Democratic Republic of Congo Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is an important African nation. In this lesson, we'll talk about the people who live there and see what ethnicity means in this country.

The Democratic Republic of Congo

Much of Central Africa has had a hard time achieving political and social unity over the last several decades. Every wonder why that is? This region is incredibly diverse, home to hundreds of ethnic groups, but these groups did not come together to form nations voluntarily. Many were forced together by European colonialism, bringing ethnic groups that historically didn't get along into immediate contact with each other. That heritage has led to ethnic conflict and instability across the region.

One place we see this is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a Central African nation of almost 80 million people. That's a lot of people, comprised of over 200 distinct ethnic groups. The DRC may be a diverse place, but that hasn't always been an easy fact to deal with.

Democratic Republic of Congo

Bantu Groups

The Democratic Republic of Congo is extremely diverse, and obviously we're not going to be able to talk about all 200-ish ethnic groups; however, we can talk about some major divisions. One of the most important one is language. The majority of ethnic groups in the DRC belong to the Bantu ethno-linguistic family.

Across all of Central and South Africa, there are between 300 and 600 distinct Bantu ethnic groups (depending on who you ask). This is an ancient ethno-linguistic family, emerging up to 3,000 years ago in Central Africa, and is now one of the dominant groups on the continent.

Most people in the DRC belong to a Bantu ethnic group, and Bantu art is an important part of the nation

Within the Democratic Republic of Congo, there are a large number of Bantu groups. Some are pretty small, while others are very large. In fact, three of the largest ethnic groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo belong to the Bantu family.

For example, the Luba alone contain about 6 million members. Most Luba people live in the south-central part of the DRC. The other major Bantu groups are the Mongo and Kongo, each with several million members. Most are small-scale farmers and are spread across the nation.

The Mangbetu-Azande

Of the four large ethnic groups within the Democratic Republic of Congo, only one is not Bantu. The Mangbetu-Azande people are mostly found in the northern part of the DRC and belong to the Hamitic ethno-linguistic family, which is related to languages of northern Africa. The Mangbetu-Azande people today are largely farmers, relying on cash crops like coffee, peanuts, and bananas. They occupy a special place in the nation due to some very distinctive traditions that have come to represent the nation's heritage.

Perhaps the most unique of these traditions is a practice of head binding. Young children's heads will be wrapped in tight layers of chords, which reshapes the child's skull to make it longer. The belief is that this increases the brain cavity and, therefore, the child's intelligence. Mangbetu-Azande hairstyles, composed of layers of braids, accentuate this elongated shape of the head and have become internationally recognized.

Head binding is one of the most unique practices of the Mangbetu-Azande

Ethnicity in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The combination of these four major ethnic groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo make up around 45% of the total population. The rest is composed of the other roughly 200 smaller ethnic groups, and getting so many different people to agree has not been easy in the nation's history, along with a tradition of violent dictators.

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