The Surreal Life: Congo Expatriates

One topic that I haven’t touched on too much yet revolves around all the expats who are living and working DR Congo. It’s a screwy thing that I’ve only started to have a couple contiguous of thoughts about it. Let’s start with what’s good about the people living in DR Congo.

For one, this is a country that is tough to live in. Beyond the diseases, poverty, and hellish climate (mostly in the west) these are people that have given a chunk of their lives to try and improve the situation in Congo whether through MONUSCO, Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, USAID, Oxfam, or any other number of aid agencies that are operating in DR Congo. Even if people come with the delusion of grandeur that they’re going to be saving African babies from the ravages of war, they are still coming to help. This puts them in a class that’s above and beyond the vast majority of the rest of us from First World countries who might donate a little bit of money here and there to these causes if we’re feeling really generous. This is what is good about these people and a great many of them work for next to no money when they come, so it really is altruistic and genuine.

Then of course there is the bad side, which I can unfortunately spend a great deal more time on. The worst offenders are the full timers for the UN and foreign embassy staff. Those at the embassies are these banal people with no character or life to them. They epitomize the worst of civil servants, except that they love to get massively drunk and lead these dull lives firmly clutched in their compounds and protected areas free of the country that surrounds them. They earn their large salaries and after a few years, they go to another country to repeat the same thing or they go home to do god knows what, since they’re most likely not going to earn what they earn when at the embassies.

But, these embassy people came to DR Congo just for the money, which doesn’t excuse the way they act, but explains it to a large degree. Those in the UN generally started off with the assumption that they were there to help. Many came in on the UN Volunteer program which are a group that earn very little and work quite hard. Of these people it seems that there are those that came because they wanted to work in Congo and be part of affecting change. Then there are those that came in to be a UNV just so that they could eventually weasel their way in to a permanent position, which pays exceeding well. While not the case or everyone, a permanent staff for the UN can make upwards of $12,000-15,000 a month. Those who are smart, save this money, and work to eventually move to other missions in the UN. Those who aren’t so smart spend like maniacs. They contribute to the fact that it costs more to live in a sinkhole of a town like Kinshasa than in Paris. They create a market for houses that cost $8,000 a month because they want to spend that much to feel “comfortable” because they are under the impression that they’ve earned this.

Beyond the fact that they earn a lot (MONUSCO does costs one billion dollars a year to run) is the fact that at a certain point whether it be pay level, career level, or just the amount of years spent in Congo, the permanent staff all seem to swallow the UN Coolaid and fall prey to the premise that the UN is making huge changes in the country. In truth, the changes are small, yet I would never say that Congo could better off without the UN. It’s just that measuring the success of the mission by the fact that the Congolese don’t throw rocks at UN vehicles anymore is pretty sad.

Life for typical Congolese is not easy and I would never propose that an expat attempt to live as they do. But, this life of living in compounds and being completely isolated from the population of the country creates an unavoidable rift that in my opinion makes it impossible for the UN mission to function within any frame of reality. Sure the staff go on missions to make their never-ending onslaught of reports, but then they come back to their cocoon that cushions from the harsh reality of a rough country.

Many people are burned out. Somewhere around two years seems to be the regular amount of time that people stay in Congo before they can’t take it anymore and have to leave. So many don’t leave though and stay on for five years or even more. Their reason for staying is that they just don’t know what they’re going to do next, which has to be one of the worst reasons to stay on at a job and it sure as hell isn’t doing the Congolese any good. The money is just too much to leave and the lifestyle is one that none of these people could afford to keep in First World countries. A great many of them are after all living in former Mobutu-ist mansions.

My frustrations with all of this are not atypical. Everyone there is aware of it, but once again, they do little to avoid it because that would mean leaving Congo. It’s to a point where if some producer were really crafty, making a Real World or Big Brother or Surreal Life type reality show about a group of expats working in DR Congo would be really compelling. They could cover the Idealistic Newcomer, the Burnout, the Networker, the Partier, the Embassy Man, the Undying Savior, and a slew of other types that all seem to wend their way around this country. Are they “saving” it? Not really, but they are providing some form of stability that will hopefully start creating a stable society upon which one of Africa’s largest and most wealthy countries can emerge stronger.