Democratic Republic of Congo - At a Glance
Issue 17
A brief overview of the country

History

In June 1960 Patrice Lumumba and his coalition government took independence from Belgium, but an army revolt soon followed. Moise Tshombe declared Katanga an independent state. This brought in Dag HammarskjLD and UN peacekeepers, who forged a government under Cyrille Adoula. Tshombe was exiled but returned as Prime Minister in 1964. With military aid from the USA and about 350 white mercenaries, further rebellions in the east were put down. In 1965 Col. Joseph Mobutu became President. He named the country Zaire, established a suppressive regime and allegedly amassed a fortune that topped US$4 billion.

In 1997 Laurent Kabila booted him out and renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo. In August 1998 Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed rebels rose against Kabila, who sought military aid from Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia. In January this year he became another of the nearly three million lives claimed by the Congo conflict. His son Joseph, who succeeded him, has inherited decades of misrule, corruption, fighting and destruction.

The Land

The DRC is Africa's third-largest country. The land rises from a vast central alluvial table, known as the cuvette, through a succession of plateaux to extensive mountain ranges along the south-eastern and eastern borders. Its highest point is the 5110m Margherita Peak in the Ruwenzori. There are many lakes, swamps, flood plains and savannahs that support pastoral and commercial farming. The country is traversed by seasonal dirt roads and rail tracks, but both are in a diabolical state thanks to decades of war and neglect.

Vegetation

The countryside is said to be the most spectacular in Africa. Over three-quarters of the DRC is densely forested, with teak, ebony, mahogany, iroko, redwood and African cedar trees dominant.

In the north and east the forests are close canopied, luxuriously vegetated and practically impenetrable. In the south-east are extensive open woodlands. Indigenous wild rubber trees have been profitably exploited since the late 1800s.

Economy

With a wealth of mineral resources, vast reserves of natural gas and tracts of fertile land, the DRC should have one of the most attractive economies in Africa. In fact, since Mobutu, it has become one of the world's poorest countries. Profits from the vast copper, diamond, manganese, cobalt, zinc, platinum, uranium, bauxite, gold, silver and other mineral deposits have not buttered the people's bread.

About two-thirds of the population live on subsistence crops, cassava (tapioca), maize, peanuts, yams and plantains, produced using shifting cultivation. Other people work on the coffee, cotton, rubber and palm oil plantations or in the forestry business, providing timber and fuel for industries.

Climate

Towards the coast and in the central regions, temperatures average 25c but it can get unpleasantly humid. It's cooler (around 20c) and less muggy in the Highlands. In the north rains averaging 1500mm fall mainly between April and October, but in the south they usually occur from November to May (averaging 1270mm). The south, however, is subject to periodic droughts. The most pleasant time to visit Kinshasa and explore the Congo River is midwinter (May to July) when it is relatively cool and dry.

People

There are over 200 ethnic groups living in the DRC, 80% of whom are Kuba, (ba)Kongo, Mongo or other Bantu speakers. There are small numbers of Nilotic and Hamitic people, and a few Sudanese live in the north. Eastern DRC is one of very few places where pygmies are still found in significant numbers.

About half the population are Roman Catholic and another 20% Protestant. One person in five adheres to animist beliefs and one in ten is Muslim. Numerous tongues are spoken, but French is the official language and Lingala (a Swahili dialect) is the lingua franca of business.

The total population is about 52 million, half under 15 years of age. About six million people live in Kinshasa (formerly Leopoldville), the ravaged, derelict capital and one of the largest cities in sub-Saharan Africa. Outside the towns people live in traditional thatched-hut villages. Here families average seven children (half of whom will not see their first birthday) and are very vulnerable to starvation, AIDS and displacement by the war. They subsist on crops, game meat and fish.

The Congo River

In Africa the Congo's 4700km length is exceeded only by the Nile. Its waters, drawn from the continent's heaviest rainfall belt, are second only to those of the Amazon in volume.

Rising in north-eastern Zambia and fed by many streams, the river flows northwards across a number of unnavigable rapids, the last being Boyoma (Stanley) Falls near Kisangani. The Congo, joined by its four main tributaries and numerous small rivers, then arcs west and south to Malebo. Malebo (formerly Stanleypool), a lake-like widening of the river, is named after a palm tree common in the area. About 1700km of the middle river waters are plied by boats and barges. The lower reaches, from Malebo to Matadi, the DRC's port, are impassable due to another series of cataracts. One of the biggest hydroelectric schemes ever built is at Inga Falls, about 40km above Matadi.

The first European onto the river was the Portuguese slave trader Diego Cam in 1482. Later came Livingstone (1867-73) and Stanley (1877). The latter returned, on behalf of King Leopold II of Belgium, two years later. Over the next five years he established 22 trading stations along the river and its tributaries, put four steamers into operation and built a road around the falls later to be named after him.

Originally the river was known as the Zaire, a corruption from several local dialects meaning "river". Then it was called the "Rio Congo" after the Kongo kingdom, which once flourished around the river's lower reaches. Both names, Zaire and Congo, have had periods in favour since then.

Tourism

The DRC has a number of very attractive locations to challenge hikers and mountaineers. Popular climbs include Mounts Kahuzi, Bulgulumiza and Hoyo, and the Nyragongo and Nyamulagira volcanoes, all above 3000m. The peaks of the Ruwenzori are considered more demanding to climb than Kilimanjaro.

Despite the 1999 Lusaka Accord, the DRC is still a war zone and (the eastern half of the country in particular) a definite no-go area for visitors. Rwanda and Uganda are the best alternatives for gorilla viewing and mountain climbing.

Fauna

The DRC has a profusion of animal, bird and insect species, including some unique to its forest, savannah and water habitats. When peace returns the country will again become one of the finest locations for viewing the great apes and the elusive forest elephants. Hopefully there will still be good numbers oflion, leopard, giraffe, buffalo, hippo, crocodile, zebra, and antelope (notably okapi).

The Congo's great apes include the Bonobo chimpanzee of the central Congo Basin, and both the Western lowland and Eastern mountain gorilla. All three are classified as endangered in the Red Data Book. Thollon's red colobus monkey and the Black mangabey monkey are also found in the Congo Basin forests.

Mountain gorillas live in the Virunga NP and the Western lowland gorilla is found in the Kahuzi-Biega NP. Garamba NP was created to rescue its small White rhino population from extinction, whilst Salonga NP is home to a number of endemic species, such as the Congo peafowl, Grimm's duiker and Congo clawless otter. Forest elephant and the Slender-snouted crocodile are also found here.

The Okapi Wildlife Reserve is inhabited by about 5000 okapi, a variety of threatened species of primates and birds, and pygmy tribes. All five of these World Heritage Sites have suffered heavily from poaching, looting and deforestation by warring factions and squatting refugees.

Published in Travel Africa Edition Seventeen: Autumn 2001.Text is subject to Worldwide Copyright (c)

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