Evidence suggests that the region was inhabited as early as 10,000 years ago. Pygmies, the original inhabitants of this region, lived in the equatorial forests located in the north and northeast of the country. Hunting, gathering, and fishing were their main occupations. Around 2,000 years ago the Bantu began migrating into the region and started exerting control. They forced the pygmy groups to move south and organized themselves in small states ruled by chiefs or elders. Some of these states shaped themselves into empires; prominent among them were the kingdoms of Kongo, Luba, Kuba, and Lunda. As a result the Democratic Republic of the Congo is home to more than 250 tribes, and the Bantu continue to dominate. Atrocities committed against the pygmy tribes continue in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The European influence in the region began in the late 15th century. The first European to enter the Congo was a Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão who reached the mouth of the Congo River and sailed upriver to the north. The Portuguese established relations with the king of Kongo and brought the slave trade with them. The explorations of the Congo undertaken by explorers Henry Stanley (1841–1904) and David Livingstone (1813–73) caught the attention of the Belgian King Leopold II (1835–1909). He commissioned Henry Stanley to sign treaties with the tribal kings on his behalf and establish his authority in the region. In 1885 King Leopold’s claim on Congo was formally recognized by the other European powers in a special ceremony at the Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884–85. Leopold not only ruled Congo, but also he was its personal owner. Ironically, although the region was named the “Congo Free State,” the local population was treated brutally and forced into slavery on the rubber plantations. Between 1885 and 1908, a large number of Congolese were mercilessly killed by Leopold’s armed forces. Estimates vary between 3 and 22 million people killed; many researchers say more than 10 million is the most likely number. The population, which was estimated to have been between 20 and 30 million when Leopold took control, was reduced to about 8 million by 1908. The international community was shocked by the brutality and carnage and pressured Leopold to stop these atrocities. Finally the Belgian parliament took the Congo Free State under its wing and declared it a Belgian colony, renaming it the “Belgian Congo.” Around the same time, the Congolese initiated their own struggle for independence, and by 1950 the people of the Congo started nationwide demonstrations against foreign rule. On June 30, 1960, Congo won its freedom, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo was born. Patrice Lumumba (1925–61) became the first prime minister, and Joseph Kasavubu was declared president of the Republic. During the period of the first republic (1960–65), a series of gruesome events rocked the country. Vested Belgian interests stirred up the already existing ethnic rivalries, thereby creating problems for the newly independent nation, including a mutiny in Katanga, the assassination of Lumumba, and volatile rebellions in many parts of the republic, which resulted in the intervention of the United Nations. Colonel Joseph Mobutu (1930–97) assumed power and in 1965 declared himself its supreme leader, beginning the period of the second republic (1965–97). In accordance with his ideology of authentication, which held that the Zairian tradition favored a single authoritarian leader, he banned all political parties and also renamed the country “Zaire.” Unfortunately, he also plunged the nation into an economic crisis and created growing discontent among the general public. The human rights situation reached its nadir in the 1980s, and opposition leaders became prime targets. In 1990 under mounting international pressure, Mobuto reinstated a multiparty political system regime and declared the formation of the third republic. Nevertheless between 1990 and 1997, the country witnessed a sharp increase in ethnic violence as riots raged in different parts of the region. At the same time thousands of refugees from war-ravaged Rwanda began entering Zaire. An insurgence caused havoc in the region, and the government was unable to crush it. The insurgents, led by Laurent Kabila (1938–2001), launched a full-fledged war against the Zairean army and took control of Zaire by May 1997. Following his victory Laurent Kabila was sworn in as the president, and the country was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kabila’s attempts to revive the economy failed and he, too, displayed dictatorial tendencies by banning all opposition political parties. Moreover reports involving Kabila in ethnic killings of Rwandan Hutu in Rwanda and Uganda also surfaced, which indicted Kabila, along with the Tutsi militants, as an active accomplice in these executions. The Rwandan Hutu militants were living as refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, having fled their country due to the rise of a Tutsi-led government, which had engaged in the wholesale slaughter of Hutus. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo these Rwandan Hutus, along with Congo’s ethnic Hutus, launched a program of organized executions of ethnic Tutsis in the Congo. In retaliation Congolese Tutsis joined with Tutsis in Rwanda and Uganda and launched a counteroffensive under Kabila’s direction. This sparked an ethnic war, which resulted in indiscriminate killing of Hutus as well as Tutsis. With Kabila’s involvement in the ethnic violence exposed, some ethnic Hutus in the Congo led a failed mutiny against him in 1998. Meanwhile Uganda and Rwanda began extending support to the insurgents and opponents of Kabila’s regime, while Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Angola supported the Kabila regime, escalating the violence into a full-scale regional conflict. President Kabila was assassinated on January 16, 2001, by one of his bodyguards. His son Maj. Gen. Joseph Kabila (b. 1971) was elected the new president. He has made attempts to end the regional conflict and has signed peace agreements with the warring groups. Although the war is over, sporadic eruptions of violence continue and the wounds inflicted on the region and its people will take some time to heal. Recommendations to avoid entering the country continue in the 21st century because of the violence and the instability of its government. In 2003 the International Human Rights organization caught the attention of the world by reporting that widespread acts of cannibalism were being committed against the endangered pygmy groups living in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Many Congolese believe that pygmies are both subhuman and powerful and that by eating their flesh they will also become powerful. This myth has spelled doom for the pygmies, who are being systematically exterminated. The cannibals are using their vital organs as charms. Rampant raping and killing of pygmy women is also a cause of great alarm. The Movement for the Liberation of Congo, a member of the transitional alliance government and its allies, has been identified as the main perpetrator.
Located in the central part of Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is surrounded by Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania to the east; Zambia to the southeast and Angola to the south; the Atlantic Ocean and the Congo Republic to the east; the Central African Republic to the north; and the Sudan to the northeast. It straddles the equator; two-thirds of the country lies in the Southern Hemisphere and one-third in the Northern Hemisphere. The capital Kinshasa is the largest city. The country has a largely tropical climate. Tropical forests cover the central plains. They are flanked by dense grasslands that extend beyond the Congo River in the north, plateaus and savannas in the south and southeast; and mountainous terraces in the west. Mt. Margherita, at 17,762 feet, is the highest peak. The nation’s transport system is largely dependent on its rivers. Bomu and Ugami are the main rivers in the north, and the Congo River flows through the western part of the country. While the river basins are hot and humid, the southern highlands are cool and dry.
Since 1985 despite the fact that the Democratic Republic of Congo possesses great natural resources, the economy has suffered immensely due to incessant war and genocide, bad governance, and poor economic policies. The Congo War has eaten up the government’s revenue and dramatically reduced the national output. Lack of infrastructure, ongoing ethnic conflicts, corruption, devastating famine, and disease are the major hindrances in the development of the economy. Moreover, the country has mounting foreign debts, all of which make reviving the economy, halting the illegal traffic in its citizens, and bringing peace to the war-weary country particularly daunting tasks. The country remains a source country for men, women, and children internally trafficked for forced labor and sexual exploitation. The vast majority of the trafficking occurs in northeastern and eastern Congo, regions that are outside effective government control. Armed groups continue to abduct and forcibly recruit Congolese men, women, and children to serve as laborers, porters, domestics, combatants, and sex slaves. Civilians are also forced to provide labor for armed groups and the Congolese military (FARDC).
There are more than 250 ethnic groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with the Bantuspeaking people forming the bulk of the population. The Nilotic-speaking population resides in the north while scattered groups of pygmies live in the northeast. Also thousands of refugees from neighboring countries, who fled their war-stricken nations, have settled here. Although French is the official language, the people prefer to speak their native languages, primarily Kiwanga, Lingala, Kikongo, and Tshiluba, but with 250 ethnic groups, each with its own language or dialect, communication among the groups is often difficult. More than 50 percent of the inhabitants are Roman Catholic, while 20 percent are Protestant. Muslims make up 10 percent of the population. A considerable number of people are affiliated with an indigenous Christian church known as Kimbanguism, which fuses the beliefs of Christianity with traditional African ones. Kimbanguism (The Church of Christ on Earth) is a branch of Christianity founded by Simon Kimbangu (1889–1951), an African preacher. The Belgian authorities treated the faith with suspicion and imprisoned Simon Kimbangu for most of his life (he died in prison). Kimbanguism gained membership of the World Council of Churches in 1969. The pygmy populations are as varied as the other cultures, and different groups speak different languages, most of which are related to the languages spoken by neighboring non-pygmy populations. Evidence shows, however, that at one time the various pygmy groups shared a common language. This is reflected in the word jengi, a common term used by all the pygmy groups, to refer to the forest spirits. Although Kinshasa is a city of more than five million people, most Congolese reside in rural areas. While urban Congolese generally prefer to dress in Western attire, rural people still wear the traditional attire of their ethnic groups. Among the Kongo women who live in the western part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo dress and body art in the form of distinct and elaborate scarifications have traditionally symbolized beauty and status. In the modern era, scarification is becoming obsolete, but the patterns have been captured on beautifully carved sculptures of nursing women called phemba. Phemba sculptures are used to ward off evil during delivery and to protect the health of the newborn child. Traditional forms of art still survive in rural areas, including the Kongo art of carving wooden figures, which is called nkisi nkondi (also referred to as power sculptures). The traditional music of the pygmies is vocal and rich in polyphonic harmony. The songs they sing are based on themes concerning their rural lives and especially their hunting and gathering skills.
The most popular dish in the Democratic Republic of Congo is moambé, a spicy stew of peanuts, palm oil, and chicken served with yams, native loso rice, or most commonly fufu, a paste of mashed manioc (cassava). Common foods include yams, bananas, plantains, fruits, and fish.
Although the pygmy groups do not have special birth rituals, they practice a form of foster parenting requiring that individuals other than biological parents take care of a newborn child. This care comes mainly from female relatives, such as sisters, aunts, grandmothers, and even other members of the village. Newborn infants in pygmy tribes spend 40 percent of their time in the first three weeks of their new lives away from their mothers; they are often cared for by their siblings or female relatives. This is supposed to foster a special bond within the family.
The coming-of-age ceremony is integral to many cultures around the world. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, different tribes perform different initiation ceremonies for boys and girls. The Bambuti pygmies, who reside in the Ituri forest, call the initiation ceremony for girls elima. When a tribal girl starts to menstruate, there is a big celebration since the event represents hope for the survival of the family and the tribe. The elima is a time of festivities, and the initiate lives in a special hut made for her, along with some of her friends. The ritual lasts for a period of one or two months, and a female relative is chosen to impart lessons on sex and adult womanhood. Traditional songs and dances, history lessons, and lessons on motherhood are part of the training. Excision of the clitoris is practiced by groups who live in the northern equatorial part of the country. There is no law in the Democratic Republic of Congo against female genital mutilation, and it is estimated that 5 percent of the women in the country have been infibulated. At night when the girls sing together, the men hang around the hut and often sing along. Flirting is also permitted. On the final night of the ceremony, initiates adorn their bodies with white clay, paint, and apply perfumed oils and herbs. It is a night of rejoicing and is marked by dancing. The next day the girls complete their initiation period and are eligible for marriage. Among the Baka pygmies, the initiation ceremony for men involves meeting with the Jengi (forest) spirit in a very secretive affair, which they are forbidden to discuss. Male circumcision is practiced among the Bantu-speaking tribes and is considered an important ritual that helps a boy make a swift transition to manhood.
Exchanging gifts is the hallmark of traditional marriage in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Negotiations regarding gifts begin between families shortly after a marriage has been fixed. These gifts are known as bride-price and consist of livestock and money. The term bride price does not have a negative connotation, since it indicates the husband’s ability to take care of his bride and his family. In the local Swahili language, it is called mali, which means “the worth.” It is also called lobola or “dowry” in many parts of Africa. Young men spend years trying to accumulate enough money to pay the mali. Also in many parts of the region, nonpayment of mali often results in rejection of marriage proposals. Until the mali is paid, the groom cannot take his bride home. However, the ongoing civil war in the country has rendered most of the people penniless, so few families can pay the mali. Traditional marriage rites are being abandoned because most young people are eloping (to ensure that payment of mali does not become a hindrance in their marriage), much to the displeasure of their parents and tribes.
The older tribes do not consider death a natural phenomenon. Instead, they believe that death occurs when someone invokes the power of supernatural forces by acts of sorcery, witchcraft, and vodun. They also believe that the soul becomes a ghost or evil spirit and will avenge its death. Hence special rituals are practiced to pacify these spirits and protect the living from their wrath. During funerals, people wear masks because they believe that masks drive away the evil spirits. Along with the traditional African beliefs, there coexists a strong belief in a Christian God. But funeral celebrations tend not to center on this God but rather honor elders and ancestors. When an elder dies, other elders of the tribe perform a special ceremony in his honor, and the entire village participates. It is believed that ancestors can be appeased by making offerings to honor them and by following and honoring the traditional way of life. Most tribes retain their traditional funeral rites and customs.