By on June 22, 2016

Kinshasa Traffic, Image: MONUSCO Photos/Flickr

If you can describe a road surface as being home to a rock formation, you might be in Kinshasa, Congo.

Protrusions of solid rock extend several feet above the road surface, as though thrust upward by some geologic force. In fact, these shockingly large outcroppings are made possible through an unfortunate combination of poor construction, over-use, and extreme neglect. I came upon several such promontories during a recent visit to the Congolese capital. And these were not rural or back street rock climbing opportunities. These can be found on main roads across the city center.

Potholes do not begin to describe the damage done to these once-paved roads. Congolese potholes are gaping abyssal maws nearly as deep as they are wide and large enough to park an F-150 in, which I witnessed. These are not potholes so much as regrades that adjust the street surface in three to five foot increments and can extend across an entire thoroughfare. Then there are the odd wave-like lumps that come in sets of three. Too sharp to be speed-bumps, these bulges are capable of high-centering a common car. And peppered throughout are common potholes notable for their slim surface diameter and shear walls, some exceeding waist-depth. I saw a man enjoying relative privacy as he stood in one relieving himself.

Mazda Pickup, Image: © 2016 Seth Parks/The Truth About Cars

To be fair, there are roads spared this neglect, such as Boulevard du 30-Juin that bisects the city, the streets in front of key government buildings, and foreign embassies. But these make up a small fraction of Kinshasa’s road network.

Lane markings are rare, street signage uncommon, and the boundary between street and sidewalk ill-defined. Not that the occasional lane markings, signs, or sidewalks impact user behavior. The flow of pedestrians is inexhaustible. They choke off small streets and narrow main thoroughfares to a single lane like plaque clogging an artery. Pedestrians are also present in massive quantities along what are ostensibly limited access highways. For miles on end these roads are lined with an unrelenting flow of merging mini-buses, traders, handcarts, and the throngs of people these activities imply.

People cross all manner of roadways wherever and whenever they like, in spite of center-line barriers and pedestrian overpasses. Horns honk and lights flash. The noise blends into a steady unpleasant din. Near-misses are common. I saw the recent aftermath of three collisions along the 20 mile, two-hour drive from the airport into town. It was into this automotive obstacle course I was thrust two weeks ago.

Toyota Land Cruisers, Image: © 2016 Seth Parks/The Truth About Cars

There is a reason for the lack of imagery in the quality or quantity you have come to expect from TTAC. When you visit Congo, be forewarned that after years of paranoia inducing leadership, nonexistent education, and general deprivation the people exhibit opportunistic and even predatory tendencies. Taking photos is perceived as either a crime against the state (it’s not) or an opportunity for profiteering (it is). But being disinterested in squabbling or paying, I did what little I could. If what I observed in freedom is any indication of what a Congolese jail might look like, no photo is worth the experience.

Some additional travel advice; if you have respiratory sensitivities, bring your bio-hazard gear. The dry season (now) brings moderate heat and humidity, limited rain, and no breeze. And the city is ringed by high ground on three sides. This mixture of climate and topography are compounded by unregulated emissions, dust from disintegrating roads, and the talc-like effluent from the nearby Congo River. It all combines into a thick hazy mélange. It is unpleasant and unremitting, but makes for wonderful orange-red sunsets.

Like Beijing, Bangkok, and Mumbai, Kinshasa is a mega-city with the traffic that attends such conurbations. Its official population is 10 million, though credible estimates place the real count closer to 15 million. More people live in Kinshasa than Illinois and they’re all packed into a 225 square mile footprint, equal to Chicago. The population density is double that of America’s densest city, New York. And although most Congolese do not have cars, there are more than enough.

Congolese traffic chaos is different than that found in most other mega-cities in the developing world. For example, Bangkok has well positioned, authoritative police directing traffic. Mumbai has a mature rail system and budding metro. Kinshasa has a new train station, but no trains, a few public buses in various states of disrepair, and ineffectual police who are at best dispassionate observers and at worst enablers of disorder.

Kinshasa Traffic Robot, Image: © 2016 Seth Parks/The Truth About Cars

Kinshasa’s police do however have robots. In 2013, a new experiment in traffic control was launched when eight-foot tall robots were placed on elevated pedestals at the center of two intersections. They have the requisite red and green lights and their arms elevate to indicate the right to turn. Apparently, they also speak to let pedestrians know when it is safe to cross. These robots are a locally produced anthropomorphic cross between the imposing Robocop and clumsy B-9 from the 1960s TV series Lost in Space. But if Congolese drivers won’t yield to Tatra 8×8 trucks (true) or tacticals full of armed police (also observed), why would they obey stationary robots? In spite of their ineffectiveness, the robots have procreated and now reside at the center of at least a dozen intersections across the city.

If lane splitting pedestrians reach your destination before you do, you might be in Kinshasa. Congolese traffic moves slowly. The vast majority of driving is done under 40 mph, and much of it is done at a crawl. Even at night, when fewer cars and pedestrians are about, high speeds are ill advised as darkly clothed, apathetic pedestrians cross the unlit streets at random.

Regardless of time of day, all intersections are contested. One might anticipate that the vehicle nearest the space it intends to occupy, or the largest vehicle vying for a given space would be the one to get it. Not necessarily. But to understand why, one must get to know the people behind the wheel.

Ford F-250 in Kinshasa, Image: © 2016 Seth Parks/The Truth About Cars

A large portion of vehicles are piloted by “professionals,” which simply means they are paid to drive. Be they mini-bus owner-operators, commercial-vehicle drivers, or drivers for middle- and upper-class residents who are too afraid or too smart to drive themselves. Being a professional driver brings with it zero training. And the youthful demographic of the city, driven by a high birth rate, rural migration and one of the lowest life expediencies on earth, contributes to a lack of experience among these professional drivers. Many of them had little to no experience riding in vehicles, much less driving them prior to becoming professionals. All that’s required is willingness.

When most of us drive, we select a path based on a navigation system or on our experience of known routes and traffic patterns. We make lane selections based on our own algorithm, combining speed, distance to next turn, schedule, etc. None of these considerations enter into the equation in Kinshasa. Need to take a left turn? No problem, you can do that regardless of your position on the road. And don’t worry, other drivers will not be particularly perturbed. They were hardly moving anyway. In a hurry? It’s acceptable to enter oncoming lanes, particularly if you can find a heavy truck to follow. Another driver wants a space you could also move into? It may not have been your original intent, but if he wants it (there are few female drivers) it must be desirable, you better get there first! Congolese drivers move into open space like water runs downhill.

For car-spotters, Kinshasa offers unique diversity. All of the Japanese, Korean, and German brands are present, as well as numerous Chinese brands and a smattering of nameplates from each of the Detroit Three.

Lowered Chrysler Pacifica in Kinshasa, Image: © 2016 Seth Parks/The Truth About Cars

  • Most common nameplate: Toyota ist, better known to most of us as the Scion xA
  • Most common North American spec nameplate: Nissan Armada, Honorable Mention Cadillac Escalade
  • Most common SUV: (Tie) Toyota Land Cruiser 70-Series, Toyota Fortuner, Ford Everest
  • Most common mini-bus: Toyota Hiace, private transport workhorse across sub-Saharan Africa
  • Most interesting mini-bus: The indestructible Mercedes 207/208/209, most recently produced in 1995
  • Oddest Automotive Sighting: (Tie) Early 1970s Ford Capri with homemade pickup bed conversion, Lowered Chrysler Pacifica

I had the pleasure of driving both a Toyota Land Cruiser 76 and a Mercedes G500 in central Kinshasa. Thankfully, both vehicles are capable of directly addressing Congolese road obstacles, save of course the jagged igneous outcroppings. The G500 offered acceleration wildly beyond what is necessary in Kinshasa. Though if one were bold enough they could convert its breakneck 0-30 acceleration into a genuine competitive advantage. No calamity befell myself or my passengers, but the extreme stress of driving in Kinshasa is in my estimation the closest one can get to driving in a combat zone. And as much as I relish unique driving experiences, what makes this one a standout among my numerous trips to Africa is my lack of interest in repeating it.

If I don’t want to take the wheel, I’m probably in Kinshasa.

[Image: Top – MONUSCO Photos/Flickr; Others – © 2016 Seth Parks/The Truth About Cars]

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27 Comments on “From In-Road Rock Formations to Traffic-Directing Robots: A Dispatch from Congo...”

  • avatar

    Since I got here first:

    HELLCAT!!! HELLCAT!!! everything else sucks. I’m rich!!! YOu are NOT! HELLCAT!!

  • avatar

    Some similarities to my experiences in rural Siberia, namely terrible roads and the plethora of Toyotas and especially Toyota SUVs (perhaps these factors are related?). The road to my grandmother’s village was so bad this year that the local municipality decided to simple widen the dirt shoulder with graders to give drivers some sort of option that wouldn’t shake their car to pieces. If last year it was possible to get by with using the full width of the road (including the opposite lane) to dodge potholes, this year it was simply impossible. There are 2 schools of thought in how to deal to this: our family friend who works as a taxi driver (’05 Camry for long hauls, ’06 Lada 2107 for city work) simply blasts across the moonscape at about 40mph and the car ends up ‘floating’ over a lot of it. Our other family friend with a Lada 2107 prefers the slow and steady route along the shoulder. People out there rebuild front end suspensions/steering quite literally every year, thankfully that only costs about 5k rubles in parts (less than $100) for a “Klassika” fiat based rwd Lada.

    on these kinds of roads, those old rwd Ladas really come into their own. Even that cushy Camry can’t quite compare to the long travel and soft as hell suspension that smoothly swallows up the worst potholes. Those Soviet engineers knew what they were doing when they reengineered certain aspects of the well regarded Fiat 124 back in the late ’60s. The flipside is that those old Ladas are quite tippy and scary to ride in at higher speeds, very poor handling.

  • avatar

    Sounds like it might be even worse than Mumbai. I saw all kinds of crazy stuff there, but the roads were at least passable and I don’t remember anyone going the wrong way.

    The 100km trip from Mumbai to Pune still took hours and hours in the dead of night, though, and thanks to the prevalence of ludicrously-painted, giant, and ancient trucks with multi-tone horns constantly blaring, it was one of the most memorable acid-trip miasmas I’ve ever experienced. I’m glad I wasn’t behind the wheel.

    • 0 avatar

      My Welcome to India moment was stepping over a (very stiff) dead guy laying on street while walking to hotel from office first full day I was there. Good times.

  • avatar

    You didn’t mention the main cause for this mess – public officials’ corruption.

  • avatar

    I’ve driven in a lot of countries with poor roads or challenging traffic to include Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, etc. Afghanistan was arguably the worst that I saw for road conditions. It is amazing to see cars actually functional and (mostly) operational.

    • 0 avatar
      Seth Parks

      Agreed, the common condition of vehicles is incredible, particularly the mini buses. Those Mercedes vans seem to run forever, one has to wonder if there is anything left of the original vehicle after 30 years of use in that environment. Except of course the body panels, which evidence just how harsh the conditions are.

  • avatar

    That’s not a robot. It’s a traffic light that looks like a robot.

  • avatar

    “Not understanding what that has to do with the subject matter.”
    Nothing whatsoever .
    He’s just showing how ignorant and afraid he is .
    Not sure how you could mention rocks sticking out of the roadway and not include photos…
    The traffic robot looks cool/funny .

    • 0 avatar

      Indeed, I came here looking for said rock formations and left slightly disappointed, though it was good insight to read about this experience since I have no intention of ever visiting this apparent hellhole of a country.

  • avatar

    I love how -even in the Congo- we’ve got time and money for RiMz; and on a lowered Pacifica no less.

    Just, wow.

  • avatar

    Interestingly, traffic lights/stoplights are called “Robots” in South Africa.

  • avatar

    So why were you there, Mr. Author? What drove you to this awful hellhole? It sounds like more pedestrians need to be run over, put some fear in them for walking on the highway.

    They’re like Canadian Geese round here. Far too bold.

    • 0 avatar
      Seth Parks

      CoreyDL – It wasn’t vacation, that’s for sure. As you might suspect, there is not a lot of tourism in Kinshasa. In fact, I didn’t see a single post card or T-Shirt for sale anywhere, which I can’t say for any of the other 60 countries I have visited. I was there for work – I’m doing some business consulting for a company based there. And the next time I find myself in a unique automotive environment I’ll probably write about that too. Thanks for reading my piece!

      • 0 avatar

        Nice. World experiences are important, even the kinda awful ones.

        And it’s nice to read about places you wouldn’t normally see reported with regard to cars (or really in this particular case, with regard to any subject).

  • avatar

    Thanks for sharing, Seth. I got to visit Zambia last year on a church trip and my experience was largely the same as yours, as far as the road conditions and the cars. They did have non-robot-styled traffic lights, at least.

  • avatar

    Great article, very informative.

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