Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 11. Nr. Dezember 2001

Language and Oral Literature as a National Identity Marker in the DRC

Ngessimo Mutaka (Yaounde)

In post-colonial Africa, the multiplicity of languages has often been seen as an element of division rather than of unity among the citizens of their respective countries. Dissenting from this view, Tadadjeu (2000) has demonstrated that, rather than being considered an element of division, the various vernacular languages can be considered as the embodiment of the richness of the African culture and that they should therefore be promoted as much as possible. This paper looks at the language situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (henceforth DRC) and shows to what extent the various languages have been a unifying factor for the Congolese and how the development of their oral literature could be promoted as a way of buttressing the cultural identity of the Congolese. The paper is organized as follows. §1 addresses written forms of oral literature in use in the DRC, §2 deals with the context of use of languages in the DRC and §3 looks at the perspectives for the future of Congolese languages as a unifying factor between the various Congolese language speakers.


1. Written Forms of Oral Literature in Use in the DRC

Talking about oral literature in the African context makes one think immediately about the use of such genres as proverbs, maxims, catchy sayings, folk tales, etc. The fact that this is considered as oral literature implies that it is not written. However, with the influence of the written medium, oral literature tends to become written. In the present context, where the written medium permeates all walks of life, oral literature is actually what used to be exclusively oral. Now, however, it also includes collections of proverbs, maxims, and folk tales in written forms, most often translated into French or English.

Because this oral literature is partly written, it can now be used for educational purposes in schools along with other written materials. One area where oral literature could fill the gap in the education of children is the use of lullabies. When students learn French or English in a school environment, they hardly ever learn lullabies because there is never any need for them to use such songs. When they become efficient speakers of English or French, and later, if they have children, they suddenly find themselves lacking the possibility of quieting their babies because they do not know any song to sing for them. At such a time those who still know lullabies will sing them in their mother tongues. The following are such lullabies in Kinande, a language of eastern DRC.

mwana, mwana ukalira ki
ukalira ki koyo wawu ayirehi
ayirehi ayire ebwambatikani
bwambatikani omokati kahungahunga
kahungahunga ise makulumbe akasa akayirigondia
akayirigondia ng'omwana akigh'olugendo
oh oh oh ho ho ho
   (Child, child, why are you crying?
Why are you crying? Where did your mother go?
Where did your mother go? She went to Bwambatikani.
Bwambatikani in the middle of Kahungahunga
Kahungahunga, the father of Makulumbe, comes very slowly,
Comes very slowly like a child who learns how to walk.
Oh oh oh ho ho ho)
Tai tai ta
tai tai ta
na mama
na mukaka
na sokulu
na songali
na nyokolume
n'olya owanalire ati sinditalia
kalya kalibwa
kalibwa nabi
n'oyo wanalire ati sinditalya
  Tai tai ta
tai tai ta
with my mother
with my grandmother
with my grandfather
with my aunt
with my uncle
Even the one who ate says that he did not eat
any food
the food to eat
is eaten badly
Even the one who ate says that he has not eaten
Any food

In various African countries, one indication that a person is respectful is his handling of proverbs in his mother tongue. In general, proverbs are seen as encapsulating the daily know-how of what to do in any situation that one might encounter. Nowadays, this knowledge is lacking in young intellectuals. Those adults who still have recourse to such proverbs, even if they translate them, are highly regarded by their peers. Therefore, it is desirable that people again have access to the traditional cultural knowledge transmitted through proverbs. Many Congolese communities have collected such proverbs in their languages (e.g. Tatsopa 1985, Bergmans 1976, Kagaragu 1984, etc.).

An example of such a collection of proverbs is the book entitled "Emigani bali Bantu: proverbes et maximes des Bashi" by Abbé Kagaragu Ntabaza (published by Libreza, Bukavu, 1984.) This is a book that contains 3010 proverbs, maxims and catchy sayings along with an analytical index that regroups the various proverbs by specific themes, which makes its consultation easier.

Speaking of these proverbs, it is true that they capture the traditional lore of African culture. At the same time, I would like to point out that, when written, they do not really translate the real spirit in which they are used. They are desacralized in a sense. They have become like reference material for the young generations. As pointed out above, the user of the proverbs and catchy sayings is usually respected. But at the same time, if one overuses them, or if a child overuses the proverbs, this might be misinterpreted and not readily appreciated. Proverbs and catchy sayings simply have to be used in the correct context.

It should be noted that in modern contexts not every proverb is necessarily always appropriate. As pointed out by Father Ntabaza (1984), certain proverbs propose outdated ideas and may actually convey messages that oppose social or economic development. For example, a catchy saying, which was quite appropriate in the context of Nande men assembled around a fire in a men's hut, no longer seems to be the right thing to say about foreigners:

"Whose log is this that is giving so much smoke?"

The person uttering that saying would be looking at the log, eventually touching it, as if he were genuinely speaking about the log. But what he means is rather asking about a foreigner who is sitting among the people in the hut and whose origin he does not know. It is a way for him to ask who actually brought this new person into the men's hut. If one of the village people brought him, the answer will be that X brought that log. If no one invited him, then the people will know that this new face is highly suspicious and that the people in the hut have to be cautious in what they are talking about. Nowadays, it would seem like an insult to treat a foreigner in a group as a log. It would seem more appropriate to ask the foreigner directly, where he comes from and the reason why he is among the village people he is visiting.

Note that productive areas, where popular literature is produced in vernacular languages, are in church songs, music songs, dance songs. Church songs are usually produced by some members of the different church communities. Some of these songs often go beyond the national territory. This is the case of the following song in Kikongo which can be virtually heard in churches all over Africa and even at the Vatican.

Mfumu (a church song in Kikongo)(1)
E e e Mfumu yamba makabo
yamba makabo ya kimenga na beto

    Tala maboko na mono yokela pamba
    Tala mono kimbeni sukami ya nene
    Ikima mono talenda pesa na ngeye (2x)
    Mfumu ee Mfumu ee (2x)

E e e Mfumu yamba mapa...
E e e Mfumu yamba vino



Lord, receive these offerings from our city (village, dwelling place)
Receive these offerings that are the fruit of our labor

Look at my hands, they are empty.
Look at me, a poor sinner
What do I really have to give you ...(2x)
What can I give you...(2x)

Oh Lord, receive this bread ...
Oh Lord, receive this wine ...

Music songs are also produced mostly by well-known singers for whom song production has become a job. Most of these songs are produced in Europe. Lingala is the language par excellence of most Congolese songs. Again, these songs have become so popular that they have gone beyond the territory of the DRC. One example is the "Dombolo" that one can hear over the radios of several African countries.

Dance songs are the ones that remain traditional because they often respect the rhythm of the traditional songs. Nonetheless, the songwriters produce songs, the characters of which are people they feel they should praise. Such songs also address themes that are close to people's feelings. Examples are songs about AIDS, the war in the DRC, the importance of marriage, etc. One such song is Cholo Nkese's "omwishingo", which is written in Shi, a language of Kivu, Eastern DRC. It tells about the most important moments in the life of the Shi people, namely, birth, marriage and the joy of having one's child married. According to Louise Ndagano (personal communication), the greatest joy for Shi parents is to see their children get married.

Speaking about Congolese music songs, certain people contend that the songs created in the late 60s and 70s were far better than those produced nowadays. When listening to the songs of Pepe Kalle, Mbilia Bel, or Luambo Makiadi, one feels that one is getting a message. It is not just hearing the melody of the song, but also listening to a message. Take, for example, the following song entitled "Mamou" by Luambo Makiadi, also known as Franco, that deals with the problems of infidelity between married people. Because many Congolese people feel intimately concerned with the problems it discusses, the song became a real hit all over the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here is the lyric.(2)

Mamou by Luambo Makiadi

Bana imbwa

Olobaki nini Mamou
Olobaki nasalaka kisefe na libala na bino
olobaki ngai nafundaka yo na mobali na yo
Madilu tika ye aloba loba makambo ye asalaka ayebaka te
batu bamonaka ye bandako ye akotaka
baplafond ya ndako efundaka ye
bacoins nyonso ye atelemaka ba chauffeurs taxi bamonaka ye
bavedettes oyo ye akamataka bana imbwa bamonaka ye
po nani apanza yo sango alobi yo asalaka kisefe
Ngai moto nakotelaka yo Mamou
Ngai moto nayebi ba sekele
lelo nakomi moto mabe
oyebi tango engindaka, okokanisa ngai Mamou nakei eee
ata ofingi ngai ndumba oyebi tango engindaka
Mamou kindumba oza kofinga ngai
kindumba eza mosala ya provisoire te,
ngai pe nazalaka na libala, nayebi pasi ya libala
omona te mwasi ya ndumba akomi mwasi ya libala?
akoma mama ya bana
akoma esika ya ga, amata té
Na souhaité te
Na yo pe mokolo okokufa soki akomi esika ya biso, na kotuna yo
Signature osi ozua, landa nzela ya libala Mamou
landa libala Mamou eee
yango evandisa yo na poto
tika kokosa mobali na yo
soki a telephoné loba obimaka Mamou
yo moko olobaki mobali atindi yo na poto po abokolo bana
mokolo mosusu soki ngungi nini esuaki yo
olobi mobali abenga yo deux fois par jour
kutu apesa yo carnet ya chèques
Mamou amonaka soki mobali atelephone na six heures,
surtout na minuit amonaka likolo ekiti,
akoti na salle de bain asali monzele
abimi na salon atali likolo ya armoire
azui kisi ya ba ngungi
akoti na chambre ya muana oyo ya moke oyo afundaki ye epayi ya papa na ye
akamati kisi ya ngungi apombé, apombé, apombé, apombé, apombé, apombé
po tango akobima pe akozonga mwana ayeba té que mama abimaki,
akozonga lokola nyawu, makolo pe nyamu nyamu
Papa bana ye esika atikalaki 6h du matin ekoki teléphone ngiri ngiri,
allo, allo ngai Mamou
Oyo nayoki azoloba kuna nani wana
té ezalaki radio papa
sala attention makambo nakoyoka vraiment
batela personnalité na yo
ata oza na poto.
Papa bana nayebisaka yo zala na confiance na ngai
kasi likambo nakotuna yo papa bana
sango ya mosika pasi na motema oo
nalobi eee oyo likambo nayoki ozui mwasi azuaka mapa na Mama Poto
soki na Quo Vadis
Est-ce que likambo yango ya solo to lokuta
wana leki ya mwasi mbwa akangaki na Zaventem, oyebi ye bien
Ebangisi ngai moyen té ooo Ce n'est pas vrai
En tout cas nakámwáki.
Nakoki kosala yango té chéri


(Stray children (literally, dogs'children)

What did you say Mamou
You said that I have been sowing discord in your family by telling certain things
You said that I am the one who accuses you to your husband
Let Madilu (a musician) talk about things he does not really know
Even the streets on which he walks, he does not even know them
People see him in the houses that he enters
the ceilings of the houses accuse him
all the corners where he stands,
the taxi drivers who see him
the stars that he goes with (that is, he makes love with)
the late night walkers (literally, dogs'children) see him
why does he disseminate the news that you sow discord
I am the person who usually defends you, Mamou
I am the person who knows your secrets
today I have become a bad person
You know that when things will become bad (be hot), you will think about me Mamou.
I am leaving. Even if you insult me, saying I have become a prostitute, you know that things do become bad
Mamou, when you accuse me of being a prostitute,
you know that prostitution is not a temporary job
I too was married, I do know the suffering in a marriage.
Did you ever see a prostitute live a stable married life?
Did you ever see her become a child's mother, get really happy? She never prospers.
I really do not wish you (to be a prostitute).
You too, when you die, if you come to our place, I will ask you
You already have all the powers (literally, you've already got the signatures)
Be faithful in your marriage, Mamou, keep a stable married life, Mamou
when you do so, you will be happy (literally, this will bring you to Europe)
Do not be deceiving your husband. If he calls you up, tell him you will go out Mamou.
Mamou, you are the one who said that your husband sent you to Europe so that he may raise the children
Some other time, I do not know which mosquito bite got you, you said that he calls you twice a day. That he has already given you his checkbook.
When Mamou notices that her husband calls her up at 6 o'clock, mostly at midnight, she is extremely happy (literally, she sees that the sky has fallen).
She goes into the bathroom, she washes carefully, she goes to the living room, she looks over the cupboard, she takes the mosquito repellent bottle, she goes back to the room of the little child who usually accuses her to her father, she takes the mosquito repellent bottle, pumps it several times, so that when she goes out and when she comes back the child will not know that her mother went out. She will come back like a cat, walking on her toes (to avoid any noise).
As for the children's father, when it gets 6 o'clock where he is staying, he hears the telephone ring "Hello Hello! Here is Mamou"
"Who is it that I hear talking in the background?"
"Nobody. It is just the radio, my dear husband (literally, my father)"
"Be careful, the things I have been hearing are not encouraging at all. Please protect yourself. Even if you are in Europe."
"My children's father, I told you to have confidence on me. However, there is one thing I would like to ask you, my children's father, the news one gets from far make one suffer a lot (literally cause suffering to the heart). Listen for example, I heard that this woman who usually buys bread at a bakery called "Mama Poto", if not "Quo Vadis", do you think that story is true or wrong. The younger sister of that lady was caught at Zaventem (Belgium airport) by the police dogs. You do know her very well! This really frightened me. I hope it is not true. In any case, I was startled. I cannot do that, my darling.)

Throughout Africa and the world in general, music songs have become the hallmark of the cultural identity of the Congolese, (both Congo Kinshasa and Congo-Brazzaville, as their music in Lingala sounds pretty similar).

In various Congolese cultures, there are popular traditional legends, called "épopées", which are often interesting to read or to listen to. They could certainly constitute reading material in schools, as is the case of the popular American tales such as The Little Mermaid, or the Japanese tales translated into English, which often convey the courage of the Japanese people. Some of the Congolese tales worth mentioning here are, for example, "She Mwindo" for the Hunde of Eastern DRC, "Kashala" for the Baluba of Kasai. Tales about the interaction between the living and the ancestors in the culture of the Bakongo of Bandundu are also noteworthy here, as they help explain their behavior towards their deceased. From a story that was recounted to me(3) by Kaswa Malukila (personal communication), when someone is dead, one usually meets the newly deceased person clad in white near the house, and it is believed that he has to travel a long way before reaching the abode of the ancestors. There is a river that one has to cross. It is believed that those who have problems crossing that river often come back as bad spirits to haunt the living. For the Bakongo of Bandundu, it is therefore important to help the dead people travel safely to the world beyond. Such tales can be viewed as an identity marker for them among the Congolese population.


2. The Context of Use of Languages in the DRC

As proposed in Mbula Paluku (1997:15-32), there are different layers of languages used by the Congolese. There are approximately 212 vernacular languages, or mother tongues, and they are mostly spoken in families and most especially in the rural areas. In the cities, people tend to speak the languages that belong to the second layer, which consists of the four national languages, that is, Swahili, Lingala, Ciluba, and Kikongo. Swahili is spoken predominantly in the Eastern part of the country, including the provinces of Shaba, Kivu, and Haut-Congo (former Haut-Zaire). Lingala is spoken in the capital Kinshasa as well as in the province of Equator and part of Haut-Congo. Ciluba is mostly spoken in the two Kasai and Kikongo is spoken in the provinces of Bandundu and Bas-Congo.

Notice that the term Baswahili is often used, especially in Kinshasa, to designate the speakers of Swahili; in other words, the speakers of Swahili are felt to form a language community. It is mostly when Congolese are abroad that they feel the importance of belonging to such language communities. Take the example here in Yaounde: there are groups based on the national languages they speak: the AFESWA, a Swahili-speaking community of women that includes women from Kivu, Haut-Congo and Shaba. Similar groups include the Bakongo of Bandundu, and the Baluba of Kasai. Lingala is the only language which does not serve as the basis for a community, presumably because most Congolese, especially those who have lived temporarily in Kinshasa, are supposed to know it. Lingala, on the other hand, tends to be the hallmark of the Congolese. One way to identify yourself as Congolese is to speak Lingala, unless one has strong feelings about speaking it, for example, if one is a Swahili speaker.

It should also be pointed out that, mostly in Kinshasa, various communities feel the need to teach their native languages to their children. There are thus private language schools in Kinshasa, where children can learn, for example, Kinande, Ciluba, etc. One motivation for learning these vernacular languages is that, in times of danger, people have realized that one is always safe when he can identify himself with his community. In order to transmit information, it is sometimes crucial to use the vernacular languages. Those individuals who cannot speak the language are often considered as spies or as not being true nationals.

Maybe of all the Congolese, the Baluba speakers of the two Kasai (whose regional cities are Mbuji Mayi and Kananga) are the most nationalistic with respect to using their languages. In most cases, they always make sure that their children learn and speak the language, even if they live in a milieu where a lingua franca such as Lingala (in Kinshasa) or Swahili in Eastern DRC is spoken. The Baluba do not seem to bother speaking Ciluba among themselves, even when other language speakers are present. To many Congolese, this overuse of Ciluba in contexts where its use is not quite appropriate is often interpreted negatively, and the Baluba, at times, may be accused of being tribalistic because of the love of their language. Yet, are they tribalistic? One will find many Baluba speakers who are really objective and who, for example, do favor meritocracy in providing jobs to job seekers. At the same time, there are also cases where this tribalism may be felt, for example, in the universities, during an exam, where some people feel that some Baluba are somewhat tempted to give better grades to people who belong to their own tribe.(4)

I would like to point out that the Baluba are not the only ones to use language as a mark of their cultural identity and who exploit it to help one another. The following incident that was reported to me also shows that the Bashi do use their language to do favors to their own people. In a parish of the neighborhood of Bukavu, the principal, who was a priest, would clearly preach in the church that there were no more vacancies in the school he managed. But, while translating the same message in Mashi, he would say that, although there are no more vacancies, those who speak Mashi are still encouraged to send their children, as there are still vacancies for such Mashi speakers. This is a polite way of telling non-Mashi speakers that they are discriminated against for their failure of not being able to speak the Shi language. It must be noted that there is nothing wrong with such a policy. One of the reasons several schools have been created in the Congo was partly to encourage students to study mostly in places closer to their homes.


3. Perspectives for the Future of the Congolese Languages as a Unifying Factor

As an aftermath of colonialism, French has become the official language of DRC, and four other languages, namely, Lingala, Swahili, Ciluba, and Kikongo have been declared the national languages. However, it is no secret that people still use their native languages. The question is to know whether it is desirable that only the official language be encouraged, or better, the official language and the four national languages, or again that, to these languages English should be added, as is the tendency of the present Congolese government. In other words, the languages that would be mostly favored by the government policy would be: French, Swahili, Lingala, English, Ciluba, and Kikongo (in that order). Because the DRC is a relatively large country, the government policy could subdivide it in four major areas where some of these languages would be encouraged by the government policy. French and English, which are international languages, would continue to be taught in government schools, as is currently done. Swahili would be mostly encouraged in the eastern part of the country where it is mostly spoken, that is in the provinces of Kivu, Haut-Congo and Katanga. Lingala would be encouraged mostly in Kinshasa, Equateur and part of Haut-Congo. Ciluba would be encouraged in the two Kasai provinces, and Kikongo would be encouraged in the provinces of Bas-Congo and Bandundu. In a sense, this proposal adds nothing new to what actually exists in the DRC. It is just that the policy is not formalized in official texts. But the question is: would this policy be fair and sufficient for a country where more than 200 languages are spoken. While the four official languages do translate the national identity of its speakers, I would like to emphasize the fact that most Congolese should be made to feel proud to speak their own native languages. These are the languages of their ancestors, the languages that best translate their idiosyncratic identities, the languages that reflect their traditional cultures. It is my feeling that these native languages should also be encouraged by the government policy. The positive outcome of such a policy would be that every Congolese would feel a sense of belonging not only to his/her own culture, but also to a more national culture through the knowledge of one of the four national languages, and also to a more international culture, through the knowledge of French and English. One way to encourage the Congolese people to be more interested in their languages would be through literacy programs, as suggested, for example, in Mutaka (2001). Speaking of such literacy programs, Mutaka proposes the following:

This type of literacy program would address the needs of the native speakers, and the contents of such a program would discuss issues such as the following:

The end result for such a program would be that the Congolese would feel less uprooted in their own cultures, as they have been because of colonialism. In addition they would learn, through their native languages and also through French and English, a number of techniques that are likely to help in their economic, social, and cultural development. Such a program is absolutely worth encouraging, because it would combine the positive effects of enhancing the national identity of the Congolese people and also help them, in the long run, to learn more about their neighbors. It is only through such a policy that the various Congolese tribes will learn to better appreciate one another and also appreciate their neighbors, and, hopefully, thus avoid conflicts with them, because they will better understand them, assuming that conflicts often arise from a misunderstanding between two groups of people.


4. Conclusion

In conclusion, it has been emphasized in this paper that the multiplicity of African national languages is a characteristic that forms part of the cultural heritage of Africans in general and Congolese people in particular. In addition to oral literature in the forms of proverbs, lullabies, catchy sayings, tales, church songs or Congolese music should also be officially promoted by the government policy. In this way people will feel more encouraged to learn more about their own cultural tradition. They will also feel proud of their culture and hopefully be disposed to develop better socially, economically, and culturally with the help of their vernacular languages, if these languages are used in literacy programs addressed to adult speakers.

© Ngessimo Mutaka (Yaoundé)

TRANSINST        table of contents: No.11


(1)  Thanks to Germanine Ngandu, a native speaker of Kikongo, who has supplied the words of this song and their translation (in French).

(2)  This lyric was generously provided and transcribed by Marie Nduire and Luise Ndagano. The translation which is based on the explanations I received from them is mine.

(3)  Kaswa Malukila recounted this story to the author back in 1978 at the ISP-Bukavu, DRC.

(4)  As I did my undergraduate studies at ISP-Bukavu (Democratic Republic of Congo), one day, I felt favored by a Muluba teacher whose name I no longer remember. He was a visiting teacher and when he learned that my name was Mutaka, he became extremely happy. He began to call me Mutaka wa Dilomba. Of course, as a student, I could not argue with him. I just smiled. But during the exam, he was so sympathetic that I took the oral examination in the best conditions. (I am actually not a Luba speaker. My name happens to be found in several Congolese languages, even in other languages spoken in Cameroon or in Japan).



Bergmans, L. 1976. Emisyo. Proverbes nande. Butembo (Zaïre): Éditions A.B.B.

Kagaragu, Ntabaza. 1984. Emigani bali Bantu: proverbes et maximes des Bashi. Libreza: Bukavu, Zaïre.

Kavutirwaki, Kambale. 1975. Contes folkloriques nande. Tervuren: Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, vols.1-2.

Tadadjeu, Maurice. 2000. Basic Standardization of All Unwritten African Languages. In Research mate in African linguistics: focus on Cameroon, Mutaka and Chumbow (eds.) 2001. Cologne: Rudiger Koppe. To appear.

Mbula Paluku, André. 1997. Langues et éducation en Afrique noire. In: Tranel 26: 15-32, Institut de Linguistique, Université de Neuchâtel-Suisse.

Mutaka, M. N. 2001. On the Identification and Implementation of a Literacy Program in the Nande Area (DRC). Mss. (AJAL 3).

Tatsopa, Kakule. 1985. Emisyo n'ehisimo omo Kinande. Goma (Zaïre).

For quotation purposes:
Ngessimo Mutaka: Language and Oral Literature as a National Identity Marker in the DRC. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 11/2001.

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