I moved out to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) back in January of this year. Initially, the plan was to deploy for six months to work on the Ebola response. Quite quickly however I found myself working more and more on the COVID-19 outbreak until it completely took over my work. I will write soon about life in Kinshasa during the pandemic. But for now I wanted to reflect on my first impressions of the Congo.
I had only once before travelled in sub-Saharan Africa (Tanzania) so had little experience in the region. The DRC has always appealed to me. The complex social and political history, including the post-independence period – coupled with the sheer scale and beauty of the country – had always interested me. I have also wanted to work in a francophone context – and I probably needed a break from the Middle East.
Picked up at the airport, I drove through the outskirts of the city in the dark. The streets full of vendors, cars and scooters, fires and people. The drive into town from the airport is two hours on a good day, which gave me plenty of time to take in my new surroundings. Delirious but excited after the long flight.
I live in Gombe district of Kinshasa in a large compound. I was initially a bit apprehensive about living in an enclosed neighbourhood – particularly after spending 18 months in a small compound in Iraq – but the estate is quite large and backs onto the river Congo. Delightful for sunset running along the river bank, which is usually the only time you can run given the humidity and heat. Life inside the compound is far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city – but we can easily get out and about so I do not feel too removed.
The city traffic is maddening. My 3km commute to work takes anywhere between 5 minutes to over an hour. You can turn off the main boulevards to suddenly find yourself driving on a crater-filled dirt track. Economic inequality in the city is evident – particularly in Gombe where the political and economic elite spend much of their time and where many of the city’s poorest come daily to make a living. Life is clearly much tougher the further you drive away from the centre.
If I’m honest, I had few expectations of my life in Kinshasa upon arrival. I find that this is usually the best approach to travel. I have therefore been really pleasantly surprised. It has helped that I already knew a few people in Kinshasa from previous roles – and everyone in the development sector has a friend of a friend in the DRC. So I was quickly meeting people and shown around town.
Leaving dreary winter London to suddenly find myself at parties on rooftops or in tropical gardens was quite disorientating but a welcome change. I visited a number of bars around the city centre in my first few weeks. A bar called Majestic River – a boat on the river Congo – has become a favourite, particularly for the fantastic sunset views across to Brazzaville. There are a number of fun clubs, including La Creche and Millionaire. I had heard much about the Kinshasa music scene before arriving. I attended a few concerts, including Singuila performing at l’Institut francais. But I know I have barely scratched the surface and want to experience much more local music.
The restaurant scene in Kinshasa is more varied that I had imagined but it is surprisingly hard to find Congolese cuisine (I think I need more local advice on this quest). There are numerous Lebanese restaurants catering to the city’s large Lebanese community, including my favourite Le Palais. Another favourite is Loving Hut, which serves vegan and vegetarian pan-Asian cuisine in a beautiful garden. I also had one of the best pizzas of my life at A Casa Mia – albeit pricey at $30.
I have tried to take up some new hobbies. I joined a fantastic African dance class with live music, which is held twice weekly by Patricia at the Maison de France. I took up weekly pottery classes with colleagues by an instructor from the Académie des Beaux-Arts. There is little more calming that playing with clay for two hours on a sunny Sunday morning with some coffee and gentle jazz playing in the background. I have not yet got around to exploring the art markets of Kinshasa – but I am really keen to buy some work from local artists. The collections at the Académie des Beaux-Arts have inspired a real interest in exploring further the more creative side of the city.
The DRC boasts some of the most amazing wildlife in the world. In the short period before the Coronavirus lockdown was put in place, I did not have the time to see much outside of Kinshasa. I did visit the Lola Ya Bonobo though, which is the world’s only sanctuary for bonobos. Just over an hour’s drive from Gombe, the sanctuary protects rescued bonobos – usually those that have been sold into the pet trade once their parents are killed for bush meat. They are then raised in the semi-wild sanctuary before being slowly released into their natural rainforest habitat. The baby bonobos are unbelievably cute – and heartbreakingly vulnerable. I also visited Lac Ma Vallée – a scenic lake and nature park not far from Lola Ya Bonobo – where you can enjoy a number of water sports and other activities in the forest.
In late February, I took my first trip across the country to visit Goma in the east. Two hours away on a UN flight. A lovely city on the shores of Lake Kivu. I was there for a week to meet partners and work with colleagues at our office in the east. The climate is markedly different to Kinshasa – much cooler and less humid but still bright. I found myself feeling much calmer there than I did in Kinshasa. Work days were busy and longer but also slightly less pressured. I was really fortunate to find out that a friend that I met in Iraq would be passing through Goma on her way out of DRC. We had a lovely goodbye dinner for her at a hotel along the coast – and caught up on all things that had passed since our time together in Erbil.
The border with Rwanda was not far from where I was staying so I could not resist the temptation to cross over to Gisenyi for one night on the lake. The streets are instantly calmer (and better paved) the moment you step into Rwanda. I took a motorbike taxi (clutching my suitcase) for thirty minutes to Paradise Malahide; spending the night in a little cabin next to the shore. I watched the fishermen head out for a night on the lake as the sun set. A beer in hand, I spent the evening alone reading my book and watching up with my mum on FaceTime. The night away left me feeling more rested that I would have imagined. I woke up to the sound of the fishermen singing as they came into shore. After breakfast, I hopped back across the border to fly onto Kinshasa.
I only had six weeks in Kinshasa before everything began to close down due to Coronavirus. I have so much more to explore and learn about the country. I really cannot wait for the city to slowly go back to normal later this year so I can continue exploring this beautiful and diverse country.