Years ago, I was working in a middle school in what was called the Resource Department (or what we called Special Ed when I was in school). These kids were mostly learning disability kids who were in general classrooms, and my job was to sit in various classes and help these kids stay on task and re-explain things to them. One social studies project was to do some basic research on African countries. One of my girls stood in front of the class and read her first sentence: “The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most dangerous countries in the world.” And then she paused. At first I thought it was for dramatic purposes, but I think it was just nerves. But what this girl (whose name I can’t remember now) will never know is how profound an opening statement is. Of course, I’m not quite sure this 7th grader knew the magnanimity that statement holds when she said it.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a large country in central Africa, surrounded by Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia, Angola, and Angola’s exclave Cabinda. The Congo River is a major river that runs through this country, also lending its name to the name of the country. It also shares part of Lake Tanganyika (bordered with Tanzania) and a small portion – about 17 miles – of the Atlantic Ocean on the other side of the country. Straddling the equator, it’s the third largest country in Africa (after Angola and Sudan).
The earliest residents were thought to have been part of the Bantu migration. One of the first highlights is the Upemba culture (later to become the Luba Empire and then the Kingdom of Lunda). The area they were established was rich in ores, so the development of copper and iron (as well as their part in the ivory trade) were key to their success. It helped them to have a strong economy and gave them a lot of wealth. Other empires such as the Kongo Empire and the Kuba Federation would have major impacts prior to and during the early days of European involvement. In the late 1870s, the Belgians took over and renamed this area as Congo Free State. It wasn’t such a good time: many Congolese died from disease and torture by the Belgians in their efforts to create a thriving rubber industry in concordance with the new automobile industry. If you’ve read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (I did a few years ago), it’s set in Congo Free State. In 1908, the Belgians officially called it a colony, renaming it Belgian Congo. This move was met with a lot of international disapproval. By the time the 1960s rolled around, Belgian Congo (like many other African countries at this time) started looking towards independence. After some upheaval after independence was granted and a shift in leadership, it rested with Joseph Mobutu who named it Democratic Republic of the Congo. It later changed to Republic of Zaïre in 1971 (which is how I learned it growing up). Mobutu was against communism yet created a one-party system and maintained a system of embezzlement and corruption that lasted decades. In 1997, the name was changed back to Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the country had suffered two civil wars and several conflicts since the late 1990s. These have been some of the deadliest fighting in history; a study in 2009 estimated around 45,000 are dying every month (upwards of 5.5 million so far), and a new study estimates that 400,000 women and girls are raped every year as a result of the prevailing sexual violence.
The capital city is Kinshasa, the city across the Congo River from the capital city of Republic of the Congo, Brazzaville. However, there isn’t a bridge built yet to connect the two – people use a ferry to get across. These two capital cities are the closest capital cities in the world (outside of Rome and Vatican City). While under Belgian control, it was known as Léopoldville, but when Mabutu took control, there was a large movement to “Africanize” the names of the cities, so it was changed to Kinshasa (named after an old fishing village that was located near the current site). Kinshasa, incidentally, is the second largest French-speaking cities in the world, after Paris. It’s also attributed as being the site of the earliest documented HIV-1 strain in 1959.
Like nearby Angola and other African countries, the DR Congo is quite wealthy if you look at its raw mineral quantities. However, because the country suffers from so much corruption, it’s not able to mine it effectively. They have more than 30% of the world’s diamond reserves and more than 70% of the world’s coltan (used for making tantalum capacitors in electronic products). They’re also the largest producer of cobalt and a large producer of copper as well as some other minor minerals. Because of the civil wars and internal conflicts, many foreign companies have pulled their business operations out of the DR Congo until it becomes safer and its economy more stable.
About 80-90% of the population consider themselves as followers of Christianity. A smaller number of Congolese follow Islam (about 10% or so). There is even a small number of people are members of the Baha’i faith, which was banned for a time during the 1970s and 1980s. There are those, as in many other areas of Africa, who embody both animism and other indigenous religious ideologies with the mainstream religions. However, many of the mainstream religious people condemn such practices and are especially harsh in dealing with things such as witchcraft, etc.
French is the official language used in the DRC, thanks to the Belgians. It’s also used as a lingua franca in areas where there are people from different ethnic groups working together. Of the 242 languages that are actually spoken by citizens of this country, only four have any special status: Kikongo (Kituba), Lingala, Tshiluba, and Swahili. Dutch was also spoken during the colonial period since many Belgians also speak Dutch, but it’s not used much anymore, if any.
The country has a lot of areas in need of improvement. Much of this is a direct result of the corruption at the top. Less than half of the country has access to clean water (only 27% in rural areas), and less than a quarter of the population has functional sanitation. They have a very high chance of contracting infectious diseases (including both airborne and waterborne), and their life expectancy is only 54 years old, but they average only 1 doctor per 10,000 people. Only 2 out of 3 Congolese are literate (in any language). 71% of the population lives below the poverty line. On the plus side, they’re the 7th least obese country in the world.
Despite its dire situation, there are some cool things about this country. For instance, they have a small space program believe it or not. Bonobos and eastern lowland gorillas are only found here as well. It’s said that locals (and probably more in rural areas) don’t take too kindly to taking pictures of people – they think when you take a picture of someone, you’re actually stealing their soul. I always find that even in the poorest of countries, there is always silver lining somewhere. When I tell people I’m on the DRC now, I either get blank stares or looks of pity like I just told them I buried my favorite cat. But I’m convinced it has much more to offer than being caught up in its horrific statistics regarding war and corruption. And after I found my recipes, I’m determined there is more out there.
Up next: holidays and celebrations