Congo — History and Culture
Once a French colony, the Republic of the Congo was granted independence in 1960. Afterwards, it underwent several violent periods caused by military and ethnic conflicts, political tensions and civil wars. Despite their past, Congolese people remain a resilient, fun-loving bunch with high regard for culture and traditions. Many tribes have survived the wars, and are living in peace while upholding their identity and heritage. There are five major ethnic groups in the country, the largest of which is the Kongo, followed by the Sangha, M’Bochi, Teke, and Europeans.
The earliest inhabitants of the Congo are believed to have been the Teke, a forest-dwelling ethnic group. Upon the arrival of other tribes, three distinct kingdoms were formed, namely, the Teke, Loango, and Kongo, which ruled the area until the arrival of the Europeans. Before colonization, the territory was a center of trade, bartering all kinds of goods such as textiles and jewelry in exchange for copper, ivory and even slaves.
The slave trade caused major depopulation and conflicts between the ethnic clusters, weakening them all as kingdoms. As European power amplified, the slave trade continued until its abolishment in the late 1800’s. The territory was then occupied by the French and absorbed into the French Equatorial Africa in the early 1900’s. Congo’s petition for autonomy was granted in 1958, and it gained full independence as a republic in 1960.
Political and power struggles plagued the government ever since, which led to unrest and two full-blown civil wars sealing country’s fate. The decisive war from 1997 to 2002 devastated the capital and killed thousands of locals, ultimately giving way to the peace that the Congolese finally enjoy today.
Culture is most evident in the well-preserved tribal and ethnic traditions of the Congolese, as well as in the music they play, infused with French, Arab and African roots. The people follow a variety of religious beliefs, but a majority of the population is either Catholic or Protestant. There are also Muslims, Animists and Baha’i.
The music of Congo-Brazzaville is very similar to that of the DRC or Congo-Kinshasa. Folk is played with classic instruments like the mvet and the xylophone. The mvet resembles a zither harp, which is found in many regions of Asia and Africa. Soukous is a homegrown pop genre, which is described as a fusion of rumba, jazz and traditional beats. It is often used as a dance tune to accompany orchestras.
Congolese also have high regard for art and are very skilled painters and crafts makers. Textiles and woven designs are more ubiquitous in DRC markets, but the Congolese of Congo-Brazzaville also produce their share of beautiful weaves. Wooden statues, masks, and other traditional handicrafts are all symbols of the rich artisan culture of both countries of the Congo.