On Saturdays, Nuno Crisostomo, 55, wakes up at 6am and heads out for his weekend run. “It has to be early in the morning, before it starts to get too hot and humid. Summers here are very humid,” he explains. On the way to the riverfront he stops at a nearby hotel where he meets other running buddies at the reception, usually 3 or 4 and occasionally a bodyguard or two: “It’s not dangerous really, but for some embassies it is protocol,” he says.
Running on an International Border
You see, Nuno’s not going for a jog along the Tejo in his native Lisbon, he is running in Kinshasa, his path on the edge of an international border: on his side of the river, Kinshasa, the largest city and capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the other side, Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo. In between, and spanning over 25km in width, is the Congo River, the second largest in the world in discharge volume (second only to the Amazon). “It’s an urban landscape, but a wild river. A very fast river too — from here till the sea there are 32 waterfalls,” explains Nuno.
Nuno took to running two years ago when he was relocated to Kinshasa. Before the DRC, he had been 16 years in New York working at UNICEF’s headquarters. “There is a compulsory rotation of locations. I was offered several places — Senegal, South Pacific —but since I have family both in Europe and the US I decided Kinshasa was more suitable,” he says. As an emergency specialist, Nuno’s job involves overseeing a cluster of emergency responses for non-food items and shelter for displaced people — which in Congo adds up to several millions. Nuno coordinates action between the 40 organizations, NGOs and governments that act in the region. The actual role involves a mix of office work and meetings, diplomatic events, several trips, as well as site visits. “Site visits require a lot of preparation. You have to speak to the people there to find the best and safest time. A lot of dialogue is necessary,” he says.
Manhattan to Kinshasa
Undoubtedly, going from working at an office in Manhattan to actually being in the thick of it in Kinshasa was a huge lifestyle change for Nuno. Contrary to what one might think though, Nuno explains that his life in the Big Apple was, in many ways, more stressful and demanding: “It was much harder switching off; in the headquarters you have to respond to everyone, and there are 193 member states. Here in Kinshasa the situation is complicated, but there aren’t problems all the time,” he explains.
A New Challenge
Plus, for people working in the fields of development and diplomacy, moving countries and adapting to new realities is part of the reason they choose the job. “I needed a new challenge and the Congo responded one hundred percent to that. It’s a place with lots of problems, but also plenty of opportunity. I have learned so much. This — coordinating displaced people — is a new area for me; I had to go back and study a lot,” says Nuno.
More Than Meets the Eye
It also turns out that there is more to Kinshasa than meets the eye. Yes, there is poverty, pollution, and epidemics (Nuno tells me they are just going through their second Ebola outbreak), but there is also space for culture, fun, and a healthy routine: “There are many churches, mosques and synagogues to visit. I also go to the cinema frequently or to art exhibitions with colleagues. There is a very, very strong artistic scene here — incredible artists,” he says. Just this weekend Nuno was visiting the Academy of Fine Arts for its end-of-year showcase: “I try to find the places that establish a bridge between expats and locals.”
The Grounding Power of Fitness
Having an active fitness routine is also a big part of what grounds Nuno in the city. Despite being offered a company car, Nuno chooses to cycle into work. When the day is done, given that there are no meetings or events, he will hit the gym with a group of friends. “We have everything in the group: Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Lebanese…Really everything — we speak every language at the gym,” he laughs.
Sharing Knowledge Across Generations
And then there is the weekend running group, of course, a mix of colleagues from UNICEF, ambassadors and businessmen in regular rotation. Nuno’s energy is all the more highlighted considering he is the eldest of the bunch: “I am 20 or 30 years older than all of them,” he laughs. But it’s not only in his fitness routine that Nuno is the oldest; at 55, he is also the oldest in his office: “I find it very natural — I love working with the younger crowd. I feel like a mentor, and I admire their energy and knowledge,” he says. The difference in ages, he explains, only adds to the office environment. “I learn a lot about new technologies, and in exchange I can share my experience. A lot of people my age think they have nothing to say to the youth; that’s wrong,” he says.
In Nuno’s line of work, experience is a strong and valuable currency. One of the things he has learned over the years is where to put his energy: “There are two dimensions to it. In physical terms, I maintain the same level of stamina, I have the same energy as when I was 20 years old. But on a spiritual level, I think I have become much more tolerant, patient, and that comes with experience,” he says. “35 years ago, I was much more impulsive. Every time I would face a challenge I would react immediately. Now I reflect on it.”
Nuno tells me that the DRC is a very rich country, which hosts many interests. Everyone in the country, whether representing states, companies or organizations, has an agenda, and a certain stoicism acquired over the years helps navigate the varying interest groups: “Nowadays, I rather listen, and when I do intervene, it is much more targeted,” he says. This mature position of listening before acting has also made things easier on a personal level. Having his wife and children in the United States means that for the family and marriage to keep on track, a lot of communication is necessary. “There is a proper time in life to make sacrifices, but for it to work you need an understanding,” he explains.
Living on the Move
As for the future, Nuno plans to keep on living on the move. “When this rotation finishes, and my youngest is off to university, me and my wife are thinking to go to Senegal. We actually met there, 27 years ago,” he says. “My wife has worked in development in the past, and she is thinking of starting a consulting business. For both of us, this is our passion. It’s so thrilling — new people, new places, new projects!”
Wherever Nuno will be next, one thing we know for certain: he will be packing his running shoes.