It Makes You Work To Love It: African American Shares Life In DRC

Adiya pictured with her daughter, moved to Kindshasa, DRC almost two years ago.

Adiya pictured with her daughter, moved to Kindshasa, DRC almost two years ago.

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on your move to drc

Hi! Where in DRC do you live and how long have you lived there?

I currently live in Kinshasa, the capital. In August it will be 2 years.

When did you first visit the African continent and what were your first impressions?

I have to make the disclaimer that my first time on the continent was while visiting family friends in Liberia in 1996. It was during a brief period of calm in the middle of years of fighting and civil war, so some of my first impressions definitely resembled the stereotypical images that people have of Africa being war-ridden and distressed but after we left Liberia, I had (and still have) such a strong desire to return for years because I experienced so much beauty, love and community while I was there.

We had a stopover in Abidjan, Ivory Coast and then after Abidjan we flew to Monrovia, Liberia. We were supposed to take Air I’voire from Abidjan to Monrovia and when we arrived at the airport the flight had left a few hours early without notifying the passengers. My dad had to argue with Air I’voire for what seemed like hours to get his money back.

I remember being so confused that an airplane could just leave without all of its passengers. I don’t remember exactly how my dad explained it, but I think it was something in line with the "TIA" (This is Africa) philosophy.

We made it to Liberia the next day. I knew that there had been a war but that was such an abstract concept to me. I remember landing at the airport and there were men in uniform with really big guns. I had never seen anything like that. But from the plane, I could also see my father’s friend, who I called my uncle, his family and several members of the church singing and holding a huge welcome banner. I think that pretty much encapsulates my experience in Liberia overall.

I remember seeing bombed out buildings and hearing the adults talk quietly about people who had been killed in previous wars. Yet I also remember really beautiful moments: my uncle joking that when my aunt gets mad at him, she puts too much pepper in his meal, the power going and standing in the backyard experiencing a level of darkness that was almost comforting, sitting in a tailor’s atelier and touching a very stiff light purple dyed fabric that was eventually turned into a dress for me.

How did you end up living in DRC? What are you doing professionally there?

I came to DRC to work at the American school here. I wasn’t specifically looking to come to DRC but I wanted to teach abroad. I had applied to a number of schools and this was a position that was offered to me. 

Would you say DRC has a lot of entrepreneurial opportunities? How easy is it for a foreigner to start up a business?

I’m probably the least entrepreneurial person ever so I don’t know much about business opportunities, but I do know that there’s a lot of money to be made here. The majority of my students, who aren’t the children of embassy or NGO workers, are the children of business people.

Congo is one of the most resource rich countries in the world so a lot of people make their money in coltan and diamonds but that comes at the cost of many lives and a lot of shady dealings.

In Kinshasa, a lot of people I know who are in business make their money in real estate and retail. In general, Kinshasa is the type of place that you should come to with a plan or connections to people who are already here. I think for a foreigner to just show up and start a business would be quite difficult but with connections it could be possible.

Please describe your experience immigration wise, of moving to DRC.

Because I came to work for an international school, I was shielded from a lot of the drama of moving. Housing was already provided. I also received a great deal of help with getting visas, work permits and such.

Any advice for potential expats? What industries are potential hiring the most, if any?

There is an active civil war going on in the eastern part of the country so for an expat (sadly) the biggest industry would probably be working for an NGO/international development organization, but there are definitely other opportunities.

Kinshasa has a very wealthy upper class and people are increasingly setting up businesses to cater to that. I recently met someone who moved here to set up a leisure travel company. They have deals to places like Zanzibar, Seychelles, and São Tomé and Príncipe. I’ve met someone who manages plantations, wine importers etc. I think a lot of new business is an attempt to cater to the upper class.

on everyday life

What is everyday life like in DRC for you?

I live on the same campus as my school. The campus is a walled 40 acre compound. During the week, I don’t leave campus much. I can see my classroom from my house and I don’t have to deal with commute which is a blessing because traffic can be very crazy in Kin.

The US State Department warns Americans against visiting DRC. How does your experience compare? Did you have any reservations about moving there and if so, have your feelings changed since living there?

I think the key is to come to DRC with a plan. It’s not the type of country that you just pop into and figure out upon arrival. It’s still in the middle of a civil war and although Kinshasa is relatively stable other parts of the country are significantly affected.

I can’t say that I had any reservations about moving. However, I did receive some flak for moving here. My family was very supportive and my parents and sister have come to visit. I had some friends who were very concerned and one who questioned my choice to move with my child.

I had a stable job teaching with the Boston Public schools and they just couldn’t understand why I would give that up to move to a “war zone”. I think one of the more uncomfortable moments was when a father of a former student who immigrated from Sierra Leone called to ask questions about another high school in Boston. When I mentioned that I would be moving to Kinshasa, he was taken aback and asked if I knew what was going on in the country. When I explained that I did, he said, “you’re crazy.”

Kinshasa is a family post for the US embassy so although the State Department warns people against traveling here, it’s still deemed safe enough for families to come to. There are several embassy employees here with their families and I teach many of their children.

I would never say that things are always easy. DRC is currently in the midst of a lot of political tension because it seems that the current president is not going to step down. Last year there were protests that turned violent and we were put on lockdown for almost a week. When something like that happens, you can’t really shield your child from the realities of the country they’re living in. My daughter is very aware of the political situation and I wouldn’t want her to live in a country and exist in a bubble that shields her from the realities of what goes on around her. At the same time, we both came here with the privilege of American citizenship and the knowledge that if things got really bad, we would have a way out. It’s also important to me that she recognize the privileges that come with her citizenship.

There are many things that I wasn’t prepared for. There’s so much going on in terms of political activism. There are people who are literally putting their lives on the line to fight for basic human rights.

Back in Boston, I was very involved in my community and the neighborhood that I grew up in and being engaged and active has always been one of my values. Here, I operate as an observer, partially because as an outsider, I don’t feel it’s my place to be opinionated. Yet in all honesty, a lot of the activism that I did in Boston would be dangerous for me to do here so my lack of involvement is really born out of fear. It’s a very strange and uncomfortable feeling when you realize that while you’re aware, you’re also disengaged from a lot of what’s going on around you. Again, that discomfort is a privilege because in the larger scheme of things, what happens in DR Congo doesn’t affect my mobility or well-being.

I know we won’t stay in Kinshasa forever, but I have absolutely no reservations or regrets about our choice to come here.

A billboard, that translates to "Never Betray Congo" in English.

A billboard, that translates to "Never Betray Congo" in English.

How were you welcomed as an African American? Or as an American in general?

Being an African American here is complex. You’re still considered an American but there’s a little something more to it. That can work against you or it can work in your favor.

About a month after I moved here, I got carded at the front gate of my compound. After producing my ID card I was questioned about which house I actually lived in, which was kind of ridiculous because there are only about 40 people living on campus and only two of them are black.

I’ve also gone shopping with white co-workers and been stopped to have my receipt checked while they were allowed to leave freely. It’s hard to get mad because I had to question whether I was angry that I hadn’t been afforded that expat privilege because of the color of my skin or whether I was angry that a white expat had the privilege overall while the average Congolese person does not.

Kinshasa is very economically segregated and there are certain spaces where being a foreigner isn’t totally safe. This is not because the area isn’t safe but because foreigners are often seen as dollar signs which makes you vulnerable to people with ill intentions.

I don’t think people assume I’m Congolese. My French is developing but still pretty horrific. I have dreadlocks and I’ve only ever met maybe three Congolese women with dreadlocks.

I do think being black makes me stick out just a little bit less. I feel like I get harassed (just a little bit) less by people wanting money or for bribes by police officers when I’m driving.

What do you love the most about living in DRC?

I really love the Congo River. At one point, Kinshasa was known as Kin la Belle (now people jokingly call it Kin la Poubelle…which means “trash can”) and there are these spaces that have survived the instability in the country for years.

There’s a hotel along the Congo River that I love to visit. It looks like they built the pool and restaurant area and then started to build the skeleton of the hotel and then just stopped. I don’t know how old it is but it looks like something that was built in the 70’s. When you walk in there’s a pool and then there’s a huge lion’s head with peeling paint.

You walk down a flight and that leads you to a dining area that overlooks the river. They never consistently have what’s on the menu and the waitresses always take about 15 minutes to check and see if they have what you’ve ordered but it’s one of the most peaceful moments I’ve experienced in Kinshasa. There is this mixture of calm as you’re looking out over the river and slight annoyance because it shouldn’t really take 20 minutes to get two beers and a tonic water.

Easiest things to adjust to?

I don’t know that there’s necessarily anything that’s easy to adjust to. I love Kinshasa because it makes you work to love it. It’s not going to roll out the red carpet for you. You have to decide to appreciate the city and then it rewards you.

Most difficult things to adjust to?

When I first got here traffic and dealing with corrupt police officers. I think there’s a hormone you give off when you first get here and corrupt police officers can identify it and think, “Let’s pull this car over for nothing. They look like they’ll get scared and give us some money.” Two years in and I haven’t gotten pulled over in a while but interactions with the police are still very nerve-wracking.

I also will never adjust to seeing children begging on the street or at traffic intersections. I don’t give money. I do give food when I have it. But I haven’t developed the ability to not be unsettled by the fact that there’s not really anything I can do to alleviate the situation.

What is your social life like in DRC?

I’m the single mother of a ten year old, so I try my best to have a social life that revolves not only around family time but also mommy time. There’s not a whole lot to do in the city for children so it’s been really important for me to connect with the parents of children in my daughter's class. Play dates are the perfect remedy to a boring Saturday. I also try to do outings with other families so we’ve taken day and weekend trips to the Bonobo sanctuary, Zongo Falls, and other places in and around the city.

Zongo Falls

Zongo Falls

When it comes to mommy time, my social life consists of a mix of dinners with friends and dancing. I have made a solid group of friends here. I do regret that I don’t have more Congolese friends. I have a few, but not a lot. I think a lot of that has to do with my poor French. I’m working on it.

Can you share a few details on the cost of living in the community that you live in?

Kinshasa is expensive! I think the number of NGO and embassy workers, coupled with the cost of importing just makes everything terribly expensive. Since I live in school provided housing, I don’t pay utilities. I do however know that my modest two bedroom, one bathroom house just outside of downtown Kinshasa could easily be rented for $2300 a month. There are certainly cheaper options. But if you come looking for a place that’s fully secured, with a back-up generator and consistent access to water, then you’re definitely going to pay a hefty price.

I probably spend about $500 a month on groceries for two people. I try to get all of my produce from local markets.  At the supermarkets, I avoid imported products altogether but I still end up spending far more than I did when I lived in Boston.

I borrow a car from the school and pay based on mileage so that saves me some money. I probably spend most of my money on flights out of Kinshasa during vacation time (getting out of Kinshasa is very expensive). The cheapest flight is to Johannesburg and that will probably run you about $500. Even getting to the other side of the country (Goma, Lumumbashi etc.) can cost you about $700. 

Did you always dream of living abroad?

I don’t know that I always dreamed of it but right after I had my daughter, I had this overwhelming desire to move abroad. I felt like there was so much value to the different cultures my parents introduced me to and I really wanted to raise my daughter overseas.

When she was six, I moved into my parent’s house because I felt like I was stagnant and either needed to save money to buy a house, go back to school or go abroad. After two years, I felt like school and a house could wait. My parents were and are still healthy. My daughter was old enough, so I decided to go abroad.

Best advice for someone who wants to move to an African nation?

Do your research! I have met two expats who moved to Kinshasa because of a great experience they had in another African country. When they got the opportunity to come to Kinshasa they jumped into it with the expectations that they were going to replicate that experience. One is very happy here. The other one knew about two months in that this was not for them and ended up leaving after a year (only because they had to complete a year by contract). I think they both recognize their folly, despite the different outcomes. I’ve now been able to visit nine different African countries and while there are some similarities, every experience has been incredibly different. Africa is INCREDIBLY diverse and it’s about figuring out what countries work for you.

Always look for the silver lining, manage your expectations, listen, observe and be patient. I know these are all very different pieces of advice but I’ve had so many situations where I had to employ all three in order to keep myself sane. I think anyone who has spent most of their life in western nations recognizes that things work differently in Africa (at least in the countries I’ve visited). Everything doesn’t run to your desired level of efficiency. It can sometimes feel like everyone is trying to get something out of you.

My daughter also has dreadlocks and when we go out I’ve found that Congolese women stare at us, a lot of times in a way that looks a bit like disgust. For both of us, it was really uncomfortable and I found myself getting doubly irritated because I recognized how uncomfortable and self-conscious it was making her. I kind of reached a breaking point where I found myself confronting two women while in the supermarket (not my finest hour…but I think every person moving to another country has at least one breakdown moment).

When I checked in with a friend (he was a Congolese male, so I do wonder if I’d get a different response from a Congolese female), he said that sometimes what looks like disgust is really just curiosity because there are so few women and even fewer children in Kinshasa with locks. I explained this to my daughter and while I think she’s still adjusting to it, I also think that it’s been a healthy lesson in learning how to adjust to different cultural practices.

Overlooking the Congo River.

Overlooking the Congo River.

While his explanation helped me to understand, it wasn’t necessarily comforting. It’s very easy to have repetitive negative experiences in different situations and decide that your negative experiences are what’s wrong with the entire culture. I’ve found my happy medium. When I find women staring at my daughter or myself, I make eye contact with them. Sometimes people have smiled at me. Sometimes they look away and sometimes they continue staring. While this might sound a little hippy-ish, the eye contact helps me to recognize that every person I’m dealing with is an individual human being. It keeps me from saying something like, “Ugh…all Congolese women have an attitude problem”.

I don’t know that I’ll ever get used to the staring, but I recognize my discomfort and have found a way to approach that discomfort in a way that is both respectful but also comforting. For me the key has been to try to maintain an open mind while also being very clear about my limits. 

What would you say to encourage more African Americans to visit DRC or the African continent at large? Do you think it is an important visit and if so, why?

While I do think it’s important to visit DRC, I wouldn’t extend that suggestion to everyone. I think appreciating DRC requires an open mind and I know some people who would have a hard time with that.

DRC to me is about recognizing contrasts. On one hand you have a country of rumba music, Patrice Lumumba, Rumble in the Jungle, the Kimbanguist Symphony, which for a long time was the only all-black symphony in the world. At the same time, it’s the one of the most prominent examples of how colonialism and general international greed has major and in many cases devastating effects on a country.

I also think it’s important to visit the continent at large especially as a member of the African diaspora. You have to go recognizing that you are a product of the country that you were born in but there are connections to be made and lessons to be learned.

What has living in the DRC taught you? Or how has it changed you?

I think it’s also taught me to put myself out there. I have travelled but every time I’ve gone somewhere, I’ve been able to connect with people. I came to Congo knowing one person. I’ve had to work hard to develop a healthy social circle.

I think living in DRC has taught me to always reflect on and find the value in an experience. Adjusting has not always been easy but I appreciate that living here has forced me to stretch myself in many ways. I’m learning to appreciate the discomfort that I feel at times.

Is there somewhere we can follow your experience? 

I’m working on it!

Adiya's reflections were like reading out of an internationally acclaimed novel. We hope she continues to share as we would love to follow her experiences! Thank you Adiya!

Enjoyed this interview? Read Dewey's experience of living and marrying in DRC here!