Railroads, Diamonds, and Witch Children

By Jheri St. James

The Republic of Congo has been volatile for so many years that reading about the country’s political rivalries and continual change of governments is like playing a violent video game. But no video game producer could incorporate all the violent elements of the history of the Republic of Congo:

Congo, first inhabited by Pygmies, was later settled by Bantu groups that also occupied parts of present-day Angola, Gabon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). The first Europeans came to the country in the late 15th century, trading goods for slaves captured in the interior. Slave trade ended in the early 19th century, eroding the Bantu kingdoms. The area came under French sovereignty in the 1880s. In 1908, France organized French Equatorial Africa (AEF) and economic development during the following 50 years was based on natural resource extraction by private companies.

In 1924-34, the Congo-Ocean Railway (CFCO) was built at considerable human and financial cost, along its route from Brazzaville to the ocean port of Pointe-Noire. During World War II, Brazzaville became the symbolic capital of Free France. The Brazzaville Conference of 1944 heralded the abolition of forced labor, granting of French citizenship to colonial subjects, and election of local advisory assemblies. After the September 1958 referendum approving the new French Constitution, AEF was dissolved, its four territories became autonomous members of the French Community, and Middle Congo was renamed the Congo Republic. In 1959, ethnic rivalries produced sharp struggles among the emerging Congolese political parties and sparked severe riots in Brazzaville. Formal independence was granted in August 1960.

Congo's first President was Fulbert Youlou, a former Catholic priest from the Pool region in the southeast. Then the Congolese military took charge of the country, headed by Alphonse Massamba-Debat for a five-year term, which ended abruptly in August 1968, when Capt. Marien Ngouabi and other army officers toppled the government in a coup. Major Ngouabi assumed the presidency on December 31, 1968. One year later, President Ngouabi proclaimed Congo to be Africa's first "people's republic" and changed the name of the National Revolutionary Movement to the Congolese Labor Party (PCT). On March 18, 1977, President Ngouabi was assassinated. Joachim Yhomby-Opango became President until, accused of corruption and deviation, he was removed from office on February 5, 1979 by the Central Committee of the PCT. After two more decades of turbulent politics bolstered by Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, the Congolese gradually moderated their economic and political views, and in 1992 completed a transition to multi-party democracy. In August 1992, the country had multi-party presidential elections. President, Prof. Pascal Lissouba, was inaugurated on August 31, 1992. President Lissouba dissolved the National Assembly in November 1992, calling for new elections in May 1993. The results of those elections were disputed, touching off violent civil unrest. In February 1994, all parties accepted the decisions of an international board of arbiters, and the risk of large-scale insurrection subsided. In 1997, Sassou-Nguesso declared himself President and named a 33-member government.

In late 1998, eruption of fighting between Sassou-Nguesso's government forces and a pro-Lissouba and pro-Kolelas armed opposition disrupted the transition to democracy. This new violence also closed the economically vital Brazzaville-Pointe Noire railroad, caused great destruction and loss of life in southern Brazzaville and in the Pool, Bouenza, and Niari regions, and displaced hundreds of thousands of persons. In November and December 1999, the government signed agreements with representatives of many of the rebel groups.

The December Accord, mediated by President Omar Bongo of Gabon, called for inclusive political negotiations between the government and the opposition. During 2000-01, Sassou-Nguesso's government conducted a national dialogue wherein opposition parties and the government agreed to continue to pursue peace. Ex-President Lissouba and ex-Prime Minister Kolelas refused to agree and were exiled. They were tried in absentia and convicted of charges ranging from treason to misappropriation of government funds.

A new constitution was drafted in 2001 and was approved by the provisional legislature (National Transition Council), and by the people of Congo in a national referendum in January 2002. Presidential elections were held in March 2002, and Sassou-Nguesso was declared the winner. Legislative elections were held in May and June 2002. In March 2003, the government signed a peace accord with the Ninja. Internally displaced persons are returning to the Pool region. President Sassou-Nguesso allowed Kolelas to return to Congo for his wife's funeral in October 2005 and subsequently asked that Parliament grant Kolelas amnesty. Parliament complied with Sassou-Nguesso's request in December 2005. The country is said to have remained stable and calm since 2003.

If this chain of events were somehow incorporated into a video game, I doubt if anyone would ever want to play it; the bloodshed level would blot out any opportunities for trivial gamesmanship. Even reading these few paragraphs is difficult and complicated.

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In spite of the dire situation in the Republic of Congo, representatives of the American Embassy there collected soil for the Common Ground 191 project. Cynthia Gregg, a representative working at the U.S. Department of State in the Congo, wrote in an email, “Please advise that the soil was taken from a site near the new deBrazza mausoleum and adjacent to the former U.S. Embassy Chancery on the banks of the Congo River. According to the docent of the deBrazza Museum, this area marks the site of deBrazza's flotilla to the shores of Congo . . . [This was] the Treaty site on banks of Congo River and current monument to Pierre Savorgnon De Brazza, founder of the city.” But even this silent soil collection echoes with dissent:

On October 3, 2006, Republic of Congo welcomed home the remains of its colonial founder, prompting a fiery debate about whether the country should be commemorating its colonizers. Francois Camille Pierre Savorgnan De Brazza founded the city of Brazzaville in 1884 and began to establish the colony that became Republic of Congo after independence from France in 1960. He governed the colony from 1886 to 1897. DeBrazza’s family had asked that their forefather be buried in the city he founded and administered. Government officials said they wanted to honor the request and to recognize De Brazza’s contributions to the country. But the move rankled some Congolese, who said immortalizing a colonizer was a step backward in history. The remains of DeBrazza and his wife and four children have been placed in this marble mausoleum built specially for this purpose near the Congo River. The coffins, dug up from their previous resting place in Algeria, were flown into Brazzaville on a commercial flight and put on public display at its city hall until the ceremony. De Brazza was born in Italy in 1852, but later took French citizednship and first traveled to Central Africa on exploratory missions for the French Navy. He died in 1905 in Dakar, the present-day capital of Senegal. He had lived out much of his later years in Algeria.

Thank you, Mark J. Biedlingmaier, Cynthia Gregg, and staff for this soil collection.

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During the seventies and eighties, the Republic of Congo was allied principally with the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc nations. Educational, economic, and foreign aid links between Congo and its Eastern bloc allies were extensive, with Congolese military and security forces receiving significant Soviet, East German, and Cuban assistance. France maintained a continuing but subdued relationship with Congo, offering cultural, educational, and economic assistance. After the worldwide collapse of communism, the country’s bilateral relations with its former socialist allies became relatively less important. France is now Congo's principal external partner, contributing significant economic assistance.

The Republic of the Congo's sparse population is concentrated in the southwestern portion of the country. Its vast areas of tropical jungle in the north are virtually uninhabited. The country is one of the most urbanized countries in Africa, with 85 percent of its total population living in a few urban areas, in Brazzaville, Pointe-Noire, and smaller cities and villages lining the 332-mile (534 km) railway, connecting the two cities.

The economy of Congo is a mixture of village agriculture and handicrafts, an industrial sector based largely on petroleum support services, and an overstaffed government. Petroleum provides a major share of government revenues and exports, facilitating an average 5 percent GDP growth in the early 1980s. More recently, economic reform efforts are supported by international organizations, including the World Bank and the IMF. The reform program came to a halt in June 1997 when civil war erupted. The current administration presides over an uneasy internal peace and difficult economic problems of stimulating recovery and reducing poverty, despite record-high oil prices since 2003. Natural gas and diamonds are also major Congolese exports.

Less than two percent of Congo land is cultivated, and most of this is used for subsistence farming. Natives gather wild fruit, mushrooms and honey and often sell these crops at markets or by the roadside, while cattle breeding and the development of large-scale agricultural businesses have been hindered by the recent war and the poor quality of the road system. The Congo's farmland is also the source of a wide variety of crops, including maize, rice, cassava, sweet potatoes, yam, taro, plantain, tomatoes, pumpkin, peas and nuts. The most important crops for export are coffee and palm oil. Fish, which are plentiful along the River Congo, its tributaries, and various lakes, are baked, boiled or fried for immediate consumption; or smoked or salted when preserved. Goat is the most widely consumed meat. Edible insects such as grasshoppers and caterpillars are also eaten.

While a small number of Congolese follow indigenous beliefs, these traditional belief systems are often intermingled with various forms of Christianity, and are familiar to the majority of the people. These beliefs have a number of things in common: 1) contact with the creator god is made via ancestor spirits; 2) a belief in an essential life-force which animates the body; nature spirits are worshipped mainly in forested regions; 3) fetishes or supernaturally empowered objects can help or hinder; 4) diviners, witches, dream interpreters and healers act as conduits for supernatural forces; 5) ceremonies and collective prayers are offered to ancestors, nature spirits and the creator god. Belief in witchcraft is also common, and sometimes intersects with Christianity. In fact, the country’s increasing beliefs in witches and sorcery have tended to mirror the social decay caused by war and poverty. Many of the street children that roam the Congo's cities have been cast out of their families after being denounced as witches. These homeless 'witch children' often live in cemeteries, only come out at night, and some say follow occult practices.

The Setswana word for peace is "kagiso" while the French word for peace is “paix." French is the official language in the Congo.

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