In the late 1800s, a large mass of central Africa nestled in the basin of the Congo river, became "the Congo Free State." Ironically, the area was only free for those Belgian colonists who were taking advantage of the area's natural resources. Men, women, and children native to the area found themselves under the rule of King Leopold II. In 1908, the king decided to stop mincing words. The land his countrymen had conquered was henceforth known as "The Colony of the Belgian Congo," a name more fitting for an area beset on all sides by colonists, missionaries, and scheming entrepeneurs.
Half a century later, on June 30, 1960, the people of the Congo gained their independence and, once again, the name of their beautiful country was changed. This time it was "the Democratic Republic of the Congo" they called home. Due to name confusion between this and other Congo areas, 1971 President Mobutu Sese Seko changed the country's name to "Zaire," in the name of "cultural nationalism." Many people of the Congo rejected the name and, when the government again changed hands in 1997, its name was soon changed back. Are you with me so far? We've come full-circle: once again, we're talking about "the Democratic Republic of the Congo."
But a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and so we'll leave the labeling to the professionals. What you need to know is that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is still an epicenter for war, political upheaval, and one of the stickiest conflicts to date in African history.
The Lay of the Land
The Congo stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Tanganyika. The heart of the Congo rests in the basin of the Congo river, about 25 miles inland. The area is longer than it is wide, however, straddling the Equator and extending from Sudan to Zambia. It is one of the largest countries on the continent.
Nearly half the country is covered in dense forests surrounded by plateaus, but lands in the Congo are as varied as any in Africa. From lakes to ocean, savannahs to rifts, mountains and volcanoes, forests and grasslands, the Congo is 2.3 million square miles of Sub-Saharan Africa--a land mass larger than all of the United States east of the Mississippi river!
Most of these areas receive much rainfall, though the climate can be described as a series of wet and dry seasons. Though the soil isn't usually furtile, the regions of the Congo are rich in copper, cobalt, coltan, silver, gold, iron ore, tungsten, and uranium. Others provide diamonds, oil reserves and coal deposits. Most of the land remains undeveloped, though 13% of the world's hydroelectric potential is in the Congo.
Agriculture is a major part of life in the Congo. Most people farm, whether they live in tropical rain forests or clear savannahs. People plant traditional crops such as pulses, millet, sorghum and yams as well as cassava, plantains, sugarcane, corn, rice, and bananas.
Where the Wild Things Are
The diverse species of animals and plants make the Congo a paradise for scientists. The Congo is home to some extremely rare animals, including the okapi, pangolin, several species of gorilla, and African manatees.
In addition to exotic animals and plants, the Congo hosts a number of terrible diseases. While AIDS is an epidemic throughout Sub-Sarahan Africa, it is particularly problematic in the Congo. Also problematic are the occasional outbreaks of Ebola, the deadly virus originally discovered in the basin of the Congo river that has claimed thousands of lives since its discovery in 1975.
People are Strange (When You're a Stranger)
A large majority of the people of the Congo are (appropriately) Congolese, native Melano-Africans. The second largest group are the Pygmies, African hunter-gatherers of mysterious origins who live in the heart of the Congo's deepest forests. Most people of the Congo, however, live along the edge of the forests, particularly along the country's eastern borders and the areas south of the Congo river system.
After forced detribalization became a major policy under Belgian rule, over half of the population was moved into cities like the capital Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Kisangani and Matadi, a major port at the mouth of the Congo river.
Breaking up the tribes gave the colonizers a new problem: conflicting cultures breed aggression. The colonizers began like-housing the Congolese, essentially recreating tribes in a clumsy fashion. People began to allign themselves with the urban tribal communities. Tribalism, though not the exact process it was before colonization, is still a major part of the Congolese culture.
The religious beliefs of the people have also adapted to this urbanization. Many continue to practice rites and follow beliefs from ancient tribal communities, while most have converted to Christianity, very few to Islam. People have also adapted to communicate between tribes who once had very different languages. In the modern Congo, most people speak a form of Bantu socially and at home. At school and in formal settings, French is the official language.
The Congo of today is a maelstrom of regional conflicts, corrupt government agencies, and poverty tearing through what has always been beautiful lands. While the future of this region remains uncertain, one hopes these peoples can return to the calm, peaceful lives they lead so many years ago.
Bustin, Edouard and Thomas Turner, "Democratic Republic of Congo." Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Grolier, Inc., 2002. http://gme.grolier.com (February 21, 2003).
"Congo, Democratic Republic of the," Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. Microsoft Corporation, 2003. http://encarta.msn.com (February 21, 2003).
Nzongola-Ntalaja, Georges, "Anatomy & History of the Zaire-Congo Crises." USAfrica Online. USAfrica MultiMedia Networks, 2003. http://USAfricaonline.com (February 21, 2003).
This has been submitted to the Everything Noder Pageant 2003 Regional Finals. I'd also like to say that I wish for world peace, an end to hunger, and hemorrhoid cream for all the puffy-eyed people everywhere.