ALTERNATE NAME: Congo-Brazzavillans
LOCATION: Republic of the Congo
LANGUAGE: French; Lingala; Kikongo; Sangha; Bateke; 60 others
RELIGION: Christianity (Catholicism); animism
In October 1997, the Republic of the Congo swore in a new president after a four-month civil war. The war killed thousands and left the capital of Brazzaville in ruins. Five years after the first democratic elections, private militias (armies) installed an unelected government.
But reports of battles do not present a full picture of the Republic of the Congo. It has long been the education and banking center of the Central African region. During World War II (1939–45), it was the capital of the Free French movement led by Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) against the Nazis and France's Vichy government (a puppet government of Nazi Germany). Its leaders were openly communist, trading vigorously with China and the Soviet Union.
The Republic of the Congo is located directly across the Congo (or Zaire) River from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DROC, and known as Zaire until mid-1997). The river that divides the two Congos is the second-longest in Africa (the Nile is the longest). It carries the largest potential supply of hydroelectric power in the world.
The Portuguese discoverers reached the mouth of the Congo River in 1482 and began trading with the Kongo kingdom. The slave trade and ivory attracted the interest of other European countries. In 1883, explorer Peirre-Paul-Francois Camillie Savorgnan de Brazza (1852–1905) signed treaties with the Bateke, a tribe located to the north, turning over the entire region to France.
Today, the Congo continues its close relationship with France, despite achieving independence in 1960.
The Congo straddles the equator. Most of the land is covered by dense tropical forest. The rest is wooded savanna (grasslands), river valleys, and a small coastal plain. The Congo is about the size of the state of Montana. It is hot and very humid with high rainfall. The Congo's entire eastern and southern borders are washed by the Congo River. The role of this river in the lives of Congolese, past and present, can not be underestimated. Over 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) of unbroken navigable water serves as a highway for huge barges and dugout canoes, carting people and produce through Central Africa. People eat from the river, live on it in houses built high on stilts, take electric power from it, and hand pieces of it down through the generations in the form of inheritable fishing rights.
French is the administrative language of the Congo. Lingala, Kikongo, Sangha, and Bateke are the most widely spoken native languages. There are sixty other languages in the Congo, crisscrossing national boundaries. There is another kind of Congolese language though, and that is the language of the talking drum. For generations, messages have been sent from village to village by the regulated beat of special drums. These are usually situated near the village chief's compound. In the past, everyone within ear-shot understood the meaning of the various rhythms. There were rhythms for death, birth, marriage, or the impending arrival of a dignitary. Talking drums are still used, but they are being replaced by radio, shortwave, and television.
The Congo is rich in folkloric tradition, and generalizations are difficult in a country with dozens of ethnic groups. Typically, however, heroes and personalities tend to take the form of animals. Each family, or sometimes an entire village or clan, will have its own totem—an animal whose spirit and characteristics represent the group's unity. These animals often have mystical powers and are responsible for the creation of the ancestral lineage. They are honored through storytelling.
The vast majority of the population identifies itself as Christian, primarily Catholic. Many continue to hold animist beliefs, believing that natural objects and phenomena have souls. They do not consider these beliefs contrary to monotheism (belief in one deity). Local animists long believed in one supreme god before the arrival of European missionaries. His name is Nzambi, and he can best be described as the omnipotent spirit of nature. One of the Congo's creation myths tells of Nzambi's great illness, back when the Earth was still completely covered with water. In his fits of coughing, he spat up the Sun, Moon, stars, animals, and people. And so the world was born by accident.
The Congo's national holiday is celebrated on August 15. It commemorates the country's independence from France on that day in 1960. Independence Day is celebrated in streets, courtyards, houses, and bars. Beer and palm wine are consumed in large quantities. The preferred dish on this special occasion is chicken and rice. Chicken, or any form of animal protein, for that matter, often marks a special occasion.
Other holidays include Christmas (December 25) and New Year's (January 1), Easter (late March or early April), All Saint's Day (November 1), and National Reconciliation Day (June 10).
A ritual surrounding marriage shows the traditional importance of premarital virginity for girls. This ritual, practiced less now than in the past, appears in different forms throughout the world, particularly the Near East.
Once a couple has decided to marry, both the man and the woman undergo a course in "domestic education," taught by the elders of their own gender within the family. It is assumed that the woman is a virgin, and she must receive some sexual instruction in order to contribute to a successful union. On the morning after the wedding night, the women from both sides of the family arrive early, while the couple is still in bed. They ask many specific questions about the couple's experience with sexual intercourse. If the experience did not go well, the husband has the right to ask for his "bride-price" to be returned and the marriage may be annulled.
Because of the diversity of cultural heritages in the Congo, greetings are expressed in different ways. Among some groups it is common to greet close relatives not seen for a long time with a bear hug. Among friends and acquaintances, there is the two-handed shake. In neighboring Gabon, kissing alternate cheeks three to four times is common even in the villages. In the Congo this Western custom is seen almost exclusively in the modern cities.
There is a marked formality in communication among Congolese, a style that is shared throughout Central Africa. Even a business meeting should begin with a polite inquiry into the other person's well-being and that of their family, as well as some indication of the honor that their presence bestows. Public recognition of social hierarchy is very important. Agreement with an elder, boss, or anyone of higher status is valued above directness.
The Congo is a poor country by Western standards. It is far from the poorest country in Africa, however. In the late 1990s, it ranked sixteenth out of fifty-two nations according to an index used by the United Nations known as the Human Development Index for Africa. This rank indicates that Congo is a relatively wealthy nation compared to its neighbors. The wealth comes from the existence of petroleum.
Outside of the cities, houses are commonly built out of mud brick and are in constant need of repair. Many people can afford corrugated zinc roofs on their homes. Those who cannot use thatch. Buildings in urban areas are usually made out of concrete blocks. There are several steel and glass office towers in Brazzaville, though they were severely damaged by the civil war in 1997.
Whether poor or wealthy, Congolese take immense pride in their homes. Mud-brick houses are ringed with handmade, well-maintained fencing. Decorative flowers and bushes are planted in front yards carefully cleared of weeds and grasses in an effort to keep away snakes, rats, and insects.
The average Congolese woman bears six children during her lifetime. In the past, most marriages were arranged by family members. In modern times, this became much less common. Women do most of the work it takes to care for the family and run a household. They are responsible for planting, harvesting, food preparation, water fetching, child care, and housework (which can include putting on a new roof or erecting a fence). Men traditionally are responsible for hunting, clearing the forest for gardens, or, in the city, engaging in wage labor.
The word "family" has a somewhat different meaning in the Congo than in the West. Family means an extensive network of relatives, including aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, nieces, and nephews. The extended family plays the role in society that the state has taken over in many Western countries. Poor, sick, or disabled people are rarely sent to institutions such as nursing homes, or left to live on welfare or on the street. Their care is the family's responsibility, and the burdens of this responsibility are spread among the dozens of people who constitute a family.
Generally, Central Africans take care in their dress, and Congolese are no exception. Whether a person has means or not, people in the street, the market, and in offices can be seen in pressed, colorful, hand-made clothing. Bous-Bous, the colorful strips of cotton cloth essential to any Central or West African wardrobe, can be dressed up or down. They also are used as head wraps and turbans by Congolese women. Office workers and bureaucrats in the cities dress much the same as they do in the West.
While a visitor to the Congo will marvel at the abundance of greenery, this does not mean that agriculture is flourishing. Rain-forest soil is very poor in nutrients. Despite additional areas of savanna and river valley, only 2.5 percent of the Congo's soil is under cultivation. Foodstuffs commonly grown on this land include bananas, manioc (cassava), peanuts, coffee, cocoa, taro (a starch), and pineapples. Some livestock is raised, but over 90 percent of the country's meat is imported.
Congolese cultures abound with food taboos (prohibitions). Many relate to village, family, or even individual totemic beliefs. It is strictly taboo for anyone to eat the meat from an animal that is his or her totem.
For a long time, Brazzaville was considered the educational capital of Central Africa. Many educated people over the age of fifty who did not study in Europe (from neighboring Gabon, for instance) went to school in the Congo. The government, by its own admission, has ignored the rural economy for decades. In spite of this, there is a relatively high density of rural primary schools. Brazzaville has one university and a regionally famous painting school called L'École de Poto-Poto. Murals by Poto-Poto students can be found throughout the streets of Brazzaville. The literacy rate (percentage of those able to read and write) is estimated at 75 percent for adults.
It is said that "Every Congolese learns to sing." Singing has long been used to make work less boring. There are songs about fishing, planting, and how to use a hoe, paddle a canoe, or pound manioc (cassava) with a giant mortar and pestle. Musical instruments include a variety of drums, the guitar, and the sanzi, a small wooden box with metal teeth that are plucked by the thumbs, like a hand-held piano.
Congolese are also great storytellers. Their tradition of storytelling kept histories and the arts alive before the advent of the written language. Since the introduction of French and written language, Congolese novelists, playwrights, and poets have gained celebrity throughout French-speaking Africa. Jean Malonga, Henri Lopes, Soni Laboue Tansi (1947–95), Marie Leon-tine Tsibinda, and Guy Menga are some of the best known Congolese literary figures.
People who have lived in the rainforest for generations know about the healing characteristics of plants that grow there. Modern pharmacists and doctors are now beginning to be study these exotic plants. A deep knowledge of the forest is a rich, yet vanishing, part of the Congolese cultural heritage.
During the communist regime, all land was officially state-owned. By extension, all work on the land was work for the state. This may have had something to do with the resulting underdevelopment of agriculture over the decades. Conversely, the urban bureaucratic class grew rapidly during this time. From 1960 and 1970, after seven years of communist rule, the number of people working for the new independent government grew by 636 percent. Salaries for state workers ate up almost 75 percent of the national budget. These expenditures were paid for by oil revenues and by aid from foreign governments. Since 1970, the Congo has significantly reduced the number of government employees to avoid borrowing more money from other governments and international agencies.
As is true all over Africa, soccer is the most passionately followed sport in the Congo. Also popular are karate, handball, basketball, and volleyball, as both participant and spectator sports. Television devotes a lot of time to sports coverage. Now, with satellite capability, even in a thatched bar deep in the brush, Congolese can follow the French Open tennis tournament.
Sports, singing, dancing, music, storytelling, and visiting relatives are pastimes everywhere in the Congo. In the city, there are movies, some theaters, and discotheques. Fishing is also considered recreational, as well as work. Finally, there is always the popular pastime of sitting down to a cold beer or glass of palm wine to pass the afternoon in gossip.
Traditionally, Congolese art was created to serve religious or ceremonial functions, rather than for purely aesthetic reasons. Masks, weaving, pottery, and ironwork were often abstract, depicting the human head or animals. Much of the local skill in crafts has been lost. A government agency and an ethnicity museum in Brazzaville are trying to preserve the knowledge and artifacts still remaining. With an active painting and literary community in the Congo, new art forms continue to emerge.
In 1997, the Congo suffered four months of war in a battle to overthrow the president of its very shaky democracy. Violent death, dislocation, and general social breakdown were among the immediate problems faced by the Congolese.
There are tens of thousands of indigenous (native) tropical forest foragers (often disrespectfully referred to as "pygmies") in the Congo. They are considered to be the first inhabitants in the area. While equal rights are officially protected in the Congolese constitution, tropical forest foragers are heavily discriminated against. They have been turned away from public hospitals when seeking medical care and are not represented in government. Those working for wages do not receive equal pay for equal work. Discrimination against tropical forest foragers exists all over Central Africa.
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