Last month I celebrated my one year anniversary in the Congo. It’s crazy to think that this time last year I was the newbie in the expat community, trying to figure out the ins and out of Congo life, making new friends and attempting to find a job. At the time everything was new and exciting, but looking back it wasn’t exactly how I had imagined my life in Congo to be. Before arriving I was so busy thinking about settling into a new country where I knew little about the local culture and spoke even less of the official language, I failed to realise that actually most of my time would be spent with people of my own background. In Kinshasa, expats who come to live in Congo do of course integrate into the wider community as much as they can, but due to the extreme difference between our lifestyle expectations and most local residents, you end up living on the peripheries in an expat bubble.
In retrospect I think because half my daily interactions were with people I could already easily relate to, such as embassy workers, NGO staff and other expats living in the city, I settled in very quickly. Simultaneously however I was also trying to make Congolese friends, learn more about the norms of the culture and experience some of the ‘real’ Congo. Surprisingly this has not always been as easy as you might think when you live in the expat quarter of the city and are surrounded by French patisseries, Range Rovers and 4 star hotels. I found that Congo is a bizarre dual world where you live in a modern, guarded compound with access to westernised supermarkets, good restaurants and bars alongside people who survive on $1 a day.
I came across this article on the BBC website recently about spouses who follow their partners to jobs abroad and take up a new lifestyle: http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20141110-the-reluctant-expat-spouse
For me it was an interesting insight into other people’s experiences, although I cannot agree with the headline, I like to travel! The article outlines the difficulties of understanding and functioning in a new culture, which I can definitely relate to, but on hearing that a lot of people get little support and find it hard to make friends in a new community, I feel extremely lucky that my boyfriend was placed in Kinshasa.
Most people in Congo are here for development reasons and come across for short periods to work on aid projects, so there is always a ready crowd eager to socialise and integrate. But for private sector workers, I imagine it is much harder to find like-minded individuals, particularly if you are moving to a huge city like Shanghai.
The article describes a training course that the family moving to China went on in order to learn more about the culture. For me that seems ridiculous, how can someone describe a place to you that you have never had any experience of? I was lucky in that I received a familiarisation trip with my boyfriend to Congo a few months before his start date; it was a 5-day trip that allowed us to see with our own eyes the place that we would be living in for the next year. That for me was invaluable, as even after being here a year I find it difficult to explain to someone who has never been to Africa what life is truly like here.
Once I arrived I had support from the embassy where my boyfriend works and was introduced to a number of really welcoming, helpful people which as I said made settling in a lot easier. Having points of reference and people to ask advice about where to go for the best bread or how to get to the river, is exactly what you need when starting up somewhere new in any country. What they couldn’t always explain was the culture differences however. That was just something I had to learn myself and could only do so by getting out on my own and experiencing it. For example, the lack of any rules on the road, the interchangeable currency rate between US dollars and Congolese francs and how to haggle for vegetables on the street. These were a few things I had never experienced before and took a while to get used to. But eventually of course they became the norm. I have realised that in Congo, having patience and being willing to take things at a slower pace than you are used to certainly help.
I previously felt that it was my lack of French that hindered my full integration into Congolese society and kept me on the boundaries in my expat community. Living in a country where their language is your second, you miss certain idioms, subtleties and behaviours that are just natural to the residents. For Congolese people, French is also their second language, so they’re more forgiving than the French when I get my masculine and feminine nouns wrong, but they are still a few years ahead of me, so I cannot mix as freely as I would wish.
Saying this, even if my French was better, I think I’d still choose to go to the nice Italian restaurant on a Friday night with my fellow Anglophone expats instead of a more Congolese restaurant in an attempt to meet locals. Despite enjoying living in Congo, I still depend on my home comforts and links back to a westernised life, remaining in touch with home news and family and friends. Perhaps it’s because I know it is not forever that for me keeping my ‘norms’ alive is vital. On the other hand, I ‘.come to Congo and have endeavoured to take part in as much as I can that is Congolese. I think us spouses have it quite good here, a chance of something new, for a short period, yet still a taste of home if we want it. Congo has become my home not because I have brought my westernised ways here or even because I have fully understood the culture, but it is because of the friends I have made here – Africans, Americans, Europeans – for ultimately where your friends are is where your home is.
For anyone thinking of moving abroad for the first time with their partner, I definitely endorse the recommendations on the BBC website:
- Learn the language.
- Connect with your local expat community.
- Ask your partner’s company to provide pre-and post-relocation counselling. Learn to manage your expectations in advance of arrival. Most foreign countries aren’t what you expect.
- To help you meet locals, attend your partner’s company events.
- If you have children, get more involved with parent groups at their school.
Other advice I can offer is not to worry about feeling settled too soon, everyone has their own pace and you will be surrounded by people who have lived in the country for years who know exactly what they are doing, so don’t follow them. Also don’t worry about making mistakes – it’s something everyone does and without making some you won’t learn and progress. And make sure you find opportunities to laugh a lot and actually enjoy the experience for what it is.