Finding your way around isn’t always easy in the Congo, writes author Sean Rorison.Read more...
Congo - Background information
Abridged from the History section in Congo: the Bradt Travel Guide
History to the mid-19th century
The history of the two Congos is inextricably tied to that of sub-Saharan Africa as a whole; as the convergence of the continent, it can initially be overwhelming due to its numerous interacting elements. There has been little study on the earliest millennia in the Congos, and early kingdoms that dominated the area are only known through oral traditions before the arrival of Europeans. Archaeological excavations in the area have been either minute or non-existent.
Early European historical texts focused on a primitive and decentralised group of tribes that were encountered in the area, though even explorers themselves would disagree with this notion as they were in regular contact with what were royalty of the region for trading. However, this attitude would persist for centuries, almost until the present day, and would further justify partitioning of the continent by colonial powers.
When we discuss the specifics of the two countries now both known as Congo, we only arrive at these designations relatively late. Tribal politics and mass migration into the region formed nation-states long before the arrival of Europeans, and the middle centuries of the 2nd millennium ad would be marked by the interaction between these kingdoms and European traders. Therefore a great deal of simultaneity occurs when discussing the history of the region as numerous countries interact, and their interests and histories collide.
Virunga National Park © CommunePictures, Shutterstock
The Congos have had nature reserves and protected parks for longer than any other part of Africa. Yes, believe it or not, but this certainly does not mean that these areas have enjoyed the same level of protection that other parks across the continent have. King Léopold II created the first African nature reserves in 1889, concerned for the long-term survival of the elephant. While his Belgian officials were ruthlessly destroying whole communities to increase the volume of rubber extracted from Congo Free State, the king would be paying more attention to the well-being of elephants across his private nation.
The first official park that still exists was created in 1925 by King Albert, and unsurprisingly called Albert National Park – which was renamed later to Virunga National Park, and to this day has remained in a similar form along the shores of Lake Albert in eastern DR Congo. Other parks and reserves would follow: Kagera in 1934 (modern-day Kahuzi-Biega), Garamba in 1938, Kundelungu in 1939. The Belgian administration handled the parks separately from the rest of the colony, and they were well protected from exploitation during the period prior to independence. Mobutu Sésé Seko added more parks: Salonga North and South, L’Upemba Parks North and South, the Okapi Reserve and Maiko National Park.
These parks still exist, in spite of continued troubles. Numerous anti-poaching teams, charities and park rangers do their best to protect the most vulnerable regions of these parks. The hidden war that has persisted across the DR Congo is the hundreds of rangers killed protecting wildlife from rebels, invading armies and poachers.
Conversely, the other Congo has had national parks for almost as long, and they have not seen any interference with their wildlife populations. Two parks are most accessible: Lefini Reserve is just north of Brazzaville, and only a half-day’s journey from Pointe Noire is Conkouati-Douli National Park. In the far north on the border with the Central African Republic is the Parc National Ndoki-Nouabalé (Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park), which is readily accessible by aircraft or boat. However, the region east of Ouesso and north of Impfondo is a truly wild place by any stretch of the imagination, and some say one of the least-explored regions on the face of the earth.
The majority of Congolese live in small towns and villages such as here at Lukolela © Ollivier Girard, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)
With somewhere around 73 million inhabitants, the Democratic Republic of Congo is the most populous nation in central Africa. However, census reading can only hope to be vaguely accurate as little has been done to truly study the rate at which refugees have poured across the country’s borders, and the full level of devastation from the nation’s recent conflicts has not been fully measured. While huge numbers live in urban areas such as Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Goma, the vast majority still live in small villages scattered throughout dense equatorial jungle.
Like the other Congo beside it, several hundred tribes make up the indigenous population, all of whom are descendants of Bantu lineage – with the exception of the Pygmies, who live primarily in the deep rainforests of northern DR Congo. Small groups of European and African immigrants have settled in major towns, but not in large numbers – the country lacks the full-blown international diversity of its smaller neighbour across the river. Which is not to say it isn’t a diverse place; it is inherently diverse from its hundreds of different Bantu tribes.
Most people who immigrated during the time of Zaire managed to leave as the situation deteriorated in the 1990s.