HISTORY
First settled by Mbuti (formerly known as Pygmies) Congo was later settled by Bantu groups that also occupied parts of present-day Angola, Gabon, and Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), forming the basis for ethnic affinities and rivalries among those states. Several Bantu kingdoms— notably those of the Kongo, the Loango, and the Teke—built trade links leading into the Congo River basin. In 1482 the Portuguese located the Congo River and were soon using it for trade in slaves and ivory. For centuries the Congo River was a conduit of trade and conflict among various African groups and European colonizers, but only in 1880 did the French assume dominion over the colonial territory they called French Congo (or Middle Congo). In 1908 France collected various territories—Gabon, Chad, Oubangui-Chari (modern Central African Republic), and the Congo—into French Equatorial Africa (AEF), with Brazzaville as the federal capital. The following decades saw increasing discontent over continuing exploitation by the French. During World War II the AEF administration sided with Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) rather than with the Vichy regime in France, and from 1940 to 1943 Brazzaville became the symbolic capital of Free France. The Brazzaville Conference of 1944 began major reforms in French colonial policy including the end of forced labor, French citizenship for colonial subjects, decentralization of power, and the beginnings of self-government. Middle Congo became the Republic of the Congo in 1960 when it proclaimed independence without leaving the French Community. Fulbert Abbé Youlou (1917–72) served as the country’s first president, but he was deposed in 1963, overthrown in a three-day uprising called les Trois Glorieuses (or “Three Glorious Days”), led by labor and competing political parties; every member of his government was arrested or removed from office. The military briefly seized control and installed a civilian provisional government headed by Alphonse Massamba-Débat (1921–77). Under the 1963 constitution Massamba-Débat was elected president for a five-year term; he named Pascal Lissouba (b. 1931) prime minister. But Massamba-Débat’s term came to a sudden end in 1968, when army officers led by Captain Marien Ngouabi (1938–77) toppled the government. After a period of consolidation under the newly formed National Revolutionary Council (NRC) Ngouabi (now a major) assumed the presidency on December 31, 1968. One year later President Ngouabi proclaimed Congo to be Africa’s first “people’s republic” and announced the decision of the National Revolutionary Movement to change its name to the Congolese Labor Party (PCT). Then early in 1977 President Ngouabi was assassinated, and a Military Committee of the Party (CMP) was named to head an interim government with Colonel (later General) Joachim YhombiOpango (b. 1939) serving as president. Only two years later in 1979 Yhombi-Opango was removed from office by the Central Committee of the PCT after being accused of corruption and deviating from party directives. The PCT then appointed Vice President and Defense Minister Colonel Denis SassouNguesso (b. 1943?) to serve as interim president. By the early 1990s after years of poor economic performance and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Congo authorities changed their political and economic views, and the country’s first democratic elections took place in 1992 with Pascal Lissouba (b. 1931) becoming the country’s first democratically elected president. The Republic of Congo has struggled with its experiment in democracy, enduring ethnic unrest and a civil war in 1997 and restoring democracy and peace in its tenuous accord with opposition forces in 2003.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Congo is located in central West Africa, spanning the equator. It has Gabon to its west, Cameroon and Central African Republic to its north, Democratic Republic of the Congo to its south, and a small coastline with the Atlantic Ocean on the southwest side. The small coastal part of the country has grasslands, whereas the central and southern part form plateaus. The land rises toward Gabon, with tropical rain forests becoming more frequent toward the northern zone, where the land is covered with tropical rain forests that are richly nourished and flooded during monsoon by the tributaries of the Congo River, most notably the Ubangui and Sangha Rivers. The average temperature ranges from 70°F to 81°F, with an average rainfall of 43 inches annually. The temperatures remain high, and the weather is humid in areas closer to the equator. The rainy, tropical season lasts from March until June, followed by the dry season from July until October.
ECONOMY
Forestry was the backbone of Congo’s economy before the oil and petroleum industries took over. Congo is now one of the biggest petroleum producers in the entire African region. During the 1980s the gross domestic product of Congo rose by 5 percent, by far the highest in any African country. This growth can be attributed to the rising oil revenues that fueled internal development, and Congo has yet to tap its offshore oil reserves. Electricity is provided by the Sounda Gorge hydroelectric power project and by the electric utility Societé Nationale d’Electricité. Mining has also become an important activity over the years, though the biggest chunk of foreign exchange comes from oil-based activities (fourth largest in sub-Saharan Africa). The agriculture sector consists primarily of subsistence farming. Cassava (manioc) is the main food crop, with cocoa and coffee forming the main cash crops, along with sugar and tobacco. A big portion of the country is home to tropical rain forests, so the timber industry also provides a major source of export revenue. There is a small manufacturing industry base for utilizing forestry and agricultural products. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund continue to support the economic reform program of Congo. Poor infrastructure and public health problems, however, tend to pull down the economy.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
The majority tribe the Bakongo or Kongo has inhabited the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), the Democratic Republic of Congo (Kinshasa), and Angola for centuries. (The first two countries are often referred to as Congo-Brazzaville or CongoKinshasa.) In the late 15th century the Portuguese arrived on the western African coast. From the time of their arrival there was a great deal of tension between the Portuguese and the Bakongos, particularly in relation to Portuguese efforts to convert the indigenous people to Christianity. Today the Bakongos often combine traditional and Christian beliefs. They believe in spirit cults and the active role of ancestors in their lives. Ancestors are seen as mediators between the living and the spirit worlds. Rural Congolese lead a traditional life: Men rule over women, and the gender roles are rigidly defined. Men hunt, clear forests, and make all the necessary decisions. Women are supposed to fetch ❊ water, tend fields, cook, care for the family, and do the housework. Married women cannot use banking facilities, are seldom allowed to work in offices (when they do they are paid less than men), cannot get a passport, and cannot rent or sell property without their husbands’ permission. The wood carvings of the Kongo and Teke tribes, mostly realistic figures representing their ancestors, are highly valued. Some of the special figures are fetishes based on the belief that a spirit inhabits them. The Republic of the Congo is rich in literary works as well as in art. Sylvain Bemba (1934–95) was a famous journalist of his time who wrote novels and plays on his African experiences. In The Man Who Killed a Crocodile, for instance, Bemba writes about a local schoolteacher who confronts the village people about the ill-treatment of a woman of the village. He talks about the power of education in undoing injustice. Sony Labou Tansi (1947–95) is another writer known for his insightful examination of local politics. Gerald Felix Tchicaya U. Tamsi (1931–88) was one of the greatest Congolese poets; his works probe the social and political disappointments of the people of Africa.
CUISINE
The traditional Congolese way of eating involves serving food on banana or cassava leaf plates. Cooking in liboke (“leaves”) is a common practice, adding a distinctive flavor to any dish cooked this way. A Congo-Brazzaville National Culinary Team (also called Team Bana Liboke) has as its goal to make Congolese cuisine and eating habits famous. A popular sweet dish is baked bananas, though mangoes are commonly available, too. The more affluent Congolese eat two or three meals a day, but most households prepare just one meal, which is eaten in the evenings. Common people cook in one pot to save fuel and take turns picking out a handful of rice (or any other cereal or grain), which they eat like a ball with sauce/stew. The stew is called mwamba and can be made of fish, lamb, meat, or chicken. It is eaten with cassava, fufu (a corn flour preparation), or rice. Common Congolese dishes include pili pili (chicken), saka saka (cassava), mabuke (freshwater fish), and fumbwa (vegetable stew). Cooked termites are delicacies in some places, while caterpillars, roasted crickets, and grubs are relished in other areas. Bush meat is often grilled crocodile, smoked monkey, or smoked antelope. It is customary in Congo-Brazzaville to spill some drink on the floor before consuming it as a libation for thirsty ancestors. BIRTH
Since having children is a sign of prosperity, Congolese families are generally large, and childbirth is marked with celebration and rejoicing. Though the government has undertaken several family-planning programs, by the 1990s each woman had six children on an average. However women living in the cities now find it expensive to have so many children, and the average number of children fell to about three per woman in 2004. Childbirth, however, remains a special occasion. According to a custom the maternal uncle names the boy child, while the aunt or mother names a girl.
COMING OF AGE
Secret societies oversee many indigenous African ceremonies and rituals, including coming-of-age rites. The practice of concealing rituals developed because slave masters prohibited them. Traditions were kept secret in order to preserve them. In Congo when boys and girls are on the cusp of puberty, they are kept in seclusion for several days while undergoing initiation rituals. Boys must pass tests of strength and endurance to become adult men, whereas women learn lessons particular to their adult responsibilities. Boys are circumcised to symbolize their entry into adulthood. Genital cutting, or female genital mutilation, a highly controversial practice in the west that has been banned in many countries, is still practiced in the Republic of the Congo. Masked dances and feasting mark this occasion as the young have been initiated successfully into their adult roles and into identities.
MARRIAGE
In earlier times the parents of prospective couples arranged most marriages, but this practice has fallen out of favor. The groom pays a bride price to the girl’s parents and takes it back in case of a divorce. There is a tradition of exchanging gifts, followed by a civil ceremony, and culminating for Christians with a church ceremony. Marriages involve much feasting, dancing, and merrymaking, which may last for days, particularly in the rural areas. Some ceremonies incorporate broom-jumping after the wedding. Symbolic of homemaking, broom-jumping also signifies moving “over” or “sweeping away” the past and moving into a new life after marriage. Pouring wine on the floor as an offering invites the ancestors to witness the wedding and underscores the importance of heritage and family.
DEATH
The Pygmies of Africa’s Congo see death as a sharp delineation. They pull down the hut over the dead person and move away with their camps while the family mourns. The dead person is then essentially erased from memory and never mentioned again. Widows may sometimes roam about naked or wear small aprons, which are traditionally worn by unmarried girls. People soon return to their normal lives. Most Bakongos believe that when people die their last bit of strength gets left behind in the cup or plates they touched last. The children of the deceased are encouraged to touch these utensils, and it is expected that what they need to know from the deceased will be revealed in dreams. The deceased is placed in the grave facing east and no grass is allowed to grow on the grave. The grave is decorated with seashells, expressing the belief that seashells enclosed the soul’s immortal presence and represented the sea, the land of demise, and purity.