Introduction to the Democratic Republic of the Congo
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (often abbreviated by its initials, DRC) is a very diverse country geographically, culturally, and economically with a rich, but often very troubled, history, as we will learn as we engage in the four learning activities in this unit.
Take a look at the coat of arms and flag of the DRC. As is the case for many countries, including the United States, these national icons have significant symbolism for the DRC. Indeed, even before we learn about the history and cultures of the DRC we can learn something about the country by carefully looking at these two important national symbols.
The images or icons included in the coat of arms and flag are important to the national identity. Make a list of the various images or icons that are part of these two national symbols and briefly indicate why you think each of the images –including the motto –were included in the national flag and coat of arms. Some of the icons will be familiar to us and obvious as to why they were incorporated into these national symbols. However, some of the images may not be easily identifiable and therefore not obvious as to why they would be incorporated. Nevertheless, by the time we complete the five learning activities in this module, it will become clear why these icons are part of the national coat of arms and flag.
On a sheet of paper make a list of the various symbols that comprise the coat of arms. Beside each symbol suggest what you think the meaning of that symbol might be. The national motto, Justice, Paix, Travail, is in French, which is one of the official languages of the Congo. Translate these words into English.
Now describe the colors and symbols on the flag. What do you think the star symbolizes? The red and gold stripe? The blue background?
Peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
In spite of the devastation of the Great African War (1995 – 2007, analyzed in learning activity four of this unit) that caused the death of an estimated seven million Congolese, the DRC remains the fourth most populated country in Africa with a population of 79.4 million (2015), following Nigeria, Ethiopia and Egypt. The DRC’s population is currently growing at 2.7 percent annually. Not unlike most African countries, the population of the DRC is heavily skewed to youth: 44% of the national population is under 24 years of age! Compare this to 32% of the population for the same age group in the U.S. and 24% in Japan. This demographic reality makes great demands on the government and economy of the DRC in terms of providing schooling (and other social services) and opportunities for employment in an economy decimated by war, mismanagement, and the on-going legacy of the exploitation of the DRC’s natural resources by international companies that began with the slave-trade, expanded during colonialism and continues throughout the post-colonial era (detailed in the following learning activities).
Reflecting the demographic trends in all of Africa, the DRC is rapidly urbanizing. At its independence in 1960, less than 15% of the population lived in urban areas; the vast majority of the population lived in rural areas. Today, it is estimated that 42.5% of the Congolese live in urban areas. There are five major cities with a population bigger than a million: Kinshasa (10 million), Lubumbashi (nearly 2 million), Mbuji-Mayi (1.5 million), and Kanaga and Kisangani (each with approximately 1 million).
- Rapid population growth is a major issue in a number of African countries. What do you think are some of the social and economic consequences of rapid population growth for developing countries such as the DRC?
- What demands are placed on societies, such as the DRC, when the percent of the population who are youth is growing at a much faster rate than the adult population?
- What social and economic issues, do you think, become important in a country, such as the DRC, that experiences a rapid transfer of population from rural to urban areas?
- Demographers who study population trends in developing countries are concerned with the demands placed on societies by rapid population growth. One of the equations that they use to measure this concern is “population doubling time.” This is the period of time in which a society will need to double its capacity to provide housing, schooling, healthcare and employment for its citizens. Demographers use a very simple equation to determine the number of years that it will take for a given country to double its population: pdt = 70 divided by the population growth rate. Given the information provided above, in what year would we expect that the DRC’s current (2015) population of 79.4 to double to 158.8 million?
As is the case in most African countries, the DRC is a multi-ethnic country comprised of more than 200 distinctive ethno-linguistic groups, most of which belong to the large Niger-Congo/Bantu language family (introduced in Module Eight, Learning Activity Two).
The four largest, and politically the most influential ethnic groups, are the Mongo, Luba, Kongo and Mangbetu-Azande. While the DRC’s cultural diversity enriches the national culture through vibrant cultural expression in art, music, literature and performance, ethnicity—ethnic identity—was exaggerated, manipulated and exploited by Belgian colonial officials to minimize the development of nationalism (identification with a unified Congo) among the Congolese. The practice and legacy of divide and rule survived the end of colonialism as the leaders of independent Congo used ethnicity in a similarly divisive manner to enhance and maintain their personal power.
Relatedly, the DRC is a multilingual country with more than 200 languages spoken, most of which belong to the large Congo-Niger/Bantu language family. Given its colonial heritage, French remains the official language of the country. Four indigenous African languages are given a special status as national languages: Kituba (Kikongo), Lingala (major language of internal trade and commerce), Kiswahili, and Tshiluba.
Religiously, the Congo is also diverse, but reflecting the impact of Christian missionaries that began in the 16th century with arrival of the Portuguese in the Kongo Kingdom (detailed in the next learning activity), contemporary Congo is overwhelmingly Christian. Fifty percent of Congolese identify as Roman Catholic, thirty percent belong to variety of Protestant denominations, ten percent to the Kibanguist Church (largest African Independent Church in all of Africa), ten percent are Muslim and the remaining ten percent are followers of indigenous African religions. (For a much deeper discussion on Christianity- including African Independent Churches, Islam in Africa, and, African Indigenous Religions, see Module Fourteen Religion in Africa.)
Geography of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
The DRC is located in central Africa. Globally, its exact location extends from 12 degrees East (longitude) in the west of the country to 30 degrees East (longitude) in the east of the country and 5 degrees North (latitude) in the north to 12 degrees South (latitude) in the south. As indicated, the equator runs through the north central part of the country.
The DRC covers 2,345,410 square kilometers (905,568 square miles), making it the second largest country in Africa behind Algeria and the eleventh largest country in the world. If the DRC were a state in the U.S. it would be by far the largest, almost a third larger than Alaska (1,723,337 square kilometers).
One of the most interesting features of the geography of the DRC is that in spite of its size and central location in the “heart of Africa,” the country is almost completely landlocked. The DRC has 10,481 kilometers of land border with nine neighboring countries in addition to over 1,000 kilometers of lake boundary with Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda in the east. However, the DRC has only 37 kilometers of coastal border with the Atlantic Ocean in the west, at the mouth of the Congo River.
As clearly demarcated on the maps above, the DRC shares borders with nine neighboring countries, the largest number of bordering states of any African country. To the south the DRC is bordered by Angola (2,646 km); to the south east, Zambia (2,332 km); to the east, beginning in south, Tanzania (479 km); Burundi (236 km); Rwanda (221 km); Uganda (877 km); to the north east, South Sudan (714 km); to the north Central African Republic (1,747 km); and to the north west, the Republic of the Congo (1,229 km). The DRC also shares a short border to the north-west (on the Atlantic coast) with the tiny Angolan oil-rich enclave of Cabinda – an anomaly of colonial penetration of central Africa.
Administratively, the DRC is currently divided into 11 provinces (see map). However, the current president, Joseph Kabila, has proposed a radical reformation of provinces that would increase the number of provinces to 26. The argument that he uses to justify this change is that an increase in the number of provinces will help decentralize power, increasing democratic participation at the local level. Most opposition parties are opposed to the plan asserting that the plan is yet another attempt at divide and rule in that the new provinces will be so small that they have no real power, making them dependent on the central government and reducing the ability of the regionally based opposition groups to effectively challenge the president and ruling party.
In your Exploring Africa journal, write your own argument for or against increasing the number of provinces to 26.
Questions to consider:
- What could some negative effects on increasing the number of provinces be?
- What could some positive effects be?
- How might adding more provinces decentralize power in the government?
- Why might more provinces mean more centralized power?
- What are some examples of other nations or states with at least 26 provinces that support your argument?
Topography of the DRC
The physical geography of the DRC is comprised of its physical features, what geographers refer to as topography or relief, primarily measured by altitude and the surface features; its vegetation—the dominant flora or plant life in a given area; and climate, measured in average temperatures and precipitation or amount of rainfall. These categories determine the country’s environment and impact human activity.
As demonstrated on the maps below, the Congo is geographically diverse and can be divided into approximately four topographical zones. The coastal zone—adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean is the smallest of the topographical regions is comprised of a narrow coastal plain at the mouth of the Congo River that raises as an escarpment into low altitude range of fold mountains eastward into the interior of the DRC.
The great Congo (or Central) Basin topographical region covers most of the north-central part of the country. This region, as demonstrated below, is dominated by the Congo River and its major tributaries, Africa’s largest tropical rainforest and bordering savanna. Its relief is characterized as a vast rolling plain with an average altitude of 520 meters (1,700 feet).
The Congo Basin is partially surrounded to the south, east and north-east by separate high plateaus with an average altitude between 900-1,220 meters (3,000 – 4,000 feet). These plateaus do have some forest cover but are primarily savanna grasslands providing the agricultural potential that supported the largest political kingdoms in pre-colonial Congo.
The fourth topographical zone is the Eastern Highlands-Lake region that is part of what forms the western edge of the Great Rift Valley. This region includes the Lakes Albert, Edward, Kivu, Tanganyika and Mweru (from north to south) that forms part of the DRC’s borders with Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Zambia. The mountain range that frames the western edge of the Rift Valley includes a number of active volcanoes and boasts the highest mountains in the Congo, including Margherita Peak (5,109 meters/16,763 feet). The well-watered rich volcanic soils of this region support some of most productive farming in the country.
Vegetation and Climate
Vegetation is directly linked to climate and human activity. As a result of high precipitation, Congo’s vegetation is dominated by the largest tropical rainforest in Africa, and in the world is second in size to only to the Amazon rainforest. However, as clearly demonstrated on the vegetation maps, the tropical rainforest covers less than 40% of the country. Similar to neighboring areas in east and southern Africa, a significant section of the Congo is covered by savanna forests and grasslands. If we compare the vegetation maps with the political maps above, we will see that most of the large urban areas in the Congo are situated outside of the tropical rainforest area. The city of Kisangani is an exception. It is located in a forest area in the northeastern part of the country.
What are some potential benefits and possible constraints of living in a land with this type of topography? Complete the T-chart below to brainstorm some pros and cons of living in this kind of land.
Topography of the Congo and its Effects on the Population
As we will learn in the next two learning activities that focus on the history of and contemporary issues in the Congo, much of the “history” of the Congo takes place outside of the tropical rainforests. The sophisticated societies and centralized kingdoms of pre-colonial Congo all existed in the Savanna regions of the country. In spite of this fact, much of the popular lure of the Congo comes from perceptions of the forest that dominated European writings on the country. Although the vast majority of the peoples of the Congo lived outside the tropical rainforests, this dominant environment impacted the way in which outsiders (particularly European travelers and colonists) understood the Congo and its heterogeneous peoples).
Professor Jan Vansina captured this tendency in his seminal work, Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa, where he asserts that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries European writers claimed that the Congo had “no history except for the gyrations and migrations of ‘clans’ and ‘tribes’ which were the primary unit of society . . . They matched a never changing, monotonous, dark, debilitating juggernaut of a rainforest. No wonder that ways of life [were presented as] unrefined in such a ‘terrifying’ or ‘brutalizing’ environment, which smothered any puny attempts at change.” ( p. 5). This deeply held European perception that human life and societies in the Congo were negatively determined by the “never changing, monotonous, dark, debilitating juggernaut of a rainforest,” shaped and informed Belgian colonial policies and practices in the Congo.
In the last learning activity in this module we will return to this theme in our discussion of Joseph Conrad’s late 19th century novel, Heart of Darkness, which is situated in the Congo rainforests.
Precipitation in tropical zones around the world are directly impacted by the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), which is a weather trough that is formed where the northern and southern trade winds converge. The ITCZ moves north and south of the equator seasonally. The ITCZ normally reaches furthest north in June and July soon after the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere. The ITCZ reaches furthest south at the time in December-January around the time of the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere. Precipitation is directly related to the position of the ITCZ.
Take a look at the map of the ITCZ. Based on the fact that the equator runs through northern Congo with most of the country located south of the equator, in what months would expect to see the heaviest rainfall? Now look at the table that registers the rainfall by month. Are your assumptions correct?
Carefully study and compare the vegetation maps with the precipitation and relief maps:
- In which regions of the DRC do you think the most cultivation of food crops takes place?
- Why do you think that this is the case?
- What is the natural vegetation of these regions?
- In what region(s) does the least agricultural production take place?
- Why do you think that this is the case?
Hydrology: Rivers and Lakes
The geography of the Congo is dominated by water –vast river systems and lakes—as is clearly demonstrated in the map below. One of the ways to understand and assess the potential wealth of an area is to assess its natural resources. Water, as you know, can be classified as a natural resource. Hydrography is the science of the measurement, description, and mapping of the surface waters of the earth with special reference to navigation.
The hydrology of the region is dominated by the Congo River basin, which drains an area nearly as large as the United States east of the Mississippi River. The region is bordered by the great lakes of central/east Africa in the east (Tanganyika, Edward, Albert, Victoria), and outside of the Congo to include Lake Chad in the north, and Lake Nyos in Cameroon in the East.
The Congo River
The Congo (river) for which two African countries are named -Democratic Republic of the Congo and Republic of the Congo -is the second longest river in Africa (after the Nile), and one of the longest in the world, spanning 4,374 kilometers (2,718 miles). The entire length of the river lies within Democratic Republic of Congo or forms part of its border. It is also one of the largest rivers in the world for in the size of its watershed and the volume of water discharged. The Congo drains the vast Congo River Basin, an area of more than 4.1 million square kilometers (1.6 million square miles) which is nearly as large as the U.S. east of the Mississippi river, and, at high water periods, discharges approximately 40,250 cubic meters (1.2 million cubic feet) of water per second into the sea. By comparison, the Mississippi river drains 2,979,000 square kilometers (1,150,000 square miles) and discharges an average of 16,800 cubic meters of water per second (593,000 cubic feet) Located in the heaviest rainfall belt of Africa, the Congo carries more water than any river in the world except the Amazon River in South America. As a navigable route into the African interior, the Congo serves as a main artery for transportation and has figured prominently in the region’s history. Kinshasa, the capital of Democratic Republic of Congo, and Brazzaville, the capital of Republic of the Congo, lie across the river from each other in the lower reaches of the Congo River.
At points the river is 16 kilometers wide and encircles approximately 4000 islands. The Congo River is divided into sections: the headwaters, the upper Congo, the middle Congo and the lower Congo.
Barges and Boats on the Congo River
Economically, the Congo River with its tributaries provides about 14,500 km of navigable waterways (9,000 mi). It is a vital means of transportation for millions of people, but also for the shipment of goods. It enriches the diet of the population with the fishing of perch, tilapia, and eels that are mostly locally consumed. It also provides sources of electricity with the hydroelectric dam built at the Inga Falls.
The Inga Falls, which discharges on a yearly basis more water than any other waterfall in world, with its 90 meter drop, provides an ideal location for the production of hydroelectricity. Currently, there are two dams at Inga and a third dam is under construction. Together, the three dams have the potential of generating 39,000 megawatts of electricity, which would make the complex of three dams, if completed, the largest hydroelectric complex in the world, considerably larger than the 22,000 megawatt capacity of the recently completed Three Gorges Dam in China. However, the political instability that has plagued the Democratic Republic of Congo for the past 20 years has caused the two existing Inga Falls dams to perform at under capacity, while delaying progress on the construction of the third dam.
On your computer go to Google Earth
- Search for the Congo River. First, look at the satellite image of the entire Congo River Basin. Then zoom in on different sections of the river. What do the satellite images and attached photographs tell you about the topography and vegetation of the Congo River Basin? Using the same images, what can we learn about the human demography (population density and settlements) in the Congo River Basin? What is the relationship between topography, climate, vegetation and human demography?
- Search for and zoom in on the Inga Falls and hydroelectric dams on the Congo River. Using the satellite imagery locate the dams in relationship to the waterfalls. Examine the physical terrain, vegetation and distance to major urban areas and mining centers in the Congo. How might these factors impact the distribution of electric power from the dams?
Economy of the Congo
As we learned in Module Nine: African Economies when studying the economy of a region or a country, three sectors are considered: the primary sector, the secondary sector and the tertiary sector. In this introductory section we are not going to follow this threefold division, even though their domain of categorization will be included in the section. We will instead briefly look at the two major areas of the Congo’s economy: mining and agriculture.
Congo is incredibly rich in mineral resources. Consequently, mining became a major economic activity in the country—particularly in the Katanga province of south-west Congo. As demonstrated in the map below, Congo is rich in a wide variety of minerals. The ore fields of Congo produce manganese, cobalt, zinc, copper, tin, and uranium. Diamonds are also mined in the country. In addition, the Congo is the world’s largest producer of coltan, from which tantalum is derived, which is a central component of the microprocessors found in cell phones and computers. Some of these minerals, including coltan, are mined in the conflict ridden eastern Congo; some have called them conflict minerals, since opposing armed groups have used these minerals to fund the purchase of arms that brought tremendous devastation to parts of eastern Congo as is detailed in the third learning activity of this module.
As we learned above, the Congo has begun to tap the hydroelectric potential of the Congo River through an installation at the Inga Falls hydroelectric Dam. The hydro-complex on these falls is an important source of power for Congo’s mineral processing industries.
However, in spite of Congo’s rich natural resource base, largely due to impact of colonialism, the Cold War, and the impact of globalization, the Congo is not highly industrialized (See Module Nine, Activity Nine). Industrial activities are often only a small portion of the country’s GDP,and are still on a small scale. The industry that exists consists mainly of mineral processing. The main processing center in Congo, for example, is Lubumbashi, Kolwezi, in the south central and southeastern part of the country.
While mining has dominated the economy of the Congo in both the colonial and postcolonial eras, the vast majority of Congolese made their living through agriculture.
However, agriculture has not always been the major activity in the region. The first inhabitants of the region are believed to have been hunter-gatherers. But over time with a settlement along the Congo basin, agriculture has become part of the subsistence activity of the populations and with colonialism in the 20th century, peasants moved from a subsistence agriculture to the type of agriculture that would generate more financial resources for the colonial state.
Two types of farming techniques will be addressed in this section: subsistence agriculture and commercial agriculture. Subsistence agriculture, quite common in farming societies, is mostly intended to ensure survival and nutrition for the peasant’s family. In terms of cycle and technique, subsistence agriculture is quite simple, as it follows the rain cycle. Fields are cleared during the dry season and they are left ‘fallow’ after one crop or more (See Module Nine, Activity Two) Peasant-farmers use mostly rudimentary tools and little to no manure is used.
Various subsistence crops are grown in the Congo. Plantains are the staple food in the equatorial forest but the consumption of yam and taro is not negligible. Cassava has been included in the diet since the 19th century and vegetable fat is obtained from palm oil. Cassava and maize (corn) have partially replaced sorghum and millet, the indigenous crops of the savanna region.
There are almost no cattle kept in the Congo—expect in the southeast. Unlike other parts of Africa, most of the region does not have a history of cattle rearing. This a direct result of the widespread presence of disease vectors like the tsetse flies that carry and transmit trypanosomiasis. This disease (sleeping sickness) attacks animals (but also humans) making it very difficult for cattle to survive in the region.
Commercial agriculture came with the colonialism. Large palm oil, sugarcane, cocoa, and coffee farms were established by European companies. With the establishment of these commercial farms, the agricultural system was anchored into a modern monetary system. The new system enabled peasant-farmers not only to satisfy the needs of their family but also to fulfill the expectations of a growing consumer market. In addition, it allowed them to also earn money; this new approach to farming is called cash crop agriculture. Unfortunately, the revenue of the colonial power influenced the type of cash-crop agricultural system that prevailed in the region: forced labor and forced production of commercial crops.
Since most of central Africa is located in the equatorial zone, the rich green rainforest helps develop a wood industry. Consequently tropical lumber became a relatively small but important export product for the Congo. As will learn in the next section, natural rubber, harvested from the tropical rainforest, under the most brutal forced labor conditions, was, until the discovery of copper in the early 20th century, the leading export of the Congo.
The DRC is incredibly endowed with mineral resources, abundant water resources for agricultural and hydroelectric power, and adequate arable land. For the past 130 years, large transnational corporations and colonial regimes have accrued tremendous profits from these natural resources. Yet, the DRC remains one of the poorest and least developed countries in Africa. It is to this story that we now turn our attention in the next three learning activities.
Before you continue on to the next learning activities, conduct your own research on the above statement: “the DRC remains one of the poorest and least developed countries in Africa. Using knowledge you gained from this learning activity, and further independent research, argue why the DRC is so underdeveloped and poor.
Go on to Activity Two or select from one of the other activities:
- Activity One: Introducing the Democratic Republic of the Congo
- Activity Two: History of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
- Activity Three: Postcolonial Congo -Bitter Harvest: Foreign Intervention, Authoritarianism, & Kleptocracy
- Activity Four: Postcolonial Congo -A Country and Region at War
- Activity Five: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: Framing the Way the West Understood and Thought about Africa and Africans