Sunday, December 8, 2013

The 10 Commandments of Driving in Kinshasa

1. Don’t hesitate…EVER: when you are dealing with thousands hundreds of thousands of cars (see #7), all of the traffic is stop and go. If you want to go, you have to take every open spot. In the states, we call that “cutting someone off.” Here, it is called driving.  Following distance here is also very important. In the states, they recommend to have at least a 3 second gap in between you and the car in front of you. Here, the gap is more like 2 to 3 inches. There are so many cars that there is never a guaranteed opening or a guaranteed person to stop and let you out. You must take advantage of every open space. You will see other drivers using the sidewalk, driving in the “wrong direction”, or even people driving cross ways. Your best bet, don’t hesitate!

2. Pull over for sirens: If you hear a siren, you move your car over as far to the side as possible, but these sirens aren’t for what you might think. The siren is a warning that they are escorting someone important and you must move out of their way. What will follow could possibly be a military convoy, the president, a high ranking UN official, etc.

3. Don’t stop for car accidents: in the States when there is an accident, the police are called to the scene. Here, it is a truck full of military men. Of course they mostly surround the vehicles to protect the people involved, but they still have a protocol. What is not required is your assistance unless you are a qualified trained medical professional who can aid. Other than that, you will not only be in the way and/or someone might mistake you for the perpetrator. For accidents, no scenes are recreated, no interviews are taken, and no tickets are issued (but a fine could be involved). What is important is the safety of each person involved and getting the traffic to flow again, and a white person would just be a distraction and in the way.

4. Use lights sparingly if at all: headlights are only to be used well after dusk. If you put your lights on too early, the police will ticket you. Only important officials are permitted to have their lights on during the day to let the police know they get to bypass all traffic (see #2)

5. Use your horn: horns are important here. In the states, you only use them to warn people or if you are really rude. Here, they are a necessity. You honk to let someone know you are going to pass them.  You honk to let someone know they can pass you. You honk to let someone know not to pull in front of you in traffic. You honk to let someone know they can pull in front of you in traffic. You honk to let someone know you are going to pull over to let more people in your car. You honk to let someone know you cannot stop to let more people into your car. You honk to let someone know it is safe to cross the road in front of you. You honk to let someone know it is not safe to cross the road in front of you. You honk to let someone who is selling things on the side of the road know you are interested. You honk to let someone who is selling things on the side of the road know you are not interested.  You honk to let someone know they are crossing into your traffic. You honk to let someone know you are skipping traffic by taking the sidewalk (no joke).  You honk to let someone know to move out of your way. You honk to let someone know you have space in front of you for one more. See! Horns are important!

6. NEVER splash anyone: as chaotic as life is here, with cars filling any void on the road, there is still a need for respect. But with the state of the roads this one is tough. We have seen potholes the size of a mid-size car, and over a foot deep. You show respect by never splashing someone with water from a puddle small lake. Why is this so offensive? When you go outside of your home, you are expected to dress your best, even if you are walking across the street (it’s amazing how people keep their white shirts so crisp and clean). Thus, everyone walking around is in their best clothing. If you ruin their nice clothing, that is definitely a tragedy! It would be like me spilling red Kool-Aid on a soon-to-be-bride’s dress right before her wedding. So, no matter how much it rained the night before, no matter how hectic traffic is, SLOW DOWN for each puddle  crater and be overly cautious!

7. Forget your personal space: we live in a big city with a stated population of over 10 million people and very few own cars (if only 1 in 20 own a car, that’s still a half a million cars driving around). Thus enters public transportation, but nothing nice like a city bus. Nope. We are talking 15 passenger vans. Vans that have had the seats removed. Vans that now have wooden benches screwed to the floor boards. Vans with roughly 35 already on board, but somehow always room for one more. Vans that keep their doors open to make room for one more jumping on or off, but rarely coming to a complete stop.  Vans with people standing on the bumper, hanging off the back in flip-flops.

8. Lock your doors: locking your doors is done for many reasons. Picture yourself driving down an unknown street in New York. You lock your doors for a security measure. In a place where traffic is always stop and go, it is best to be secure when you might forget what street you are on. You never know if the person trying the door handle is a pickpocket or just someone needing a ride home and notices you have an empty seat (See #7).

9. Stop for the flag: At 6 AM the military will raise the flag of the DRC on all their poles. At 6 PM the military will lower all Kinshasa flags for the night. If you are in the vicinity of the flags, you must stop everything. If you are driving, you stop. If you are crossing the street, you stop. If you are shopping, you stop. It is a little eerie to look around you and see everyone standing completely still, some even mid-stride, almost like the beginning of a scary movie. But at the same time, to know these people have such respect for their nation that they stand motionless and wait for the procession to be over.

10. Tipping is optional: there are always a plethora of people in small parking lots willing to help you pull out into traffic. Usually by standing in the middle of the road to stop cars or make them move out of the way. You don’t have to tip them, but it is still a very nice thing for them to do. (Also note, you don’t tip more than 500 Congolese Francs [roughly 50 cents]).  You can also “tip” them with food donations as well.

*Bonus rule – Motorcycles: motorcycles are a new phenomenon here. They were introduced roughly two years ago as a cheap alternative for those who could not afford cars. That sounds great, right?!? But when traffic is stop and go and you see an opening, HELLO MOTO (see #1)! Motorcycles are used for taxis and often hold three or four people (and sometimes farm animals, groceries, heavy things balanced on peoples’ heads, and everything including a kitchen sink [only wish we had a photo!]). Your best bet is to just be cautious and assume a motorcycle is nearby to cut you off drive around you as you are pulling out into the traffic.  

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