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Congolese (Brazzavillans)

ALTERNATE NAMES: Congo-Brazzavillans
LOCATION: Republic of the Congo Population: 3,903,318
LANGUAGE: French,Lingala, Kikongo,Sangha,Bateke,60 others
RELIGION: Christianity (Catholic), animism


In October 1997, the Republic of the Congo swore in a new president after waging a four-month civil war that killed thousands and left Brazzaville, once one of the most peaceful and smoothly run capitals in Central Africa, in ruins. Five years after the first democratic elections, private militias installed an unelected government. The civil war was partially fueled by the prize of the country's offshore oil wealth, which motivated many of the warlords. The army split along ethnic lines, with most northern officers joining President Denis Sassou-Nguesso's side and most southerners backing the rebels. By the end of 1999, the government, which was backed by Angolan forces, had taken most of the key positions, and the rebels agreed to a ceasefire. However, remnants of the civil war militias, known as Ninjas, have remained active in the southern Pool region.

The Republic of Congo is one of sub-Saharan Africa's main oil producers, though 70% of the total population of about 3.9 million lives in poverty. In 2004 the country was expelled from the Kimberley Process, which is supposed to prevent conflict diamonds from entering the world supply market. This followed investigations that found that the Republic of Congo could not account for the origin of large quantities of rough diamonds that it was officially exporting. However, reports of battle and corruption do not do justice to the Republic of the Congo. It has long been the education and banking center of the Central African region. During World War II, it was the capital of the Free French movement led by Charles de Gaulle against the Nazis and France's Vichy government. Its leaders were unabashedly Communist during the latter half of the Cold War, trading vigorously with China and the Soviet Union.

Mention “The Congo,” and many people think of the jungles made famous by the writings of Joseph Conrad in The Heart of Darkness. The Republic of the Congo is located directly across the Congo (or Zaire) River from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (known as Zaire until mid-1997), the setting for Conrad's novel. The river that divides the two Congos is the second longest in Africa, after the Nile, and carries the largest potential supply of hydroelectric power in the world.

Brazzaville is Congo's capital, sitting directly across the great river from Zaire's pulsating capital, Kinshasa. But, Kinshasa seems a world away from the sleepier city on the opposite bank. Brazzaville is calm and orderly, boasting relatively reliable transportation links and utilities, and a crime rate significantly lower than that of Kinshasa and indeed many other African cities. Pointe-Noire, the Congo's industrial and petroleum center, is located on the Atlantic coast and boasts a dredged harbor that can accommodate oil tankers from around the world.

The Portuguese discovered the mouth of the Congo River in 1482 and began trading with the Kongo kingdom, which had been consolidated in the 14th century. Slaves and ivory attracted the interest of other European countries, and in 1883, explorer Savorgnan de Brazza signed treaties with the Bateke, a tribe located to the north, ceding the entire region to France.

Today, the Congo continues its close relationship with France, despite achieving independence in 1960. Its currency is tied directly to the French franc, and France remains its chief trading partner.


The Congo straddles the equator, most of the land covered by dense tropical forest. It is hot, very humid, and rains an average of 178 cm (70 in) per year. Wooded savanna, river valleys, and a small coastal plain make up less than half of the total land area, which is 342,000 sq km (132,000 sq mi), about the size of Montana. The Congo's entire eastern and southern borders are washed by the Congo River. The magnitude of this river in the lives of Congolese, past and present, cannot be underestimated. Over 1,600 km (1,000 mi) of unbroken navigable water serves as a veritable highway for huge barges and dugout canoes, carting people and produce through Central Africa. People eat from it, 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.

Inland, there are many lakes and marshes, one of which is the legendary home of a water-dwelling dinosaur known locally as Mokele-Mbembe, considered somewhat of a national treasure, and hunted, but never seen, by groups of eccentric Western scientists. Better documented are elephant, hippo, lowland gorilla, lion, chimpanzee, pangolin, bushpig, dozens of ungulates, crocodile, and tropical birds. The two major environments that comprise the Congo, forest and savanna, are pure contrasts. In most of the forest, one cannot see more than a few yards. On the savanna-covered plateaus, one can see for miles. In the dry season, miles of fire, set by lightning or the game-hunter, ring the horizons.


French is the administrative language of the Congo, with Lingala, Kikongo, Sangha, and Bateke the most widely spoken native languages. There are 60 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, usually situated near the compound of the village chief. In the past, everyone within earshot understood the meaning of the various rhythms. There were rhythms for death, birth, marriage, or the impending arrival of a dignitary. Talking drums still are used, but they are losing their original relevancy in lieu of 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 are imbued with mystical powers, are responsible for the creation of the ancestral lineage, and revered through storytelling and surrounding ritual and taboo.


The vast majority of the population identifies itself as Christian, primarily Catholic. Many continue to hold animist beliefs and do not consider them contrary to monotheism. Local animists long believed in one supreme god before the arrival of European missionaries. Its name is Nzambi and 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. So, the world was born by opportune accident.


The Congo's national holiday is celebrated on August 15 and commemorates the country's independence from France begun on that day in 1960. Independence Day is celebrated in streets, courtyards, houses, and bars. Beer and palm wine are consumed in large quantities, and 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. Less than 1% of the land in the Congo is used for animal husbandry, and most meat is either hunted or imported at great expense.

Other holidays include Christmas and New Year's, Easter, All Saints Day, and June 10 (National Reconciliation Day).


Because many Africans believe in the spirit life of their ancestors after death, funeral and mourning rituals are accorded great importance. But, the ritual life of the Congo is changing quickly with urban migration fueled by wage labor. For traditionalists, the period of mourning can be very involved and intensely onerous. Widows typically shave their heads, dress in rags, and bathe infrequently. They sometimes are required to live by themselves in a house far removed from the center of the village, forbidden to talk with anyone or look a person in the eye. Their only food might be leftovers from their in-laws' table, never to include meat or fish. This state of affairs can last anywhere from one month to the rest of a widow's life, depending on the ethnic group, village, and piety of the family. Widowers, understood to have important work to do outside the home, including fathering more children, might be expected to wait a year before remarrying, as a sign of respect to the dead wife.

A ritual surrounding marriage, practiced less now than in the past, attests to the traditional importance of premarital virginity for girls. It is interesting to note that this ritual 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, to inquire pointedly about the previous night's events. Was consummation successful? Were all parties satisfied? Was there blood evident to prove the virginity of the bride? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then the husband has the right to ask for his bride-price back and annul the marriage.


Different cultures express greetings in different ways and so it is in the Congo, with its many cultural heritages. Common for some groups is to greet close relatives not seen for a long time with a bear hug. Among friends and acquaintances, there is the two-handed shake. While in neighboring Gabon, kissing alternate cheeks three to four times is prevalent even in the villages, it is a Western custom seen in the Congo 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, that of their family, and an indication of the honor that their presence bestows. Public recognition of social hierarchy is very important, and 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. It currently ranks 16 out of 52 on the United Nations Human Development Index for Africa, which ranks countries according to quality of life based on income levels, literacy, and other criteria. This relative wealth is primarily due to the existence of petroleum.

Outside of the cities, houses commonly are built out of mud brick and are in constant need of repair. Many can afford corrugated zinc roofs on their homes, and those who cannot use thatch. Buildings in urban areas are usually made out of concrete blocks, and there are several steel and glass office towers in Brazzaville, though they have been severely damaged by the war.

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 a front yard that is scrupulously cleared of weeds and grasses in an effort to keep away snakes, rats, and insects. Cooking often takes place in the front of the house over an open fire, where the women prepare the food, and everyone else gathers. Small villages are arranged with straight, perpendicular streets of dirt and a wide boulevard through the center.

Larger towns and cities are relatively clean and well-planned. Utilities, such as electricity and water, are available, if not affordable to everyone. This is not the case throughout the interior. Villages not on the power grid often use gas powered generators for communal purposes during restricted hours. Watching a wrestling match on a television placed in front of the local bar is but one example.

Although nearly two-thirds of the Congo's citizens live in or between the two major cities of Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire, making it one of the most urbanized populations in Africa, there is ample room for small farms and gardens, and most Congolese are engaged in some type of subsistence farming. They know how to farm and produce just enough food to feed their families and perhaps fill a stall at the vegetable market.


The average Congolese woman bears six children during her lifetime. Still, the Congo has one of the lowest population densities on the continent. In the past, most marriages were arranged by family members. Today, this is much less common. Often, a man proposes to a woman with a gift of money. Then, once both families are in agreement, a “dot,” or bride-price, is paid by the groom to the bride's parents. While this custom has no legal status, it is ancient and taken quite seriously. If a couple divorces, in many instances, the husband can demand his money back.

A visitor to the Congo might remark that women do most of the work it takes to run a family and 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. The nuclear family is not necessarily the standard unit. Family means an extensive network of relatives, including aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, nieces, and nephews. Matrilineal cultures, such as many in the Congo, identify the older brother of one's mother as the prime male role model and caretaker. Cousins on one's mother's side are considered brothers and sisters. If each woman has six children, there are many siblings.

The extended family plays the role in society that the state has taken over in many Western countries. Indigent, sick, or disabled people are rarely sent to institutions, such as nursing homes, left to live on the street, or live on welfare. Their care is the family's responsibility, and the burdens of this responsibility can be spread among the dozens of people that constitute a family.


Central Africans take care in their dress in general, 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-tailored garb. 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 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 nutrient-poor and, despite additional areas of savanna and river valley, only 2.5% of the Congo's soil is under cultivation. Foodstuffs commonly grown on this percentage include bananas, manioc, peanuts, coffee, cocoa, taro, and pineapples. Some livestock is raised, but over 90% of the country's meat is imported.

Congolese cultures abound with food taboos, many related to village, family, or even individual totemistic 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 50 in neighboring Gabon, for instance, who did not study in Europe, went to school in the Congo. While the government, by its own admission, has ignored the rural economy for decades, there is, in spite of this, 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 is estimated at 75% for adults.


“Every Congolese learns to sing,” so it is said. Singing has long been used to alleviate the tedium of work. There are songs about fishing, planting, and how to use a hoe, paddle a canoe, or pound manioc with a giant mortar and pestle. Musical instruments include myriad drums, 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 prolific storytellers. Passing tradition to other generations orally kept ethnic histories and the arts alive before the advent of literacy. Since the introduction of French and written language, however, the Congolese penchant for storytelling has found a new outlet, and its novelists, playwrights, and poets have gained celebrity throughout Franco-phone Africa. Jean Malonga, Henri Lopes, Soni Laboue Tansi, Marie Leontine Tsibinda, and Guy Menga are some of the best known.

There is a pre-modern pharmacological wisdom of rain forest-dwellers that now is beginning to be tapped by modern scientists. A deep knowledge of the forest is a rich, yet vanishing part of the Congo's cultural heritage, and while the average life expectancy of a Congolese has never been over 54 years, people in this region long have found local solutions to their health problems.


During the Communist regime, all land was officially state-owned, meaning by extension that all work on it was work for the state. This may have had something to do with the resulting underdevelopment of the agricultural sector over the decades. Conversely, the urban bureaucratic class exploded during this time. Between independence and 1970, after seven years of Communist rule, the civil service grew by 636%. Salaries for state workers ate up almost 75% of the national budget. These expenditures were paid for by oil revenues and foreign subsidies. With the change of governments, and the pressing need to reduce foreign debt, the Congo has significantly reduced the size of its bureaucracy.


As all over Africa, soccer is the most passionately followed sport. 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, one can follow the French Open tennis tournament in a thatched bar deep in the bush.


Sports, singing, dancing, music, storytelling, and visiting relatives are pastimes everywhere in the Congo. In the city, there are movies, some theater, and discotheques. Fishing is also considered recreational, as well as work. There is always sitting down to a cold Primus 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 pure aesthetic reasons. Masks, weaving, pottery, and ironwork were often abstract, depicting the human head or animals. Much of the local expertise in crafts has been lost, although a government agency and an ethnicity museum in Brazzaville are trying to preserve what knowledge and artifacts are left. With an active painting and literary community in the Congo, new forms continue to emerge.


The Congo suffered four months of war in a battle to overthrow the president of its very tenuous democracy. Violent death, dislocation, and general social breakdown are among the immediate problems the Congolese face. HIV and AIDS are also a major worry for the people of the Congo. Although infection rates are not as bad as elsewhere in eastern and southern Africa, it is estimated that at least 5.3% of the population between the ages of 15 and 49 years is HIV-positive. The prevalence rates range from 1.3% in the north to 10.3% in the south, where civil unrest still lingers.

There are tens of thousands of indigenous Pygmies in the Congo, considered to be the first inhabitants in the area. While equal rights are officially protected in the Congolese constitution, Pygmies are heavily discriminated against. They have been turned away from public hospitals when seeking medical care and are not represented in government. Th ose working in the formal sector, such as the logging industry, do not receive equal pay for equal work. Pygmy slavery used to be institutionalized in what is now the Congo, and while it is technically illegal, a form of indentured servitude is said to still exist. Discrimination against Pygmies is not exclusive to the Congo, but it exists all over Central Africa.


Women in the Republic of the Congo are underrepresented in positions of influence. For example, they control only 11.1% of the seats in parliament, attaining this figure in 2005 when President Sassou-Nguesso increased the number of women in the cabinet to 5 from an original 2 out of 35. The insecurity and displacement that occurred because of the fighting in the southern parts of the country have increased the vulnerability of women and adolescent girls to HIV/AIDS. Women under the age of 35 are twice as affected as men, with 61,000 women over the age of 15 living with HIV, out of about 100,000 adults aged 15 and above who are living with HIV. Human rights violations are quite common. Opponents to the government are routinely arrested and remain in custody without charge or trial.

There is no law against homosexual behavior in the penal code. However, there is no legal protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation, nor is there legal recognition of same-sex couples. The government stand on homosexuality is that it does not exist in the Congo.


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IRIN. Republic of the Congo: “Humanitarian Country Profile.” (September 2008).

Kempers, Anne Grimshaw. Heart of Lightness. Portsmouth, NH: P.E. Randall Publisher, 1993.

Vansina, Jan. Paths in the Rain Forest. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

Warkentin, Raija. Our Strength is in Our Fields: African Families in Change. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1994.

—revised by E. Kalipeni

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Congolese (Brazzavillans)

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