Congolese Americans

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Author: Craig Beebe
Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2014
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 8,255 words
Lexile Measure: 1280L

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Congolese Americans

Craig Beebe


Congolese Americans are immigrants or descendants of people from either of two southern African countries, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Republic of the Congo (the Congo). Both are located in central Africa, along the Congo River, the world's ninth-longest river, which forms most of the border between the two countries. The Republic of the Congo lies to the west of the DRC and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and Gabon to its west and Cameroon and the Central African Republic to its north. The much-larger DRC is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the Republic of the Congo to its west; Zambia and Angola to its south; Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Burundi to its east; and South Sudan and the Central African Republic to its north. Much of the interior of both nations is forested; the DRC is home to the Congo rain forest, the world's second-largest after the Amazon. The DRC, Africa's second-largest nation and the world's eleventh largest, has an area of 905,355 square miles (2,345,409 square kilometers), about one-fourth the size of the United States; the Republic of the Congo, at 132,047 square miles (342,000 square kilometers), is slightly smaller than Montana.

A July 2012 estimate from the CIA World Factbook puts the DRC's population at about 74 million and the population of the Republic of the Congo at approximately 4.4 million. The people of both nations are at least half Christian, though the DRC is more so; about 25 percent of people in the Republic of the Congo practice animism—the belief that natural objects have souls or consciousness—and other indigenous African religions. About 10 percent of DRC residents practice animism or other indigenous religions, and another 10 percent are Muslim. The DRC has been scarred by decades of conflict, enduring a brutal dictatorship under Joseph Mobutu over three decades beginning in the 1960s, followed by extended conflict and political instability. Its economy is heavily dependent on mineral exports, though it has been slow to recover from decades of corruption and conflict. The relatively stable Republic of the Congo, which still experienced violent conflicts in the 1990s, was once one of Africa's largest petroleum producers, but this industry is declining.

Residents of the Congo region first came to American shores against their will during the transatlantic slave trade, which lasted from the early 1500s until the mid-nineteenth century. The west-central African region was one of the major sources of slaves. More recent immigration to the United States began in the mid-twentieth century, when poverty, violence, and war drove several million Congolese from the region, mostly to other African nations and Europe. Many Congolese Americans originally came to the United States for education, intending to return home, but were forced to stay due to deteriorating circumstances in the DRC and the Republic of the Congo. From the 1990s onward, most Congolese immigrants were war refugees from the DRC, many of them from the especially war-torn eastern part of the country.

The U.S. Census Bureau does not maintain estimates of the number of Congolese Americans; they are grouped together with other Americans of Sub-Saharan African origin. Some estimates suggest that the year 2010 alone saw more than 3,000 refugees from the DRC and therefore put the number of Congolese Americans somewhere between 60,000 and 200,000. Furthermore, no estimate exists of the number of African Americans who may be descendants of slaves from the region. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimates for 2006–2010, the states with the largest populations of Congolese Americans included Maryland, New York, North Carolina, and Texas.


Early History The Congo River network has been a site of human habitation, agriculture, and industry for several thousand years, sustaining a variety of ethnic groups amid the lush jungles and open plains of the Congo River and its tributaries. By 500 BCE, Bantu-speaking people had entered the Congo savannahs from the north, rapidly displacing the indigenous Pygmy people. Later migrations from Sudan and East Africa further diversified the ethnic milieu as a mixed economy developed throughout the region. The mouth of the Congo, named for the Kongo people who ruled it, became a significant trading site, particularly for slaves, and was claimed by the Portuguese empire in the fifteenth century CE. By the sixteenth century the Luba Empire had formed in what is now the southern DRC, maintaining military and economic control over a vast area of southern Africa Page 532  |  Top of Articlewith a wide-ranging trading network and developing a rich artistic and cultural identity. The Luba Empire declined in the late eighteenth century as slave raiders from the east weakened the state's power.

As the Luba Empire waned, European powers began to take more interest in the vast Congo region. Sir Henry Stanley Morton led the first European expedition to navigate the entire Congo River in the 1870s, on behalf of King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold shrewdly played the other European powers off each other and was formally granted rights to own the Congo at the Conference of Berlin in 1885. Declaring the entire land that is now the DRC his private property and naming it the Congo Free State, his regime undertook major infrastructure projects, including a railway from the coast to the capital of Leopoldville (later renamed Kinshasa). At the same time Leopold began to exploit the resources of the land, particularly rubber, and the natives' labor in order to extract it. Slavery, brutal practices, and disease outbreaks brought serious misery to the Congolese people under Leopold's rule. Historian Adam Hoschild estimated in 1998 that about half the population (about 10 million, based on official Belgian census numbers from the time) of the Congo perished during the Free State period.

As these brutalities reached the attention of the international community through journalistic accounts and novels such as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899), the Belgian parliament took control of the rechristened Belgian Congo in 1908, with a promise to improve human conditions and foster development. It continued as such until 1960, with the colonial government opening new markets for copper and diamond mining, palm oil production, cotton, and later uranium. Although the colonial government brought considerable social progress to the region in the form of better health care, education, and water infrastructure, much of the nation's wealth was still being extracted with little benefit to its inhabitants, and the Congolese desire for full independence grew more pronounced in the years after World War II.

The Republic of the Congo, which had for many centuries been a major transatlantic shipping center for slaves, raw goods from the interior, and manufactured goods, came under French rule in 1880 as French Congo, later incorporated into French Equatorial Africa (AEF), with Brazzaville on the Congo River as its capital. While French rule was not as brutal as Leopold's, French policies also focused on extensive mineral extraction to be carried out by native people. After the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, Brazzaville became the symbolic capital of the French government-in-exile, and the nation's economy and stature benefited as a result. Following the war, the AEF was dissolved and the French began to take steps to grant full independence to the Republic of the Congo.

Modern History The DRC was granted independence from Belgium on June 30, 1960, just a month and a half before the Republic of the Congo was freed from French rule on August 15, 1960. Leopoldville was established as the capital of the DRC, while Brazzaville, just across the Congo River, became the capital of the Republic of the Congo.

Within a few months the DRC had fallen into a dispute over leadership. During the crisis the army chief of staff, Mobutu, acted with U.S. and Belgian backing to create a mutiny and took over the DRC's government in a coup. By 1965 he had a firm grip over the nation and in 1971 changed its name to Zaire. Mobutu ruled with an iron fist for several decades. He was largely supported by the U.S. government and other Western powers, as he was seen to be a road block to communism in the region. He established a one-party system, banned dissent, and created a cult of personality with his image on all currency and his portrait in most buildings. Corruption was also widespread; Mobutu himself reportedly stole as much as $4 billion dollars from the nation's coffers and from international assistance. He also engaged in Africanizing much of the country, renaming colonial cities and banning Western-style clothing.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Mobutu began to face increasing pressure from within and outside the country to allow democratic reforms. Though on the surface he appeared to be open to such changes, his time in power was running out. In 1996 the Rwandan civil war and genocide spilled into Zaire as militias from the Hutu ethnic group entered the nation and military-occupied refugee camps. Reacting to this, Rwandan and Ugandan armies invaded the nation. Called the First Congo War, the fighting lasted until Mobutu fled into exile in May 1997.

Laurent-Désiré Kabila became president and immediately restored the old name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He also moved to consolidate power and expel foreign troops from the nation. Yet Rwanda and Uganda each created their own rebel movements within the country to remove Kabila and establish their own regimes. These militia attacked the DRC army in 1998, launching the Second Congo War. Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia also soon entered to defend the Kabila regime. Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and succeeded by his son, Joseph Kabila, who worked with the United Nations to initiate peace talks, resulting in a shared-power agreement that ended most of the armed conflict. Voters approved a new constitution at the end of 2005, and in July 2006 the nation held its elections. This led to street battles between supporters of Kabila and supporters of former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba. A second round of elections swept Kabila firmly into power, and he was sworn in as president.

Conflict persists in the DRC, however, particularly in its eastern regions, where militias often fight with each other and the DRC army. Rwanda and other neighboring countries are accused of backing

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these militias as proxies, and the fighting has been brutal. Civilians have suffered immensely, with tens of thousands dying monthly from war, hunger, disease, and other humanitarian crises. Sexual violence is reported to be rampant, with as many as 200,000 women raped, and children have died in horrific numbers. As many as 400,000 citizens have fled as refugees, mostly to other African nations. Somewhere between three and six million DRC emigrants live abroad, with nearly three-quarters elsewhere in Africa and about 16 percent in Europe, particularly France. Another 2.5 million DRC citizens are internally displaced.

The Republic of the Congo has been more stable through its independence than its neighbor. After a succession of leaders in its first decade, a 1968 coup established Africa's first “people's republic” under a Marxist ideology. The nation aligned itself with the Soviet Union and depended on political repression and patronage to hold power. By the 1990s the Republic of the Congo had taken steps toward democratization and liberalization of its economy, with presidential elections held in 1992. These were interrupted, however, by a power struggle beginning in 1997 between the longtime socialist leader, Denis Sassou Nguesso, and the democratically elected president, Pascal Lissouba. A four-month war and Angolan invasion preserved Sassou's control. Disputed elections and a constitutional referendum followed, along with an unsuccessful rebellion in the nation's south. Sassou was again named president in 2009 in an election that international observers said was marked by fraud and irregularities.


Although untold numbers of people (some studies report one in five people) in the Congo region were brought to North America via the transatlantic slave trade between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, modern Congolese immigration to the United States began shortly after the DRC and Republic of the Congo achieved independence in 1960. During this period many Congolese came to the United States for educational purposes—often on scholarships that had been created to help young Africans learn about government, education, health care, and other essential issues overseas—intending to return to their native countries to help with modernization.

But the increasingly violent civil strife in the Congo region led many of these once-temporary residents of the United States to stay. Some married Americans and began raising families; some left for other African nations or Europe. Many of these early immigrants were already well educated and were able to find work in academia or other professional fields. A number clustered around the Boston area and became connected with institutions such as Page 534  |  Top of ArticleHarvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These older waves and their children probably still make up most of the Congolese in the United States today. As the violence has grown in the Congo region, particularly in the DRC, many more recent immigrants from the region have been refugees or seekers of political asylum. However, the logistics and cost of making it to the United States, along with cultural and linguistic factors, have meant that most Congolese refugees immigrate to other African nations, France, and French-speaking cities in Canada.

The areas with the most Congolese Americans as of 2013 were Raleigh, North Carolina; Boston; Dallas; Los Angeles; the San Francisco Bay Area; New York; and Washington, D.C. Each of these had a minimum of 5,000 Congolese immigrants. Chicago also had a sizable Congolese American population. Several of these cities, including Raleigh, grew in importance in the 1980s and 1990s as destinations for Congolese after a few families were able to establish themselves, which then attracted more immigrants. Congolese immigrants in Boston are usually more educated and work for universities in the area. Washington, D.C., has a mix of diplomats and former Congolese government officials, many of whom worked with the Mobutu regime.

Some refugees find their way to relatively unexpected cities, including Syracuse, New York, which in 2012 claimed about 300 families, most of whom had arrived in the previous five years. Burlington, Vermont, is also a common destination for refugees. Nonprofits such as Catholic Relief Services, along with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), have helped place Congolese in these and other less urban areas, where they are typically welcomed and have an easier time feeling a part of the community. For instance, Congolese Americans in Syracuse wrote and produced a play with Syracuse University titled Cry for Peace, which raised awareness of their journey. The play was performed in New York City in 2012.

Although estimates of the number of Congolese Americans vary widely, the annual arrivals to the United States remain quite small relative to the overall refugee population from the DRC. However, these numbers were larger toward the end of the first decade of the 2000s than in previous years. According to Department of Homeland Security statistics, from 2002 to 2005 the annual number of new permanent residents from the DRC was between 100 and 200; by the end of the decade, the number had risen to between 1,500 and 2,500 per year. Immigrants from the Republic of the Congo remained more constant at around 1,000 per year from 2006 to 2011. According to the DHS, refugees and asylum-seekers made up most of the new permanent residents in 2011. A much smaller number of immigrants from the Congo region become naturalized U.S. citizens each year, though these numbers also rose during the decade, from about 250 combined in 2002 to about 1,250 in 2011. Large numbers of Congolese Americans have settled in North Carolina, Texas, New York, and Maryland.

Since many Congolese in the United States are refugees, they may view their stay as temporary. They also face distinct challenges, including speaking a new language and living in environments quite unlike Congo. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and other mental health problems due to previous trauma. This can contribute to difficulty in finding a community, housing, and employment in the United States. Fortunately, an informal network of Congolese exists throughout the nation for support, along with a number of organizations in various regions of the country. Some nonprofit groups refer to them as a forgotten group of immigrants and work actively to raise awareness about their needs and challenges.


More than 200 languages are spoken in the DRC and the Republic of the Congo, reflecting the cultural diversity of the region and the many peoples who live there. French is the official language of both countries and has been since colonial times. Most residents of both countries can speak at least some French, and it is an important common tongue that allows people of different ethnic groups to communicate. However, each country also recognizes several “national languages” spoken by large numbers of people in various regions. In the DRC these include Lingala, a Bantu language spread by missionaries that is now spoken by as many as ten million people through much of the north and in the capital region and remains the official language of the army; Kikongo, spoken in the southwest; Swahili, used in the east; and Tshiluba, spoken in south-central DRC. Kikongo was the language of many Congolese taken to the Americas during the slave trade, and some have argued that its influence can still be seen in the creole dialects of the Caribbean and the American South. The Republic of the Congo also recognizes Lingala as a national language, along with Kituba, which is similar to Kikongo.

Language is a particular difficulty for many recent Congolese arrivals to the United States. Very few speak English, and lacking significant concentrations of fellow Congolese Americans, they often must learn English quickly if they are to find work. Congolese American children born in the United States usually speak English fluently and often act as intermediaries or translators for their parents. Additionally, a number of Congolese Americans teach their children a native tongue at home, such as Lingala, and many are fluent in three or more languages.


European colonists and missionaries brought Christianity to the Congo region, and now it is by far the dominant faith among Congolese. In both the DRC and Page 535  |  Top of Articlethe Republic of the Congo, Catholicism is the largest Christian sect; as the official religion of colonial governments, it spread effectively throughout the region. Roughly half the population of each country is Catholic. Protestantism is also widespread, with missionaries gaining a foothold in the late nineteenth century. Today 35 to 40 percent of both countries' population is Protestant. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has been successful in the DRC since the arrival of Mormon missionaries in 1986, with about 30,000 adherents as of 2011, according to official LDS estimates. There are also several homegrown Christian sects that follow a specific leader or incorporate elements of traditional African religion into Christianity. Minorities practice Islam or animistic religions.

Religion is typically important to Congolese Americans, particularly refugees. For many Congolese Americans, church is not just a religious gathering but also a place to connect and build community. Many churches, including mainstream American denominations, work in the Congo region and help with the process of immigration and adaptation.

U.S. cities with the highest number of Congolese Americans are the most likely to have Congolese American churches. They typically feature pastors of Congolese descent and offer energetic services with a great deal of dancing, singing in Congolese languages, and vocal prayer. Often these Congolese churches use rented space in an existing American church—for instance, holding their service on a Sunday afternoon. In some cases yet another immigrant group will use the church for its services in the evening. Sometimes Congolese Americans will combine with other African groups for church as well.

A smaller number of Congolese Americans are Catholic and attend Catholic services with other American groups. Thus, their worship experience is more Westernized than Catholic services in the Congo region. However, even these Catholics will sometimes attend a Protestant service at a Congolese American congregation in order to sing familiar songs from their homeland and participate in a familiar kind of worship.


Though they come from a variety of ethnic groups, speak many languages, and practice several religions, Congolese Americans are unified in their pride about the Congo. Since many of them are recent immigrants, they often find American culture quite different from their own and will seek to maintain traditional customs through immigrant associations and informal channels with fellow Congolese Americans. They seek opportunities to speak common languages, eat familiar food, and hear music from the homeland. At the same time, many are driven to succeed in American culture, and they often quickly pick up the ability to fit in with other Americans, learning the language and style of dress quickly, while maintaining long-held customs at home and with fellow Congolese Americans.

Hassan and Dawami Hadam moved to the United States, with their sons, as refugees from the Congo. Hassan and Dawami Hadam moved to the United States, with their sons, as refugees from the Congo. MELANIE STETSON FREEMAN / THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR / GETTY IMAGES

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1 3–4 chicken, cut into parts

1 large onion, chopped

palm oil

small can of tomato paste

½ cup natural peanut butter (made from only peanuts and salt)

dried chile pepper or cayenne pepper, to taste

Fill a large pot with enough water for soup. Bring it to a boil. Add the chicken and simmer it until the meat is done and a broth is obtained, about 40 minutes. Skim foam or fat as it forms on the surface. When cooked, take the chicken from the broth and remove meat from the bones. Keep the broth at a low simmer.

While the chicken is simmering, gently sauté the onion in several tablespoons of palm oil until the onion is tender.

Combine 1 cup of the chicken broth with the peanut butter and tomato paste and stir until smooth.

Return the chicken meat and onions to the broth and add the peanut butter-tomato paste mixture. Stir and continue to simmer until the soup is thickened. Season to taste.

Serve with rice or fufu and more hot pepper to taste.

Traditions and Customs In addition to coming from two nations, Congolese Americans belong to a variety of ethnic groups with distinct customs, dress, and song. Many find it important to maintain the customs unique to their ethnic group while living in the United States, yet they also commonly identify as Congolese. As a whole they have strong national pride, even among second-generation Congolese Americans. They work for a strong sense of unity despite ethnic, religious, and linguistic differences.

Cuisine Congolese cuisine varies widely by region and ethnic group. An ingredient used by many Congolese ethnic groups is cassava. Though native to South America, cassava—also known as yuca or manioc—is common in much of Africa. It is a tuber and commonly provides the central starch for Congolese meals, often in a paste or mash called fufu. This can be eaten with a stew of meat or peanuts and vegetables. Also popular among Congolese are lituma, a mashed plantain dish, and mikate, a type of fried donut often dipped in peanut butter.

Popular meat dishes include a variety of preparations of goat and chicken, as well as smoked and fried fish (mpiodi). Congolese meals are often vegetarian—not for ethical or religious reasons but because meat is too expensive for many in the DRC and the Republic of the Congo.

Most Congolese Americans continue to make traditional dishes in the United States, though many ingredients, such as traditional herbs and spices, are difficult to find, particularly in smaller cities. Many Congolese find American food too bland and feel there is not enough variety. Attendees of most Congolese American celebrations and festivals expect to be served traditional Congolese dishes; if certain ones are missing, guests will be disappointed.

To procure these ingredients, Congolese Americans in many cities have set up informal networks to import ingredients from the Congo. One individual will purchase the ingredients and then sell and distribute them to others in the local community. He or she will often alert the community via email that the food is available. Similar trades and networks are maintained for goods such as clothing, music, and DVDs that are hard to find in the United States. In other cases Congolese Americans must adapt dishes using American ingredients. For instance, while palm oil is a common ingredient in the Congo, it is harder to find in the United States, so canola, peanut, or another oil must be used instead.

Since Congolese Americans are relatively scattered geographically and are a small ethnic group overall, few if any obviously Congolese restaurants exist in the United States. However, in some communities, including Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, there are restaurants owned by Congolese Americans that serve some traditional dishes, though they are often marketed as simply African in order to attract a broader clientele. Other African restaurants owned by members of different ethnic groups will also sometimes serve Congolese dishes.

Traditional Dress Traditional Congolese dress typically features vibrant and colorful prints for both men and women, worn as long dresses for women and flowing suits for men. Patterns and colors often indicate something about a person's ethnicity, clan, or region. Because of the region's tropical climate, the cloth is usually very thin. In the DRC Mobutu's ideology of authenticité largely banned the wearing of Western-style clothing shortly after the country's independence, and men were forced to wear a simple suit known as an abacost. The bright traditional patterns of indigenous clothing were also strongly discouraged for many years but have crept back into fashion. Congolese Americans usually wear Western-style clothing to blend with American culture but don traditional colorful prints for events such as cultural festivals, holidays, and concerts or performances.

Dances and Songs The Congolese cultures are well known for their energetic dancing and drumming. Although styles vary between ethnic groups, the dancing symbolizes aspects of life and community and Page 537  |  Top of Articleis often considered sacred. Other dances are considered more social and are improvised, with many dancers performing simultaneously.

Particularly important to the performance is the ngoma wooden drum, which is played by hand throughout southern and East Africa, often with many drummers playing complex rhythms at the same time. The drums look similar to congas but come in various sizes and shapes and are often carved from one log. In dancing performances ngomas are usually accompanied by other percussion instruments, including nsklas, rattles made from seed pods; kisansis, or thumb pianos; and the ngongui, a cowbell-type instrument.

Congolese dancing and drumming have grown increasingly popular in the United States in recent decades. Classes are taught in many major U.S. cities and at colleges and universities, often by Congolese refugees or immigrants. The Congolese have also continued to innovate in dance and have influenced many modern dance trends in Africa and the United States. The soukous, a style of dance music rooted in rumba, originated in the DRC in the 1940s and has remained popular throughout Africa. Another style, kwassa kwassa, has worked its way into American popular music in songs such as Vampire Weekend's 2007 hit “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.”

Congolese singing is also highly celebrated, with styles varying considerably between ethnic groups. One folk song that has risen to international popularity and is performed by choirs in the United States and other nations is the Kiluba-language “Banaha” (banana), originally sung as a marching song by soldiers. It features repetitive call-and-response lyrics and typically drums and other percussion instruments. Much of the indigenous music was suppressed in the DRC under Mobutu but has continued to be popular globally.

Holidays Recent immigrants to the United States from the Republic of the Congo and the DRC may celebrate their countries' Independence Days: August 15 and June 30, 1960, respectively. For the Republic of the Congo this day commemorates independence from France; the DRC holiday celebrates liberation from Belgian rule. In Africa the holidays are typically marked with parades, often including the military, as well as festivals and parties. Congolese Americans may celebrate with traditional song or dancing and dishes eaten with fellow Congolese immigrants.

Congolese Americans also observe major Christian holidays, with Christmas being an especially important holiday. In the DRC it is usually celebrated with festive singing and pageants performed at churches on Christmas Eve, often running late into the evening or even through the night. Gifts are less emphasized than in the United States.


Family is very important in the DRC and the Republic of the Congo, and this strong sense of kinship also exists among Congolese Americans. All members of the family are responsible for each other's well-being, and each acts as a representative of the family in interactions with others. Some fraying of family bonds occurs upon immigration to the United States, especially as families are split up regionally or internationally. Furthermore, younger Congolese Americans typically do not find family ties to be as important. For instance, Congolese American children may not appreciate their parents' desire to know all about their friends' families before allowing a social engagement. Still, family bonds remain strong, and many Congolese Americans send significant sums of money back to Africa to support family members who have not immigrated. According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, at least $1 billion is sent in remittances to the DRC and the Republic of the Congo each year by the global Congolese diaspora, representing a major part of the region's economy.

Congolese dancing and drumming have grown increasingly popular in the United States in recent decades. Classes are taught in many major U.S. cities and at colleges and universities, often by Congolese refugees or immigrants. The Congolese have also continued to innovate in dance and have influenced many modern dance trends in Africa and the United States.

Extended family is very important to Congolese Americans, and many families are split between the two continents. Even Congolese Americans born in the United States will often have aunts, uncles, or cousins in Africa with whom they correspond or to whom they send remittances. Many traditions and attitudes toward gender, education, and work are passed down through families. Yet in the United States some Congolese Americans—particularly women—are beginning to challenge traditional attitudes and pursue new careers and lifestyles.

According to the U.S. State Department, the number of Congolese children adopted by American families has increased, from less than a dozen adoptions annually before 2008 to more than 130 in 2011, almost exclusively from the DRC. These families have access to classes, organizations, and local Congolese American communities to teach their children about Congolese traditions.

Gender Roles As a whole, Congolese culture is male dominated. However, as with other aspects of traditional life, Congolese Americans have varying attitudes toward gender depending on their ethnic group. For instance, before colonization the Bakongo people had a matriarchal system. To this day some Bakongo traditions related to weddings and other important

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Emmanuel Ndeze didn't find freedom as quickly as he thought he would when he escaped the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Instead, he spent twelve years in a Ugandan labor camp before he finally made it to Syracuse, New York, in 2008 with his wife, their two children, and his sister. Kambale Syaghuswa was trained to be a child soldier, but he, too, escaped and eventually made it to Syracuse, where he found work as a truck driver. On October 18, 2012, Ndeze, Syaghuswa, and three fellow Congolese Americans took the stage in New York City at La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre to tell their stories. The play, Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo, was produced by Ping Chong and Company and ran for two weeks, earning widespread praise from audience members and critics alike.

In Chong's production, the speakers, none of whom are trained actors, sit in a semicircle, reading their lines as series of photos depicting the Congo's breathtaking landscape and documenting its bloody history are projected on the screen behind them. Four of the five speakers experienced the atrocities they narrate. The fifth, Beatrice Neema, is a surrogate for a woman who could not bear the pain of telling her story but nevertheless wanted it shared.

The idea for the play started with Cyprien Mihigo, a Congolese American community activist and one of the play's speakers. In 2011 Mihigo brought Congolese refugees from several antagonistic tribes together to cowrite a play about the country's history. He gave a draft of the play to Kyle Bass, the dramaturge at Syracuse Stage, a local theater affiliated with Syracuse University. Bass asked Mihigo for permission to reshape the work into a documentary play that connected individual experience to the broader history of the Congo. Mihigo told Maureen Nolan of the Syracuse Post Standard that the goal of the play is to promote peace in the United States and in his native country, and that he hoped to one day stage the play in the Congo.

events cannot happen without the mother's approval. However, the majority of cultures are patriarchal. Under colonial and independent governments in Congo, men have generally held positions of power, received greater access to education, and filled most work positions, while women have been expected to be subservient and to raise children. These roles have changed somewhat for Congolese immigrants in the United States, perhaps due to the fact that there are more women than men in the Congolese American population.

Many Congolese American immigrants come to the United States and see things that were prohibited to them in Africa, whether this is women holding a high position in government or doing certain activities such as smoking in public. Inspired by this, a growing number of Congolese American women have sought higher education and as of 2013 have higher college attendance rates than men. This has created its own challenges, however, as many Congolese women want to marry Congolese men and are unable to find suitable partners to match their education and training. Some Congolese American groups are working to correct this imbalance.

Women in the Congolese American community have also created their own organizations for action and mobilization. One such group is the Diaspora Congolese Women Network, which is working to raise awareness about violence against women in the Congo.

Education Decades of war and neglect have taken a toll on the Congolese public school system. Facilities are often poor and overcrowded, books and materials are scarce, and instruction is inconsistent. Still more Congolese are unable to attend school due to conflict or poverty.

In the United States most Congolese American children attend public school, which is a vastly different experience, with free books, well-maintained facilities, sufficient teachers, and even buses to take students to and from school—all of which are rare in Africa. Relationships with teachers are also different; rather than showing extreme deference to teachers as in Africa, in the United States students are expected to interact with their teachers. Most Congolese Americans born in the United States have an easy time working through the primary and secondary educational system.

While most of these changes are positive for children's education, the transition can be difficult for recent arrivals from Africa, and many schools with large refugee populations have social workers to help with acculturation. Some schools receive sensitivity training to help children who have experienced trauma in Africa adjust to their lives in the United States. Stereotyping and bullying of recently arrived Congolese American children remain a problem in certain communities.

Courtship and Weddings Marriage is an important ritual among Congolese Americans, as it unites two families. Many families still practice dowry. Before a man can marry a woman, he must introduce himself to her family, who will ceremoniously list the dowry, or expected gifts that the groom and his family must provide for permission. These include money and goods, some of which then become part of the wedding ceremony and reception, which is usually paid for by the bride's family.

Many Congolese Americans practice three types of weddings: civil, religious, and cultural; these are Page 539  |  Top of Articlesometimes mixed to varying extent. Religious wedding ceremonies are most likely to be Catholic or Protestant. The couple may bring their own choir or priest to match their traditions and customs, sometimes singing songs in their native language. Additionally, for the church service and reception, some ethnic groups have certain customary ceremonies, including dances, clothing, songs, stories, or food that must be part of the ceremony. When the newly married couple leave the ceremony, they typically are followed by a parade of guests in their cars, honking and waving to wish the couple well.

As important as tradition is, however, Congolese Americans have also adopted some American traditions, such as the bride wearing a white dress and the groom a tuxedo or suit.


Before the major refugee waves of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, most Congolese immigrants arrived for educational reasons. Many earned advanced degrees and, after choosing to stay in the country, found professional work as professors, writers, doctors, researchers, or in other positions. More recent arrivals have tended to be refugees and, whatever their education and experience, have had to accept more menial employment. Many advocates worry that the relatively small number of Congolese Americans in the nation makes them less visible than other groups and thus more economically vulnerable.

According to the American Community Survey, in 2011 about 16 percent of working Congolese Americans held manufacturing jobs, and slightly more than 25 percent were employed in the service industry. Sales and office positions were also common, as were positions in education, health care, and social services. Some seek work with companies that have a Congolese American in a management position; this is true for some high-tech manufacturing positions in the Raleigh area and for a large food-distribution company in New York. Other Congolese Americans own or manage businesses such as convenience stores or hair salons, and still others work in the government sector.

Because many Congolese Americans support family members in the United States and in Africa, they work several jobs to earn enough to send remittances home. Others attend school in addition to working and are inspired by Congolese Americans who have achieved success in the United States.


Whether they regard their stay in the United States as permanent or not, many Congolese Americans remain interested in politics in their home countries, hoping for a peaceful resolution to continuing conflicts and a better health, prosperity, and quality of life for the Congolese people. Most still have numerous family members in Africa, so this concern is deeply personal.

To an increasing extent, Congolese Americans are participating in U.S. politics. Generally, Congolese Americans support candidates from the Democratic Party. Some have been working to elect a congressperson of Congolese descent; such efforts are particularly discussed in North Carolina. The election of Barack Obama as president in 2008 was an inspiring moment for many Congolese Americans. Many urge the U.S. government to take a more direct role in Africa by supporting democracy and development, assisting with the capture and prosecution of war criminals, and providing additional humanitarian aid.


Many African Americans who were enslaved may be of Congolese origin, since the region was such a significant source for the slave trade through the early nineteenth century. However, for many African American descendants of slaves, it is difficult or impossible to trace their Congolese heritage.

Government Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993) was the first African American justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Born in Maryland, he was the great-grandson of a slave from what is now the DRC. After graduating from Lincoln University, he attended the Howard University School of Law, and in 1936 he began working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), for which he argued several significant civil rights cases before the Supreme Court. One of these cases, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), abolished segregation in the U.S. public education system. Marshall was made solicitor general by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965—he was the first African American to hold that position—before being appointed to the Supreme Court by Johnson two years later. Known as a liberal, his opinions on the court favored strong individual rights and civil rights. He resigned from the court in 1991.

Journalism Mvemba Dizolele (1963–) is a journalist who has researched and written extensively about relations between the United States and Africa. Born in the DRC, he came to the United States in 1988 and attended Southern Utah University before earning two master's degrees at the University of Chicago. He also served in the U.S. Marines. Dizolele has been honored as a Campbell Fellow and a Duignan Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and has published articles in Foreign Policy, the New York Times, Forbes, and the New Republic, as well as providing commentary to numerous television and radio programs. He is fluent in seven languages, including Swahili, Kikongo, and Lingala, and blogs at .

Journalist Joy-Ann Reid has worked as a political commentator for television and radio news since 1998. In addition to her on-air work for stations Page 540  |  Top of Articlesuch as MSNBC, CNBC, and Britain's Sky News, Reid has been the managing editor of TheGrio. com and a columnist for the Miami Herald. Born to a Congolese father and Guyanese mother, Reid attended Harvard University and was a 2003 Knight Center for Specialized Journalism fellow. In 2004 she became state deputy communications director for American Coming Together, a political action group focused on registering voters. In 2008 she served as a press aide for Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Reid blogs at open salon and The Reid Report Blog.

Literature Zamba Zembola (c. 1780–?) claimed to be the son of a Congolese king who went from the Congo to South Carolina as a free man in the early 1800s, only to be seized into slavery. He worked for forty years on a plantation before regaining his freedom and published a memoir, The Life and Adventures of Zamba, an African Negro King, and His Experience of Slavery in South Carolina, in 1847. The work captured the squalid and inhumane conditions endured by many American slaves and remains an important primary document for researchers today.

Philippe Wamba (1971–2002) was a memoirist and an editor who explored his Congolese roots in deeply personal works, including Kinship: A Family's Journey in Africa and America (1999), about his parents' origins and his childhood. Wamba's mother, an African American, met his father, a Congolese student, in the United States, and they raised him in Tanzania. After attending Harvard and Columbia University, Wamba died in a car accident in Kenya while doing research for another book.

Music Réjane Magloire (c. 1965–) is a vocalist and an actress. Born in the DRC, she grew up in New York, where she studied opera. She was well known for her role as Samantha on the children's television show The Electric Company in the 1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s she performed with the group Indeep, whose biggest hit was 1982's “Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life,” and Technotronic, known for hits including “Pump Up the Jam.” In 2005 she released a solo album, Forbidden Opera.

Sports Dikembe Mutumbo (1966–) was one of the top National Basketball Association players of the 1990s and 2000s, known especially for his defensive skills. Born in Kinshasa, he came to the United States to attend Georgetown University on a scholarship from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Though he spoke no English, he was recruited to play basketball and quickly became a star. He was drafted to the Denver Nuggets in 1991 and played for several teams before wrapping up his career with the Houston Rockets in 2009. He was named an all-star eight times during his career. Mutumbo has also been honored for humanitarian work in Africa and speaks nine languages.


As of 2013 Congolese Americans were too scattered and small a group to have created their own media sources in press or television. However, several radio programs that play African music feature Congolese music and culture in their programming.

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Africa Mix, KALW 91.7 FM

Each Thursday night from 9 p.m. until midnight, this public radio station in the San Francisco Bay Area plays a mix of African music, including Congolese popular music. Shows may also be streamed or downloaded online. The show is hosted by Emmanuel Nado and Edwin Okong'o.

Emmanuel Nado, Host and Edwin Okong'o, Host
500 Mansell Street
San Francisco, California 94134
Phone: (415) 841-4121
Fax: (415) 841-4125

African Rhythms, WFSS 91.9 FM

Two hours of African music programming broadcast by a public radio station in Fayetteville, North Carolina, each Sunday from 6 to 8 p.m. The program may also be streamed online from the station's website.

Jimmy Miller, Music Director
1200 Murchison Road
Fayetteville, North Carolina 28301
Phone: (910) 672-2650
Fax: (910) 672-1964

Ambiance Congo, WRIR 97.3 FM

A show dedicated to Congolese popular music, hosted by David Noyes and broadcast on alternating Sundays from 3 to 5 p.m. by an independent radio station in Richmond, Virginia. The station also streams its broadcasts online, and podcasts may be downloaded.

David Noyes, Host
P.O. Box 4787
Richmond, Virginia 23220
Phone: (804) 649-9737


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Congolese Community of Arizona

Established in 2012, the Congolese Community of Arizona works to bring together Congolese immigrants and build a community despite ethnic differences, organize and provide humanitarian Page 541  |  Top of Articlesupport for the Congo region, and motivate members of the Congolese community to become leaders and role models.

Phone: (602) 845-0402

Congolese Community of Chicago

The Congolese Community of Chicago's work is organized around two primary aims: assisting people of Congolese descent and educating them and other Americans about the culture of the Congo region. The organization is open to anyone of Congolese descent but also “to anyone interested in helping Congolese immigrants and refugees succeed.” It also provides a speakers bureau and assists Chicago-area businesses with hiring and mentoring recent African immigrants.

Willy Mantua Butshidi
2069 West Roosevelt Road
Wheaton, Illinois 60187
Phone: (888) 809-9956

Friends of the Congo

Based in Washington, D.C., this global organization works for lasting peace and better living conditions in the Congo region of Africa. It seeks to raise awareness among non-Congolese people about the plight of the Congolese and also to organize Congolese Americans and other members of the diaspora to continue seeking justice in Africa.

Kambale Musavuli, Spokesperson
1629 K Street NW
Suite 300
Washington, D.C. 20006
Phone: (202) 584-6512
Fax: (775) 371-1064

INGA Association: Community of Congolese & Friends of Northern California

Originally founded through informal contacts among Congolese Americans in northern California, INGA's functions have expanded as the population of Congolese immigrants and refugees has grown. INGA is a community-based aid organization seeking to assist and develop a sense of community among Congolese Americans in Northern California, while also engaging in humanitarian projects and social action for the Congo region. It organizes large social gatherings and cultural events open to the public to educate non-Congolese about the nations' rich cultures.

5025 Hawkmount Way
San Ramon, California 94582
Phone: (650) 669-2832

Leja Bulela

Created in 1993 in Detroit, this national organization is specifically concerned with living conditions in the DRC province of Kasai Oriental, where the Luba people live. The organization is composed mostly of people born in Kasai and first-generation Congolese Americans. It attempts to raise awareness about Luba culture and language (including to the children of immigrants) and to work to improve conditions for people still in the region. The organization sponsors an annual conference around these issues.

14781 Memorial Drive
Suite 1323
Houston, Texas 77079
Phone: (401) 874-5909


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New Orleans African American Museum (NOAMM)

Located in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, considered the oldest surviving black neighborhood in the United States, the NOAAM works to preserve African American heritage in Louisiana. It is well known for its “Louisiana-Congo: The Bertrand Donation” collection, illustrating links between traditional Congolese culture and Louisianan black culture.

Jonn E. Hankins, Executive Director
1418 Governor Nicholls Street
New Orleans, Louisiana 70116
Phone: (504) 566-1136
Fax: (504) 566-1137

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Part of the New York Public Library, the Schomburg Center catalogs, preserves, and provides access to information and resources about African American life and history, including that of Congolese Americans and other recent immigrant groups. The center offers programs, exhibits, and research assistance.

515 Malcolm X Boulevard
New York, New York 10037-1801
Phone: (212) 491-2200


Arthur, John A. Invisible Sojourners: African Immigrant Diaspora in the United States. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000.

Crowe, Chris. Thurgood Marshall: A Twentieth-Century Life. New York: Viking, 2008.

Joworowski, Ken. “Survivors of Horrors, and Their Journey: ‘Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo,’ at La MaMa.” New York Times, October 19, 2012.

Montagne, Renee. “Update: Congolese Refugee Joshua Dimina.” National Public Radio, December 23, 2005.

Mott, Tamar. African Refugee Resettlement in the United States. El Paso, TX: LFB Scholarly Publishers, 2009.

Wamba, Philippe. Kinship: A Family's Journey in Africa and America. New York: Dutton, 1999.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300052