As you bump and bounce out of N’Djili Airport, you start to head in to Kinshasa proper. It’s a long trip of about an hour or so in moderate traffic, of which there is always at least moderate traffic in Kinshasa. The journey is not like that from American and European airports where you start in the middle of nowhere and slowly pick up more and signs of civilization until you are in the center of a bustling city.
While similar, Kinshasa is also much different. The end point has a great many more buildings, but it still feels dislocated and at odds with itself being a city of 10 million people and the largest French speaking city in the world. It feels like it is still trying to contend with the fact it started life as Leopoldville, a trading outpost on the river that is actually younger than West Coast American towns like San Francisco. It’s a wide spot in the river that now is home to so many.
There are no bright lights of Kinshasa. While the city sits along the Congo River and there is a massive hydroelectric damn further upstream, electricity is very much an amenity that most are forced to live without. While the center of town (like the Gombe District) has much better power connections, it is mostly expats and the wealthy living there. The endless sprawl of Kinshasans live quite literally in the nightly 12 hours of equatorial darkness.
The road from the airport passes all the bars and clubs that are packed with people no matter what the night is. They sit outside in the stifling humidity, their evenings illuminated by candles and the passing lights of cars on the road. As I looked forward out the front window of the shuttle we were in, I could see the dark, smoky veil of cooking fires and pollution descending on the roadway. Silhouettes of people crossing the road were lit up by the streams of traffic, looking like these human shadow puppets strolling through the night.
We reached the center eventually and the building that we would call home for the next couple of weeks. The power was on here, as well as the water. A brief shower rinsed off one layer of the sticking, unwavering humidity to allow another start to build up before we plunged in to a deep sleep.