Kin in the time of Corona

Life is starting to get back to normal in Kinshasa. But, as elsewhere, the last six months have been incredibly challenging for all of us. As the world shut its borders and life was put on lockdown, I was in Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of the Congo) where I have been living since January this year. It has been a very different experience from that shared by my family, friends and colleagues in Europe. So I wanted to share some of my memories of life during pandemic from a slightly different perspective.

The first case of Coronavirus in the DRC was recorded on 10 March 2020. All early cases were from international travellers but soon enough local transmission began. The President announced a state of emergency and the closing of all international borders (land, air and sea) a few weeks later. Many organisations, including my own, decided to draw staff back home before international flights stopped to ensure their safety. At the time, it was not clear how the outbreak would evolve across Africa and how long borders would be closed. I was asked to stay behind with a small group of colleagues to support our response to the crisis.

Gombe – the Kinshasa district where much of the international community lives and works – was an early hotspot for the outbreak. The DRC Government decided to shut the district down for three weeks in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. Everything was closed and all residents were ordered to stay at home, with the exception of a small number of key workers. We were told to stock up on food and essentials as it would not be possible to buy anything during this period – easy enough for us but challenging for poorer residents who lack the funds or storage to bulk buy food. Whilst we were not allowed around the city, I live in a large compound on the edge of Gombe that meant I was still able to walk around – particularly helpful since I had adopted a colleague’s dog (Digby) when everyone left.

I was so fortunate that I had a great bunch of colleagues that stayed behind. Unlike friends and family back home, we were able to socialise as long as did not leave the compound – almost like being in one big household. We quickly established a regular routine of shared dinners, drinks, movies and game nights (I have become a huge fan of Settlers of Catan!). We even started organising regular circuits to make exercise a little more interesting given the limitations of the compound.

Slowly shops began to open up again. Nevertheless, access in and out of Gombe was heavily restricted for months so our world felt very small. Mask wearing in public was mandatory but prevention measures were not very well enforced outside the centre of the city. What did impress me, however, was the quick introduction of temperature checks and hand sanitising across Gombe – lessons learnt in part from the Ebola outbreak. This was certainly much more than I had seen from many cities in Europe. Supermarkets had even set-up disinfectant showers that you had to walk through before going shopping (picture below). But in a city as large (and as poor) as Kinshasa (16 million people), physical distancing remains a challenge wherever you go, particularly outside the city centre where markets are an essential part of life and livelihoods, and where people tend to live with large families in small dwellings.

Bars and restaurants remained closed until the end of July so life was quite quiet for some time. We worked and lived in the compound almost all the time. Not knowing when we would be able to get home to see partners, families and friends was emotionally challenging at points – but I had a great support network amongst my colleagues. Whilst repetitive, there was also something really lovely about only really having a small community with which to spend your time. Like one long rainy Saturday afternoon with friends, it encourages you to be creative in the way you spend time with each other. It also gives you the opportunity – which is difficult in our busy, thinly-spread lives in big cities – to form much deeper connections with people. Sometimes having lots of time, and little choice about how you spend it, can be quite liberating. You invest deeply in the people around you – and open yourself to doing new things. An opportunity to shoot the breeze with folks that you would not otherwise have spent a lot of time around. The restrictions did however make it hard to make new friends, particularly meeting Congolese people, which was one of my early priorities when moving out to Kinshasa.

By the summer, my organisation had been able to put a system in place that meant we were able to get home for short breaks. This also enabled other colleagues to come in, which shook things up a little. It was great to see some new faces and helped build resilience amongst those who had stayed behind. At the start of the response, we were working long hours and many weekends so I was starting to feel drained. By the time I got home, I had not had a break since January.

The national state of emergency and lock-down measures were lifted in August. The recorded number of daily COVID-19 cases in Kinshasa has lowered – although the numbers are increasing in other provinces – so the Government here is confident that the country is over the worst of the outbreak (or at least the first wave). International borders have opened and people have quickly come back from overseas, including some of our colleagues. Preventative measures are being taken seriously in Gombe – and at the airport – but otherwise you would be forgiven for thinking that COVID-19 is no longer a problem here. The DRC – like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa – appears to avoided some of the early, catastrophic predictions about the direct impact of COVID-19. However, the country remains highly vulnerable to the wider socio-economic impacts caused by the pandemic, including increasing levels of food insecurity.

I am now coming to the end of my time in Kinshasa. I feel some sadness that I have not been able to see as much of the Congo – and the neighbouring region – as I had hoped when I flew out here eight months ago. I have not met as many people as I would have liked. But I have found the work to be fascinating – and have formed really close friendships with those I was fortunate to spend time with here. I have also been able to experience this global pandemic but a very unique vantage point, which has helped me to learn much about the country and myself.

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