The Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly known as the Belgian Congo and then Zaire) is the third largest country in Africa and measures roughly one-quarter the size of Canada. Lake Tanganyika, the continent’s deepest lake, is situated on its eastern border and most of the 4,375 km-long Congo River lies within its territory. Due to its many tributaries, the Congo––fifth-largest river in the world and Africa’s second-largest––is Central Africa’s biggest transportation highway as it winds its way across the vast land, crossing the equator twice. The country’s natural resources are vast and varied, as are its flora and fauna.
At least 250 ethnic groups live in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), each with distinctive customs, practices and languages. The official language is French and the four national languages are Lingala, Swahili, Kikongo and Tshiluba. While the majority of people converse in their own dialect, they are also comfortable speaking in several others as well, with Lingala being one of the most commonly used languages in the country. The majority of Congolese are Christian. Often local traditional customs are incorporated into their Christian practices. For example, the Congolese Catholic mass includes dances and the recitation of ancestors.
Often communication between villages is done with ‘talking’ drums, whose varied rhythms announce the news of life’s major events, such as births, marriages and deaths. Contemporary music includes the soukous, derived from the Cuban son (itself including elements of African rhythms). It has since spread to neighboring African nations, often called Lingala, after the language used in the lyrics.
Textiles are highly valued in the DRC and are often used to define status or traded as currency. The Kuba people of the Kasai River region produce a distinctive fabric called Kuba Cloth, whose fibres come from raffia palm leaves. The making of such cloth involves the entire Kuba community and men and women each take responsibility for specific parts of the process. Raffia is first harvested from the fields and woven on upright, single-heddle looms by the men. Women then fashion the woven cloth into skirts and, often add the finishing touches using cut-pile embroidery and appliqué, . The completed skirts, secured with a belt over a long underskirt are called mapels on a man and ntshacks on a woman, are also worn for special occasions. Belts, skirts and masks worn by members of the royal families are often decorated with such as abundance of cowrie shells and glass beads that one can only imagine the weight of these royal outfits.
The Shoowa tribe, close relative of the Kuba, also makes a raffia cloth using dried grass called Kasaï velvet. Working together, both genders weave the cloth. Then the women embellish the cloth with geometric designs and wavy, flowing lines. Traditionally, only pregnant women were allowed to decorate the cloth.
As a result of its vast territory and ethnic diversity, Congo’s traditional arts and crafts are varied. Some examples are the woodcarving of masks and statues, such as the nkisi of the Bakongo people that serve as a transmission channel between the world of the living and that of the dead. The lukasa, made by the Luba people, is a fascinating object used by court historians to tell the myths and epics of the Luba. The beads, colours, and symbol arrangements on these memory boards each represent a specific event or meaning.
People from the Democratic Republic of Congo have been coming to Canada since 1974, often seeking peace and a brighter future for themselves and their families. Their numbers here have reached over 24,000 as of 2011.
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