When my husband told me that he was accepted into the State Department, I immediately got visions of sipping espresso by the Coliseum, taking my son for walks by the Seine, exploring the ruins of Egypt and many more glamorous adventures that my family would have. Then came flag day and I learned about my Congolese future. I believe my first words were “I’m sorry, what?” Only to be followed by, “No seriously, where are we going?”
Eight months later and more packing and buying than I ever thought was possible (I was accused of being a survivalist in three Northern Virginia stores!), husband, dog, baby and I landed in Kinshasa, Congo. Three hours, two armored cars and a flat tire later we were at our new home.
We spent two years in Kinshasa and it was a fascinating place. I’m often asked about living in Congo and so I put together a list of things that I learned while serving there.
- Have realistic expectations - Before moving to Congo, I had visited one country in Africa; South Africa. Congo is not South Africa. If I expected it to be similar, I would have been devastated. The best thing you can do is do your research and learn what life is like there. The most unhappy people are the ones who walked in with unrealistic expectations.
- Learn defensive driving - Driving in many parts of the world is like an elaborate game of Frogger. You never know where the cars are coming from, what they are going to do or what some of these drivers are thinking. I’ve never seen a two-lane road become five lines because three cars don’t want to wait in traffic and instead drive on the sidewalk and down the middle. On a good day, it is a crazy, car racing video game style adventure. On a bad day, I teach my toddler new words that would make the Marines blush.
- Practice your math skills and have a working currency app - I haven’t used the math skills required at some of the stores since middle school. In Congo, the groceries were all given a code and at the end of the aisle there was a price sheet corresponding with the product and a price. Matching up the item with the code, then converting the francs to dollars hurt my brain.
- Everything takes so much longer - Your errands are not going to be a quick experience. Grocery shopping can be an entire day process because going to one store isn’t really an option. You have to go to the vegetable lady on the street for your fruits and veggies, then one market has better bread and the other one has canned goods you need. To get everything on your list it might take shopping at four or five different places. This experience only intensified my deep love of Target.
- Sometimes the logic train misses the station and that’s ok - You will experience a problem with an easy solution. It is your solution and you believe it is the best and fastest way to fix this problem. However, whoever you are dealing with has a different, more complicated solution. You can’t understand why they aren’t just doing what you need them to do. It can be infuriating. Hear this...you are a guest in their country. They have a way to solve issues and it works for them. Let them have that and accept that you have no control. I have had this conversation with myself at every post. And sometimes daily!
- Appreciate this opportunity - I’ve served in hardship and luxury posts. I can tell you that the people that I met at the harder living post (both embassy and locals) are some of the more generous, kind and gracious people that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Even in the most undeveloped countries, you will meet amazing people, have unlimited potential and a multitude of opportunities to make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate.
The main takeaway from living in Kinshasa was an appreciation of how lucky I was to be an American. Ten years later, I still remember that every time I am in a grocery store or getting frustrated with a first world problem in America. Although Kinshasa wasn’t my first choice when I started this foreign service life, I wouldn’t trade it for anywhere else in the world.