (both work and housing) are mostly very old and would not be up to ADA standards. In my opinion, technology in the Embassy seems to be outdated, and it seems like it would be a big challenge to get disability accommodations here. However, with certain preparations, I think certain disabilities like learning challenges or cognitive differences could be manageable. Definitely do your research and talk to people current at post.

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Transportation:

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

Local transportation is to be avoided due to safety concerns. I think this is actually due to bad conditions of the local cars (sometimes held together with duct tape), and not the threat of violence.

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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?

I'd recommend a car with decent clearance (something bigger than a sedan) since you will definitely hit some potholes during your time here. Toyotas are great since local mechanics are familiar with the, and can usually find parts locally. We have a Toyota RAV4 (a very common option here) and are really happy with it.

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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?

Internet is fine for the most part. You can stream Netflix and make Skype/Zoom calls, though one should expect occasional interruptions. There are days when the connection is bad. Much of the Embassy was teleworking throughout COVID, so it actually improved Embassy understanding of home internet service and hotspot providers.

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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?

We have Google-Fi. It works great here!

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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?

There are a few vets that most people use. We use a Belgian vet who has provided good service to our pets, including vaccinations and routine checkups. Some of the vets do house calls which is especially nice. Animals don't need to be quarantined coming into the country, however, the CDC and various airlines are currently the process of tightening their regulations around animal transit. Make sure you do sufficient research.

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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?

Spouses and partners primarily get jobs in the Embassy. This is a result of language barriers: you will need good French to work externally. Spouses working outside the embassy seem to mostly work for international NGOs or telework from a US-based company or organization.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

There are lots of volunteer opportunities, but they're not well-organized or advertised. My spouse volunteered with a local school but it required some hustling to set up. We called schools, made several visits, tracked down headmasters, and described an ideal volunteer relationship through clunky French. The initial work was a challenge, but the work itself was exciting and rewarding.

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

Business or business-casual attire at work, depending on position and agency. Formal dress rarely required. In public and on the street, you'll see a mix of everything -- African tailored clothing, t-shirts and jeans, politicians in thousand-dollar suits, and other people wearing rags. You'll see the extremes and everything in between.

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Health & Safety:

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

The majority of your time in Kinshasa will be in the diplomatic neighborhood. It's where work, restaurants, and most activities are. Things feel safe there and security incidents are few and far between.

There are beggars on the street (typically children) and they can sometimes be insistent asking for money. I don't find them dangerous at all. It's mostly heartbreaking. But their presence is strong and will definitely impact your behavior. You'll need to keep your car doors locked and windows rolled up. The first few times they come up to your car, it might be alarming. But you adjust to it and it somehow becomes just another fixture of Kinshasa roads -- a pothole here, a crazy taxi there, and a beggar child approaching your window. You learn to ignore it, or give a gentle smile and move on.

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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 is present here. The embassy provides prophylaxis. Tap water is not safe to drink but the embassy provides a water distiller in every residence. You hear of occasional food-borne illnesses but we've never had any. For general medical care, the embassy medical unit is sufficient. For anything more rigorous (even including eye exams or pregnancy checkups), you'd be med evac'd to South Africa for appointments.

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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?

There's a decent amount of air pollution, especially in the dry season when there isn't frequent rain to clear the smoke from the air. Some people have seasonal allergies.

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

In my opinion, the embassy is often understaffed, the work can be stressful, and it's hard to get around the city which can feel isolating. COVID compounded those issues. There are noticeable mental health concerns in the community as a result (and they were present before COVID, too). I think anyone coming here should seriously reflect on their mental health and their most common coping mechanisms. From what I have seen, it is not uncommon to see a social drinker start to develop unhealthy drinking habits here, or for someone who occasionally has a short fuse to become much more hot-headed. Find someone (at post or back home) who can help you keep an eye on your mental health and alert you if it seems like you're doing poorly during your time here. And come here with solid hobbies or activities to help you disconnect and relieve stress.

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

There's a rainy season (about 8 months long) and a dry season (about 4 months long). Rainy season is very sunny and hot, with frequent rainstorms that cool everything off and make things humid and lush. The storms are beautiful! Dry season is warm, a bit gray, and with minimal rain.

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Expat Life:

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

The expat community here is big and somehow can feel very small and intertwined. Expect it to feel like a small town. Expat social events typically involve a good deal of drinking and complaining, in a way that feels fun and communal.

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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 is a "make your own fun" type of post. Social events are usually parties, barbecues, game nights, or other gatherings hosted at someone's house. If you are the type of person who likes to host regular gatherings or likes to organize fun parties, you'll be very appreciated here!

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

Families often do well in Kinshasa because kids are quite happy here (there's a good school, your friends live nearby, and someone always has a pool). Outings in Kinshasa demand some planning and energy. As a result, it's helpful to have a bit of a buddy system in Kinshasa. Couples can do well here if they're like-minded in wanting to experience adventures together. Singles may feel isolated if they don't make a concerted effort to find those adventure buddies early on. It can be tempting to stay home in Kinshasa, so it's important to have someone in your life who will help you get out and explore.

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4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?

It's not easy to make friends with locals. You'll need to know very good French, and most Americans don't. And you often need an "in" to know where to go to hang out with locals. The majority of social life for expats is in Gombe, the diplomatic neighborhood. It's full of bars and restaurants created by expats, catering to expats, and recommended by expats. It can be a challenge to break out of this bubble.

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

Kinshasa is neutral for LGBT expats. There isn't really a functioning government, and there are no real legal measures or figures of authority to enforce laws, including laws that might make it illegal to be LGBT. So it's safe in the sense that you'll probably never be found out by the government. I've heard there is a mild LGBT scene in expat circles. It is possible for LGBT people to have a decent life here with some basic discretion, although I imagine it is not without its challenges.

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

There are some prejudices that impact social dynamics. Black expats are often mistaken for Congolese. While there are some nice benefits to this (ability to blend in), I think there are also some harmful consequences. I have heard that at the Embassy and at residences, guards have been known to question or search Black employees more thoroughly than white expats. Additionally, because of the large and growing Chinese community in Kinshasa, Asian expats are often assumed to be Chinese. In my opinion, the Chinese government's actions in Congo have been controversial, especially around mining, and some Congolese people may have a negative bias towards Chinese people as a result.

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

If you get to travel for work, it will be some of the craziest and coolest work trips of your career. Propellor planes over jungles, rivers, and so many landscapes that look like they're straight out of National Geographic. Other highlights include exploring the fabric markets, drinking cold beers by the river rapids on hot weekends, and lots of fun and funny expat parties. And the rainstorms here are unexpectedly powerful and beautiful.

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

Chez Beki is a local Congolese restaurant that serves great grilled chicken, friend plantains, and gin and tonics. Amazing live Congolese rumba music on Fridays!

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

Standard African curio and trinkets

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

There are a lot of fun, funny, and surprising experiences to be had in Kinshasa. It just takes maintaining an open attitude, a willingness to explore, and a sense of humor. An errand to go buy car parts can easily turn into a full day adventure navigating new and exciting markets, or you might unexpectedly stumble upon wriggling caterpillars for sale at the fancy grocery store, or your drive to work might involve someone on the street trying to sell you a box full of adorable kittens. If you're up for adventure, daily life in Kinshasa will provide you with it!

Another big advantage is career progression. Congo is recognized as a challenging place to live and work, and many people coming out of this post are rewarded with promotion and a nice posting.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

Like any post that has some built-in challenges, the people who struggle here are the people who are the least flexible. If you embrace your patience, adaptability, and sense of humor, you'll do great. And most likely, you'll leave Kinshasa with a deeper well of patience and flexibility to draw from moving forward.

This place is also exponentially better with friends. It's important to work hard to find friends early on, and to keep making friends (turnover is fast here -- 2 years isn't long). It will be the difference between a bad/mediocre tour vs. a potentially great tour.

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

Maybe. It was worthwhile, but I'm happy to be moving on.

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

expectation that everything will go according to plan. There's usually a bump in the road somewhere (figuratively and literally).

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4. But don't forget your:

adventurous spirit. Exploring Kinshasa and DRC can be tough but is always worth it!

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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 Monsters" is a helpful and terrible read for understanding the brutal war. "King Leopold's Ghost" powerfully explains the country's colonial history. And the band Fulu Miziki is just fun. They make amazing drumming music while wearing costumes made out of trash, a commentary on Kinshasa's waste management problems.

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