Customs and Cuisine of Democratic Repulic of the Congo
Location: The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the second largest country in Africa and the largest in Sub-Saharan Africa. Save for 25 miles along its west where it borders the Atlantic Ocean, the DRC is a landlocked country located in Central Africa. It is bordered by the Central African Republic and South Sudan to its North; by Angola and Zambia to its South; by Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania on its east; and Cabinda and Congo to the west.
Name Origins: The DRC gets its name from the Congo River, the deepest river in the world and the second largest in terms of volume. It has been known in various times in its history as the Congo Free State, Belgian Congo, the Republic of Congo-Léopoldville, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of Zaire. It has reclaimed its identity as the DRC and is occasionally referred to as Congo (Kinshasa), with the Kinshasa in parenthesis to not be confused with the Congo Republic its neighbor to the west, which is often referred to as Congo (Brazzaville) with the Brazzaville in parenthesis.
Population: The population estimate for July 2020 is 101.8 million, an estimate that takes into account the high mortality from AIDS. There are close to 200 ethnic groups, the Bantu being the most dominant. The Mongo, Luba, Kongo and the Mangbetu-Azande (Hamitic) constitute about 45 percent of the total population.
Religion: Christianity is the dominant faith practiced, with close to 94 percent identifying as Christian. Of those, about 30 percent identify as Catholic, 27 percent as Protestant and 37 percent as other Christians. Kimbanguism, an indigenous religion with ties to Christianity (2.8 percent) and Islam (1.2 percent) are the other faiths practiced.
Language: Over 242 languages are spoken in the DRC. The official language is French. An estimated 47 percent of the population can read, write and speak French (2012). The four national languages are Kituba Lingala, Tshiluba, and Swahili.
CLAIM TO FAME/INFAMY
Unlike parts of Africa, the DRC has a wealth of resources. It was rich in natural resources of the kind that drew travelers and tourists to visit and of the kind that is valuable for trade and manufacture. The DRC has reserves of diamonds, gold, oil, wood, uranium, brass, tungsten, cobalt, and copper. Notably, the DRC has 75 percent of the world’s reserve of coltan, a mineral that is used in electronic circuits of smartphones and tablets.
Yet, for all that the DRC has by way of resources and possibly because of its wealth of resources, its recent history has been a saga of misfortune that has left it struggling for survival. The fight for control over the DRC and its resources has lasted several decades and left the country without much of a functional government. The conflict has left over 6 million dead in what is the bloodiest conflict since World War II. The lack of an effective government at the various levels translates to lack of infrastructure to the extent that there is no transportation system, lack of employment coupled with employment that can no longer pay, lack of a communication system (less than telephone 1 line per 100 inhabitants, 2018), lack of healthcare (0.07 physicians/1,000 population), etc. Because of all these factors, in October 2017, the United Nations placed the DRC on its Level 3 emergency list, the highest level that denotes unacceptable living conditions.
The DRC has one of the highest birthrates in the world (with an average of 6.6 children per mother) and the highest infant mortality rate. The lack of healthcare infrastructure is exacerbated by lack of adequate nutrition.
The Congolese social structure and the place of women in Congolese society harkens back to a time when women were considered less than, yet, performed more than their share of the work to keep the family functioning. Men are the head of the household and the financial decision makers. Women are expected to marry and to bear and raise children. This is so central to the purpose of being female among the Congolese that a single woman past what is considered the marriageable age is seen as a woman of ill repute. Until they marry, women are considered the property of their fathers, and after marriage, that of their husbands. Since the women do the bulk of the work at home, marriage of a daughter is considered loss of a worker to the father’s household and the gain of a worker to the father-in-law’s household. For this reason, the father-in-law offers gifts as compensation to the bride’s father.
Childhood, as we here in the United States know it, does not exist in the DRC. Female children as young as 5 years of age are sometimes responsible for caring for their infant siblings, carrying an infant on their back in cloth slings. Male children are likewise expected to emulate male adults. Children in the DRC it is said, belong to the parents when still in the mother’s womb, but to the community after birth.
The role of men is to provide food for the family by way of hunting and fishing, the role of women is to essentially do everything else that ensures that the home and family is cared for. From working the fields, gathering water for drinking/cooking/personal hygiene, collecting firewood and all that goes into making food (for instance, sowing and harvesting cassava, pounding it to make cassava meal, and then cooking the cassava meal), child rearing, basket weaving, etc. fall on the Congolese women.
It is believed that the spirits of departed family members linger with the family and act as a liaison between the family and the Gods. The use of white paint on faces is a symbolic gesture of mourning as well as that of displaying strength.
At a time when over 65 percent of the Congolese live beneath the poverty line and about 25 percent of children under the age of 5 are underweight, food is not necessarily a part of daily life. Where available, it is neither nutrition dense, nor does it provide variety, and is mostly carbohydrate heavy. The source of protein and fat is primarily peanuts and palm nut oil/cream and to a lesser extent chicken, goat meat, and fish.
The Congolese cuisine has influences of French techniques (confit and braising of meat, for instance) and Belgian cooking but is solidly based in Central and Western African cuisine. Subsistence farming is the method of farming followed in the DRC, and the most commonly cultivated crops are cassava, sweet potatoes, taro, yam, plantains, okra, tomatoes, beans, and ground nuts. Cassava is a staple, the tuber is harvested, pounded and made into fufu which is an accompaniment to almost every meal. The cassava leaves, a hardy green, is added to stews or sautéed and eaten with fufu.
Chicken and goat meat are the main source of animal protein, but given that they cost more, are often reserved for special occasions or to share with guests. Fish from the Congo are fried or steamed in banana leaves. Once the predominant protein source when fishing was a lucrative industry, these days even the fish are scarce and small. Smoked and salted fish are sold by Congolese women as street food. Other sources of protein include bush meat, grasshoppers, and caterpillars.
THE CONGOLESE WAY OF LIFE
The Congolese way of life is essentially one of survival. Between having to abandon their homes at short notice due to yet another incursion from yet another armed rebel militia, to having inadequate access to food, every day is an exercise in surviving against the odds. On Aug. 1, 2018, an Ebola outbreak occurred in Kivu province in DRC. The outbreak was declared as having “ended” only on June 25, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic dealt more blows to the already depressed economy, including job losses, desperate poverty, and as much as a 500 percent increase in food prices in some cases. Yet, amidst all this strife, the Congolese carry on. Amidst the collapse of a country, on a micro-level, the average Congolese wears his best clothes to greet a guest, serves the best among the food they have available, and talks about what was without much trace of bitterness, just a resigned acceptance.
Recommendation: Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown, Episode 8 “Congo”
View Recipes from Congo, Democratic Republic of the
Congo, Democratic Republic of the