Congo Ethnic Groups
The basic source on the subject of Congo's ethnic groups is Jan Vansina's work from the 1960s, Introduction a Uethnographie du Congo. Given the difficulty of categorizing ethnic groups in such a way as to satisfy objective criteria on the one hand and the subjective standard of common identity on the other, and given the sheer number of named groups, only a brief survey of the major entities based on common (or closely similar) language and culture is attempted here. A mapping of clusters of related or culturally similar entities shows a limited correspondence to the major geographic regions of Congo.
Congo's population is composed of as many as 250 different ethnic groups, most of which are Bantu speakers. The largest Bantu-speaking groups are the Luba, Kongo, Mongo, and Lunda. In 1992 some sources reported that the Luba, Kongo, and Mongo groups as well as the non-Bantu-speaking Zande and Mangbetu together made up about 45 percent of the population. Calculations of the number and relative sizes of ethnic groups in Congo are at best approximations, however.
These groups are neither fixed entities nor the sole or even primary points of reference for all Congolese. On the contrary, for most purposes and in most contexts, rural Congolese see themselves primarily as members of a local community or of a clan or lineage. Ethnic identity has become salient only under certain conditions, and the precise boundaries of ethnic groups have shifted with circumstances.
Ethnicity and regionalism (the latter based in part on ethnic considerations) were, and continue to be, of substantial importance in the political orientation of Congolese, but the units involved have always varied in composition, cohesion, and ideological self-awareness. Ethnic identity may best be understood as a construct useful to both groups and individuals. It may be built around group members' perceptions of shared descent, religion, language, origins, or other cultural features. What motivates members to create and maintain a common identity, however, is not shared culture but shared interests. Once created, ethnic groups have persisted not because of cultural conservatism but because their members share some common economic and political interests, thus creating an interest group capable of competing with other groups in the continuing struggle for power.
The construction and destruction of ethnic identities has been an ongoing process. The name Ngala, or Bangala, for example, was used by early colonial authorities to describe an ethnic group that they imagined existed and lived upriver from the capital and spoke Lingala. The name Ngala figured prominently on early maps. The fact that Lingala was a lingua franca and that no group speaking Lingala as a mother tongue existed did not prevent colonial authorities from ascribing group characteristics to the fictional entity; they gave Ngala further substance by contrasting Ngala characteristics with those of downriver peoples such as the Kongo.
In the preindependence era, some of the upriver Africans briefly adopted the identity of Bangala; they found it useful as a rallying point in creating a political party. Unfortunately, the party failed to win significant electoral support. Without the prospect of winning political and economic spoils, the Bangala identity was perceived as useless and was quickly discarded.
Other ethnic group identities have proven more enduring. Congo's two largest ethnic groups, the Kongo and the Luba, have been widely mistrusted by many other Congolese as excessively arrogant, ambitious, and inclined to nepotism. Here again, however, traits considered to be innate to the group are in fact ascribed, products of specific historical conditions. Both groups were early adapters to the influences of the West. Their numerical preponderance in Congo's postcolonial business, church, educational, and governmental hierarchies is a product of their history of early schooling and early acquisition of the skills of literacy rather than of any timeless expression of innate characteristics of ambition and arrogance.
The significance and divisiveness of ethnic identities were highlighted during the struggle for political power at the time of independence and in the period preceding it. The politically ambitious seized on ethnic identity as the most practical basis for organizing political parties, and a nation fragmented along ethnic lines was the result.
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