oa Africa Insight - Country profile - Zaire

Volume 17, Issue 3
  • ISSN : 0256-2804



The Republic of Zaire is the country with the largest land area in sub-Saharan Africa. It also has one of the largest populations in Africa. Ruled by the Belgians from 1884 to 1960, it was known until 1971 as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and popularly as ""Congo Kinshasa"". A country of extreme ethnic and linguistic variety, Zaire's internal diversity is in the first instance the result of a 2000-year process of migration, internal movement and mixing, as well as adaptation to a diverse physical environment. Zaire was settled over many centuries by small bands of people practising a rudimentary agriculture - most of them relying at least as heavily on hunting and gathering as on cultivation. It is likely that the first of these bands filtered in from the north and that they spoke early versions of the Bantu languages now used almost everywhere south of the equator and by substantial numbers of people to the north of it. These early immigrants encountered pygmy hunting-peoples, whose descendants are still to be found in the area. By the time early Portuguese explorers landed on the west African coast at or near the mouth of the Zaire River, some of these Bantu peoples were already organized into fairly complex large-scale politics. The development of small states also occurred in the eastern highlands of Zaire. At roughly the same time, peoples speaking non-Bantu languages gradually penetrated the area from the north and succeeded in dominating the northern savanna and the northern fringes of the equatorial forest.

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