Congo is most likely not the first destination that pops into your head when thinking of traveling or moving abroad. Cristina from Drive My Car, however, did it and moved to Congo for 2 years.
Find out how life really is in Congo as an expat, what challenges she faced and what her favourite food is.
Hi Cris, tell us about yourself…
Hi! My name is Cristina, I’m from Turin, Italy, but I’ve been an expat for 7 years now. I lived in London and West Africa – Congo and Angola – from where I’m currently writing.
Three things I love: labradors, the ’60s and foreign languages (besides Italian I speak 4 more and I’m studying a fifth).
Three things I don’t like: driving, Zumba and parmesan (oh yeah. Despite being Italian!).
While in Europe I was a PR and Marketing consultant, in Africa I turned into an English teacher, a runner (I’ll hopefully hit my first marathon in November!) and a travel writer.
What was the main reason for moving to Congo Brazzaville?
My husband works in the oil&gas field and he got a good job offer over there. ‘Would you like to move to the Congo’ he asked me? ‘Yep, if it’s not for too long’ – I said. So we shut our apartment in Milan, packed a lot of Italian food and flew to Africa.
We lived in Congo Brazzaville for two years and, after that, two more years in Angola from where I’m currently writing. And I said not for too long!
Is it easy to connect with locals (make friends) or are there any (language/cultural) barriers?
The official language here is French, so I had no issue as I’m almost fluent. Otherwise, yes, I would have find it difficult, as it is really hard to find a local speaking any other language.
Actually, they also speak Munukutuba – a Bantu dialect – but… nope, I was not into it and I only know one word: mbote(goodmorning)
How about the cost of living?
People often have a perception that the cost of living in a third world country is very low. Actually it’s quite the opposite. If you wanna live in a proper, nicely built house, the rent is quite high, and so is the cost of food.
In city where I lived (Pointe Noire), there was just one supermarket (…yeah, I know) and the price of goods was definitely high as most of them were imported from Europe.
Winter veggies were incredibly expensive: when you see a single broccoli costing the equivalent of 18 euros, you just leave it on the shelf! On the other hand, potatoes, tomatoes and tropical fruits were much cheaper.
On another note, to move around town, I always used a taxi as I do not drive, and if you remained within the city centre (which you had to, as it was not recommended to move too far away), you payed the equivalent of 1.50€ per run, which is not at all bad.
What is your favourite and least favourite part about living in Congo?
My favourite part was teaching, as I said. In the Congo there’s nothing, nothing at all. Not a cinema, not a gym, not a shop just one supermarket selling food.
You can’t even go away for the weekend, as the nearest city is Johannesburg which is a 4h flight (and not exactly the greatest city to be in). So yeah, the school was really a blessing for me.
Was it easy to find a job right away or are you a digital nomad?
The first six months were tragic. In Europe I was a PR consultant, and I obviously couldn’t find the same job right in the heart of Africa. So I decided to reinvent myself and I applied to (the only) British school, although I had no experience whatsoever in teaching.
Well, turned out they were taking new people on board and I kicked off as a pre-school teacher in the morning, while also giving English and Italian lessons to adults in the afternoon. It was such an amazing and rewarding experience. It literally saved my life as I wouldn’t have known how to spend my days otherwise.
What was the biggest challenge for you once you moved to Congo?
It was to start a new life from scratch, seriously. I lived in London and Milan, in a frenetic and hectic environment, wearing heels almost everyday.
Suddenly I found myself in a place where life is slow, where people have nothing, where the streets are full of dirt. My biggest challenge was not to pack my bags and move back to Europe.
What is your favourite thing to do in Congo people should do if they had only 24h there?
That’s a good question especially because the roads are in extremely bad conditions, so you actually need time quite some time to go from one place to the other (hoping it won’t rain as the roads would get worse).
Well, if you are in the capital city – Brazzaville – you should definitely go and check the Congo River, the one celebrated by Conrad in his movie ‘Heart of Darkness’: you can even take a small tour on a canoe and you’ll see how majestic it looks.
If you are in Pointe Noire, which is the second city of the country, I recommend you see its rough, long beaches where you can also surf (!) and, better still, if you have 48h, go to the Conkouati National Reserve to meet up with chimpanzees!
Can you share any funny/typical tradition from Congo?
I’m afraid it’s not a funny tradition, but in the Congo witchcraft is still a big thing. This is one of the reason why gorillas are hunted down (their paws are said to bring strength to do those who own them) and in the most remote villages there are still healers who are said to perform rituals for good or bad purposes, the first (good) being called nganga, the second (bad) ndoki.
What is/are a fun fact(s) about Congo most people don’t know about or expect?
I’ll tell you this story. We were driving back from Brazzaville and our driver suddenly stopped to buy some green stuff the kids were selling along the street. I wasn’t sure what they were, but I remember they were bright green and looked like peas or some other vegetables.
Well, turned out they were caterpillars! And that people eat them, of course. I have never been brave enough to taste one of them! Would you?
What is your favourite local food?
It’s called saka-saka. It’s made of manioc leaves, spices and fish. Don’t ask me how they make it though, I’ve never learned!
What do you miss most from home?
It’s kinda difficult to say what I miss from home, because, besides my family, being in a third world country, it’s easy to say… EVERYTHING: shops, the food I like, the chance to take public transport, to take a stroll on clean roads, to go away for the weekend, and the list could go on…
What would be your top advice for people who are thinking to move (or visiting) to Congo?
Be prepared to anything! Kidding. Not really, actually! JI mean, the cultural shock it’s inevitable, but besides that, think about safety first. Make sure you have all your vaccinations, drink bottled water only, use repellents as malaria is quite a big thing and do not venture out alone.
Thank you so much Cristina for those insights. It has been very interesting and I learned a few new things myself. You can also follow Cristina along her adventures on Facebook.