Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo Report of what it's like to live there - 01/06/14

Personal Experiences from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo 01/06/14


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

Fourth tour Foreign Service Officer but first in Africa. Lived in West Africa, Asia, and Europe in childhood.

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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?

Takes a full 24 hours to get to/from the East coast. Usual itinerary is an overnight flight to Brussels or Paris and then an 8 or so hour flight to Kinshasa. From Kinshasa to the East coast, it's an overnight flight to Paris or Brussels then a morning flight across the Atlantic.

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3. How long have you lived here?

About 18 months (arrived June 2012).

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

U.S. Embassy posting.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Embassy housing is comfortable and spacious with most homes/apartments either having a personal pool or access to one on the compound. Single family homes within the Gombe district are getting more difficult to find so incoming families may be faced with the choice of a (spacious) apartment closer in or a free-standing probably very large and luxurious house with garden and pool a distance away. Traffic is usually at its worst mid-day but poor road conditions, broken-down vehicles, and aggressive driving mean roads can be clogged at any time. Most commute times are between 15-30 minutes. The newer housing by the international school (TASOK) could take an hour or more.

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

Western-style groceries are easily accessible and well stocked with imported goods but very expensive (US$25/quart of strawberries, US$15/head of broccoli, US$20/small frozen pizza, US$20/small block of cheese, US$5/loaf of bread, etc). Quality of meat varies enormously - and inconsistently - from store to store and most stores' inventories change frequently, necessitating numerous stops to complete the full shopping list. Paper goods and cleaning goods are expensive and of generally poor quality. The open air markets are the best bet for fresh, affordable produce but you either need plenty of time to navigate it yourself or have your domestic staff do the market shopping.

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

Paper goods and bug repellent, primarily. With DPO, it is very easy to order necessities online and have them shipped if you can't find them locally or they are simply too expensive.

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

No U.S.-brand fast food restaurants but plenty of fried chicken or schwarma options. Everything is expensive with a cheap, greasy lunch easily running US$10. Plenty of fine dining options with Indian, Chinese, French, and much more cuisines. Lunch will run US$25 for cheapest options and dinner quickly mount to US$50/person without wine.

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

Biting bugs of every kind have been the bane of my existence in Kinshasa. I seem to be more stricken than most, however. Mosquitos, biting flies, chiggers, no-see-ums, and any other type of small, flying biting toxin-ridden things are everywhere, year round. The ankles are particularly at risk, I find. Bug repellent with high levels of DEET are effective but must be shipped in - a difficulty with embassy shipping restrictions. Cockroaches are a fact of life at home as are many other creepy crawlies and mice. Poison, traps, and sprays are a constant, especially in the kitchen. Malaria is a real concern and bed-nets are strongly recommended, especially for children.

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Daily Life:

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

Embassy DPO service is excellent, by and large, and a real morale booster.

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

Very available and quite cheap. You can easily find yourself hiring a full staff of cook, housekeeper, driver, gardner, nanny etc and then the problems are mostly personnel issues rather than financial. Contracts and clear rules are recommended to ensure staff and employers agree on duties, responsibilities, vacations, and any additional costs that may arise such as transportation fees, food allowance, school fees, medical care, etc.

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3. 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 wouldn't recommend using credit cards anywhere other than the major hotels. There are 2 or 3 ATMs that can be used at large hotels or larger department stores.

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

French is required with very few locals speaking English. Congolese speak Lingala, not French to each other, and while it is not a requirement at all, you'll get better prices and reception if you have at least a basic knowledge.

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

I would imagine extreme difficulty. The Embassy and housing are not ADA compliant and the city is very difficult to navigate without any physical constraints. There is a very large physically disabled population that crowds the streets in makeshift wheelchairs, crutches, and other crude aids but that doesn't mean it is easy.

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

Affordable but not at all safe. Embassy personnel are not permitted to take any form of public transport.

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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?

Four-wheel drive is a necessity as well as high clearance. Many major roads within Gombe have been recently paved but successive rainy seasons will likely recreate potholes all too quickly. The vast majority of roads in and out of Kinshasa are unpaved and most are ungraded as well.

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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 available and expensive. Speeds are adequate for Skype and basic browsing/shopping but not for streaming video. Photo uploading and video downloading are possible but may take a few overnight sessions. Cost is US$100/month minimum with US$200/month more likely. Frequent power outtages and lost signals in the rainy season can be expected.

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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?

Embassy personnel, direct hires and family members, are assigned cell phones for business and personal use. There are no landlines in homes.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

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

Work: Jacket and tie for the men with the jacket usually off but available if needed for meetings. Slacks, summer-weight dresses (sleeveless ok), blouses for the women. Street: Quite casual for most although upper class Congolese are usually dressed quite well. Many expats have shirts, dresses, and skirts tailored from local fabrics. Above the knee skirts and sleeveless shirts/dresses are not a problem. Would not recommend camisole-style tops or very short skirts or shorts.

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Health & Safety:

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

Kinshasa is a high-crime urban city with high populations of street kids and urban gangs looking for easy crimes of opportunity. Unlocked car doors will be opened (while driving) and bags or anything else reachable grabbed. Very few areas of the city are safe to walk at night although some of the more frequented expat areas are relatively safe if with a group and it's not too late. Beggars are common but not aggressive.

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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 the biggest concern but are any number of diseases, infections, and parasites to cause trouble. Medical care is almost non-existant with most health concerns not treatable by simple antibiotics medevacced to South Africa.

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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?

Air quality is moderate, somewhat dusty in the dry season. Burning trash and leaves is common so you can find yourself engulfed in thick smoke briefly if the wind shifts. Many vehicles belch black smoke so, again, you can find yourself engulfed briefly until you can pass.

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

Weather patterns are far more liveable than I had feared. The dry season (March/April - September/October) is very moderate with daytime temperatures in the upper 70s to 80s and fairly low humidity. The rainy season starts in September and gets properly going in November/December. January and February are the hottest months with daytime highs well into the 90s and high 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?

We have used TASOK (The American School in Kinshasa), Busy Bees (UK-run, English-language pre-school for ages 2-5), Little Jewels (Indian-run English language pre-school with a Montessori program) and Lycee Prince de Liege (Belgian-run French language pre-school through high school). Each has been quite good and we have had no serious complaints about any. I only have experience with the elementary grades at TASOK. The teachers are enthusiastic and focused on imagination and instilling a love of learning more than on strict academic rigor. However, my now-second grader has made leaps and bounds in the 3 Rs and loves school.

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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?

See above. There are a number of both English-language and French-language pre-schools available as well as plentiful domestic help. Pre-schools run from US$3,000-$5,000/child per year.

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

TASOK offers a number of sports programs and there are numerous private lessons and clubs as well. Horseback riding/stables are expensive but available and good at the Cercle Hippique de Kinshasa.

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Expat Life:

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

Very large with a lot of variety in the morale. Most in Kinshasa know what they signed up for and find the fun, excitement, and interest. Medical or housing problems can bring a tour down fast, however. Huge UN mission, none of whom are allowed to bring family, so they are always an active group looking for fun.

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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?

Much of the social life revolves around gatherings at homes, pools, and gardens or at sport or expat clubs. Many Embassies have monthly or weekly events such as BBQs, quiz nights, or jazz nights. The weekend nightlife is vibrant.

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

Younger families usually do well in Kinshasa as the limited leisure options are not such a problem for the younger set. There are very few green spaces so we are very happy to have a large yard and do, on occasion, feel we are in a gilded cage. Boat trips on the river, weekend camping and daytrips all help and there are a few hidden spots in Kinshasa that help you get away from the grime: Kinshasa Botanical Garden, Presidential Parc in Ngaliema, riverside picnics. With a bit of perserverance and willingness to get lost, you can find outings.

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

Women are targeted more for theft and harrassment.

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

I have been fortunate to travel extensively for work purposes, a benefit not readily available for personal travel due to the expense and lack of safe airlines. The large expat population and close-knit Embassy community mean one's social calendar can almost be overfull. There is good school choice for kids starting at age 2 or 3. Boating excursions on the Congo River are a wonderful respite from the grit and dust of Kinshasa and make for a lovely day of sun and water. Camping trips are fun and social events. Weekend trips to Zongo Falls, hiking up riverbeds to gorgeous waterfalls, visiting the bonobos, and the botanical gardens are all fun trips (which is nice as they are among the only easy trips near Kinshasa that are viable).

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

Kinshasa has a fairly standard list of outings so not a lot of variety but we have enjoyed all of them: Zongo Falls (about 4-5 hour drive away), camping (about 2 hour drive), Kisantu Botanical Gardens (about 2-3 hour drive), Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary (about 2-3 hour drive), Kinshasa Botantical Garden (downtown), Parc Presidential de Mont Ngaliema (in Kinshasa), Mbudi Nature Cercle Recreatif (about 1 hour away along the river), river outings (rent a boat and head for a sandbar for a day of grilling and swimming), and, of course, hoping a boat to Brazzaville.

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

Pagne fabrics, art, masks, scultptures, furniture, many, many tchotkes. Not cheap, however, and not all of good quality.

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

The DRC is a fascinating country, full of contradictions and difficulties, but never boring. It is a genuine hardship post but we have found daily life in Kinshasa to be quite livable with almost everything available, albeit for a price. The weather is not at all oppressive with temperatures in the upper 70s/low 80s (F) during the dry season (April - September) and, while much more humid, rarely above low-mid-90s during the rainy season (Sept/Oct - Mar/Apr). The small slice of Kinshasa in which most expats spend the vast majority of their time is easy to get around, filled with good restaurants, has a lively nightlife and music scene, offers plenty of sports and other clubs for gatherings, and has a number of western-style shops.

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9. Can you save money?

Yes, until you travel. Flights out of the DRC are extraordinarily expensive but most find it important to travel either back to the U.S. or to Europe, South Africa, East Africa to get away at least once a year at that can eat up all your savings very quickly.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

Any day can bring extraordinary joy and wonder at what is possible or frustration and despair at what is not.

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

Absolutely and I recommend Kinshasa as a tough but rewarding post. But I don't think I'd be tempted to do a second tour.

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

Winter clothes, high heels, inflexibility, expectation that your car, clothes, or belongings will come through unscathed.

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4. But don't forget your:

Bug spray, adaptability, patience, and willingness to laugh through it all.

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