Recent research and commentary on atrocities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have fueled reference to a “Congo” that seems to include only one country, but “the Congo” is a large, resource rich region made up of many countries.
Traditionally “the Congo” refers to the region of Middle Africa (referred to as “Central Africa” by the UN) comprised of parts of ten (10) different countries, including: Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Sao Tome and Principe, Burundi and Rwanda.
The Congo is best understood as a geographic region, with lush tropical rainforests and a wealth of mineral deposits, that benefits from the drainage of the Congo River. As a result, interest in the Congo region has caused violence and atrocities arguably since its “discovery” by Henry Morton Stanley in the name of King Leopold II of Belgium. The King wanted to spread Western civilization and religion to the region, which has led to continually destabilization and conflict.
The geographic region known to us as “the Congo” was home to one of the advanced African civilizations as well as the Baka people (often referred to as pygmies). The Kingdom of the Kongo included parts of the DRC, Republic of Congo and Angola. As recorded by Europeans the Kingdom of Kongo was highly developed with a extensive trading network. As “explorers” and colonizers penetrated further into the interior of the African continent, the Kingdom of Kongo became a major source of slaves. As a result of political in-fighting, resource grabbing, and European invasion, the Congo region’s factions remained in civil war for almost forty years (1700).
Since European arrival, the Congo region has been in a regular flux of conflict either between political factions, against colonizers, or now among local militias fighting for control of areas of resource wealth.
Much like our misunderstandings of various aspects of the African continent, its history, and people fuel monolithic interpretations of Africa, so too do our misunderstandings of the Congo region’s governments, resources, and cultures.
Maybe our misunderstandings and myths of “the Congo” are driven by the Heart of Darkness (supposedly inspired by Henry Morton Stanley) narrative set on the Congo River that details atrocities committed against native peoples? Maybe history shows Western violence has created a culture of violence in the quest for control and resources? Either way Congo is not a country, but a vast region with deep history and amazing possibilities.