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The Africa of the Past

How did traditional Congolese ways of life exist alongside the harsher reality of colonialism?

July 14, 2001

How did traditional Congolese ways of life exist alongside the harsher reality of colonialism?

The most surprising thing from today’s perspective was that by the 18th century, the regions of Africa that were under direct colonial control were in fact shrinking. That applied particularly to Portuguese East Africa, where cities like Mombasa in today’s Kenya regained their independence. Foreign control was limited to a few trading ports.

Some of the African societies were highly structured in the interest of greater efficiency. The Fulani in Sierra Leone, for instance, had specialized artisans. Some tanned and worked leather into saddles, bridles or sandals.

Others were highly competent blacksmiths who produced not only utilitarian objects, but also finely chased sword handles, or gold and silver jewelry. Their canoes, made from tree trunks, could carry up to ten tons. Their fishing lines were as durable as any of those made in Europe. Here, in fact, was a people whose competence not only covered tools of commerce, but also allowed for the finest artistic expression.

In other areas of Africa, though, mighty states found their power eroded by three major factors: the slave trade, the technological innovations imported from Europe — and the work of the Christian missionaries.

This was visible, for example, in the Loango kingdom, located between the Zaire estuary and the Gabon forests. A major producer of cloth, which it used also as currency, Loango had prospered all through the 17th century. It exported its cloth, and also sold salt and copper to the rest of Africa. And the Dutch bought copper and ivory from it.

But then, as the supply of these commodities became exhausted, Loango traders switched to slaves. By 1800, they were exchanging about 10,000 slaves a year for cloth, beads, iron or brass manufactured objects, alcohol, tobacco and guns.

This trade, on a societal level, was a commercial and political equivalent of AIDS. As economic and political structures in various parts of Africa felt the effect of the virus, they grew weaker and weaker — until they finally collapsed.

Much the same thing happened to the once-powerful kingdom of Kongo. There a small, parasitic upper class lived principally from kidnapping people to sell them into slavery.

As late as the 1760s, it was, according to Abbé Proyart, a Western traveler, a place where “the Kings…hold as a principle that it is their duty as well as their interest to occupy themselves with the care of rendering their subjects happy, and maintaining peace and justice among them.”

“Every day,” he went on, “they pass several hours in deciding the processes of those who have appealed to them in their tribunals. They hold frequent councils.”

Although limited in its resources, this was a society in which subtleties mattered. Its cuisine proved that. Manioc was the basic food. It could be made into flour, or steamed.

Legumes, bananas, oranges and lemons were widely available, but meat, fish and chicken were rare. They were eaten only by people of high rank, although insects, rats and snakes also formed part of the diet. It was the sauces that made the difference. Made with palm oil, spices, peppers, onions, cucumber seeds and hot pepper, they were as varied as in France. Kongo’s gastronomy in 1800 was alive and well.

So was fashion. Cloth was woven in changing, but always complex, patterns, and it was very expensive. So was the copper jewelry — incised with rich stylized designs, it was made into armbands for the men — and bracelets, neck bands and anklets for the women.

Then there were more permanent adornments. Tattoos reflected the village of origin, but were also highly decorative. And, in 1800, it was also customary for both sexes to rub their skin daily with palm oil to make it softer and more lustrous.

And everywhere, manners mattered a great deal. “Whenever they meet some person of quality on the road, they fall to their knees and greet him by clapping their hands,” Laurent de Lucques reported. “In the gathering of chiefs,…the most important of the dignitaries grasps his own right wrist in his left hand, places the index finger of his right hand on the ground, carries it to his temple three times, opens the hand, presses the tips of the fingers to the ground and then, with closed fists, beats the hands together rhythmically. This last gesture is repeated by every person present.” Indeed, the etiquette of Kongo was worthy of a European court.

Even the wars were mercifully brief, seldom lasting more than eight or ten days. They tended to be over when the army had eaten the provisions it had brought along and had run out of gunpowder and bullets.

Because rivalries were fierce, the houses of important people, those of the king first and foremost, were placed at the end of a maze. As visitors blundered through, there was time for the guards to get ready.