If you’re driving to work in San Francisco and you’re stuck on one of the many highways around the area, you might often yell, “This traffic is insane!” I would counter with the fact that no, it’s quite normal, orderly, and even predictable. I will take the traffic of the US or anywhere in Europe, any day, over what I saw in Kinshasa.
The problem of course revolves around the fact that somehow, despite all the poverty, there are what seem to be millions of cars in the city that are hell-bent on moving around the 10 million inhabitants on a daily basis. The great majority of these cars are not in good shape, so they pollute like it’s going out of style. They also break down quite often and are either repaired in the middle of the road or abandoned, which is done in the middle of the road as well.
It’s a mess that starts around eight in the morning, gets steadily worse until gridlock sets in, in the middle of the day, and then things smooth out a bit near the end of the day, when it gets dark around six. A lot of these cars are missing headlights, so it’s difficult for them to drive after dark. If it rains, the roads are abandoned because probably 90% of the cars simply can’t drive when there is a downpour.
But it’s how people drive that make the traffic what it is. If you ever get mad at some random jerk who cuts you off on I-880, you shouldn’t drive in Kinshasa. That is how people always drive. They just kind of slam their way through all the cars to get where they’re going. It’s a bit like American individualism on crack. There are surprisingly few accidents though, which I attribute more to the fact you can’t drive faster than 60kph anywhere, so it lessens the impacts. I did see one though and it was nasty with both cars folded up in what looked like a direct head-on collision.
There are many mundele who drive though and as amazingly as it is, I drove in all of this as well. It was quite an experience, but because everyone is doing it, it makes driving somewhat easy. I mean this only in the sense that you can kind of handle it if you start driving like the Congolese. Trying to be proper and allowing people to merge or obeying the right of way at four way stops will get you nowhere. No one has gone to driving school, although there is one in the city. Most folks either hop in a car and start driving or pay the $50 to pick up a driver’s license. That’s all there is to it. You pay the money and you can legally drive. No test. No other rules. I almost bought one as a souvenir, but didn’t have the time, nor the inclination to go down and deal with it. It’s a cool license though, because where in the US you need a different license to drive different classes of vehicles, the Congolese have streamlined the process and have this license allowing you to drive anything from a motorcycle, to a big rig truck, to a steamroller.
Overall, I’d have to say that I wish to never drive in Kinshasa again. One experience was definitely enough and it can be summed up by the fact that when we were stuck in some detour that was causing a massive juggernaut, I was passed by a guy going 30kph, on my left, in reverse. If that doesn’t blow your mind, then you should consider a future career as a taxi driver in the center of Kinshasa. They can always use a few more.