Democratic Republic of Congo – customs and culture
The main languages spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are French, (Ki)swahili, Lingala, Tshiluba and Kikongo, but there are over 200 languages and dialects spoken by around 250 ethnic groups. Over 70% Congolese are Christians, the rest follow African religions, Islam and other beliefs. Around 68% work in agriculture, 19% in services and 13% in the industrial sector. Many people in rural areas live without electricity; water sources are mostly unprotected and subject to contamination. Infections and parasitic diseases claim many lives, with the mortality rate for children under 5years being very concerning.
Education for the African population has been almost non-existent for a long time under the Belgium colonial rule. The little infrastructure that was built under colonialism focused on commercial exploitation of the territory rather than public welfare. Since the independence from Belgium in 1960 extreme political, social and economical instability has been dominant. The years after independence were shadowed by civil war. In the mid 1990s the conflict in neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi had spread to the Tutsi group in eastern Congo. Civil disorder followed. When president Laurent Desire Kabila, who came into power backed up by Rwandan troops in 1997, shifted away from his alliance with Rwandan and Ugandan troops and ordered them home, a protracted civil war broke out. The eastern provinces of DRC are still under war-like situations, with monitoring by United Nations peacekeeping forces and the national army. People in this area are under constant threat. Most of the visitors in our group are from the eastern part of Congo, and have lived in refugee camps for many years. This has resulted in low literacy for many, as well as trauma. All are in Australia on humanitarian visas.
A proper greeting is to shake hands with the right hand. To show respect of social status people hold their right forearm with their left hand while shaking hands. Men often share a touching of the sides of their foreheads, first right than left. Holding hands between people of the same sex is a sign of friendship. When two people of the opposite sex talk there is very little to no touching. When a man is greeting a woman it is best to wait for the woman to extend her hand. Young people wait for older people to offer their hand. If you are unsure how to pronounce your visitor’s name, you may ask them what they prefer – or call the adult women “Madame” or “Mama” and the adult men “Monsieur” or “Papa”.
Eye contact might be more indirect during a conversation; women and children might look down or away to show respect. It is best to avoid asking about someone’s ethnicity or making referrals to the civil war. Many lost loved ones. Good topics of conversation include food, sport (soccer), fashion, Congo’s landscape, Australia, etc. In many situations people are flexible with appointed times, they don’t tend to be overly punctual. This is different in business situations where punctuality is valued.
Congolese people have a set of gestures for pointing to and calling people. If you want to point to someone hold out the arm with the palm open and upward. It is considered very rude to point at a person with your index finger. Calling someone to come over is done by extending the arm with the palm turned down and bringing in the fingers towards you, like a scratching motion. People also have proper ways to give or receive things. Children learn to offer both hands when receiving an object, especially form an adult, which shows respect.
The man is the head of the family unit, however respect between men and women is very important. Husbands and wives will consult with each other on big decisions but the man makes the final decision. Respect is one of the most important values for Congolese people. Respect and obedience have similar meaning. Children are expected to never question parental authority. Women do the housework and look after the children. The husband’s role is to improve the families’ life. Rearing children is a community responsibility with the extended family playing a big role in guiding the children at the age of puberty. Although young people may initiate courtship, marriage is often the product of family intervention with older siblings or extended family members suggesting prospective mates. To get married one has to pay a price for his bride to her family. A bride value today is usually paid in cash or material goods. Children are a sign of wealth and a social security net, so parents consider themselves blessed to have many children.
People take pride in their appearance and dress modestly. Through the region’s long association with the West (Christian missionary stations) people adopted Western apparel at an early date. The traditional African sarong (a cloth wrap) or “pagne” is still worn by many women. These are often decorated with symbolic slogans or icons. Women also wear headscarves.
Food gets traditionally eaten with one’s fingers. Before eating hands are washed in a basin of warm water. People eat beans, rice, fish and other vegetables with various sauces. For breakfast people in Congo often eat bread-like donuts dipped in a sauce or sugar. French bread, tea and coffee are popular too.