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Democratic Republic of the Congo


The Democratic Republic of the Congo, often referred to as DRC or Congo, and formerly as Zaire, is the second largest country by area on the African continent and the richest in mineral wealth. The name "Congo" (meaning "hunter") comes from the Bakongo ethnic group that lives in the western part of the Congo River basin.

Formerly the colony of Belgian Congo, the country's post-independence name was the Republic of Congo until August 1, 1964, when its name was changed to Democratic Republic of Congo (to distinguish it from the neighboring country of the same name).

Both before and after independence, the Congolese have endured exploitation, war, and cruelty, most recently during the devastating Second Congo War (sometimes referred to as the African World War) described as the deadliest conflict since World War II.

Its people live in dire poverty and suffer from famine and disease. However, the Congo contains vast potential for wealth and prosperity through its agricultural lands and its vast mineral resources. As the nation struggles to recover from centuries of misuse and abuse of its people and resources, it would behoove its leaders to seek guidance and assistance from more advanced nations in order to uplift its people and allow them to flourish.


The map of Democratic Republic of Congo from CIA World Factbook

The Congo is situated at the heart of the west-central portion of sub-Saharan Africa and is bounded by (clockwise from the southwest) Angola, the Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, the Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania (across Lake Tanganyika), and Zambia. Its territory also straddles the Equator, with one-third to the north and two-thirds to the south. The size of Congo, 905,063 square miles (2,345,410 km²), is comparable to that of Western Europe or the United States east of the Mississippi River.

The country enjoys access to the Atlantic Ocean through a narrow stretch that follows the Congo River into the Gulf of Guinea.


The Great Rift Valley, in particular the Eastern Rift, plays a key role in shaping the Congo's geography. Not only is the northeastern section of the country much more mountainous, but due to the rift's tectonic activities, this area also experiences low levels of volcanic activity. The rifting of the African continent in this area has also manifested itself as the famous Great Lakes, which lie on the Congo's eastern frontier. The country is bordered in the east by two of these: Lake Albert and Lake Tanganyika. Perhaps most important of all, the Rift Valley has endowed most of the south and east of the Congo with an enormous amount of mineral wealth. These include cobalt, copper, cadmium, petroleum, industrial and gem diamonds, gold, silver, zinc, manganese, tin, germanium, uranium, radium, bauxite, iron ore, and coal.

Climate and terrain

Bas-Congo landscape.The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the only country in the world in which bonobos (Pygmy chimpanzees) are found in the wild.

As a result of its equatorial location, the Congo experiences large amounts of precipitation and has the highest frequency of thunderstorms on earth. Annual rainfall exceeds 80 inches in some places, and the area sustains the second largest rainforest in the world (after the Amazon). This jungle covers most of the vast, low-lying central basin of the river, which slopes toward the Atlantic in the west. This area is surrounded by plateaus merging into savannas in the south and southwest, mountainous terraces in the west, and dense grasslands extending beyond the Congo River in the north. High, glaciated mountains are found in the extreme eastern region.


The tropical climate has also produced the Congo River system, which dominates the region topographically along with the rainforest it flows through, though they are not mutually exclusive. The river basin (meaning the Congo River and all of its myriad tributaries) occupies nearly the entire country and an area of nearly 400,000 square miles (one million square kilometers). The river and its tributaries (major offshoots include the Kasai, Sangha, Ubangi, Aruwimi, and Lulonga) form the backbone of Congolese economy and transportation, and they have a drastic impact on the daily lives of the people. The river provides the country's only outlet to the Atlantic Ocean via a narrow strip of land on its north bank; otherwise Congo would be completely landlocked.

The sources of the Congo River are in the highlands and mountains of the Great Rift Valley, as well as Lake Tanganyika and Lake Mweru. Kinshasa and Brazzaville are actually on opposite sides of the river at the Malebo Pool (Stanley Pool), then the river narrows and falls through a number of cataracts in deep canyons (collectively known as the Livingstone Falls), runs past Boma, and empties into the Atlantic. The river has the second-largest flow and the second-largest watershed in the world (trailing the Amazon in both respects).

Flora and fauna

The rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo contain great biodiversity, including many rare and endemic species. It holds 47 percent of Africa's forest, which are home to several rare species of trees. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has listed five of Congo's national parks-the Garumba, Kahuzi-Biega, Salonga, and Virunga National Parks, and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve-as "world heritage sites in danger" because of threats from conflict and mining.

The rare mammal species include the common chimpanzee and the bonobo (also known as the Pygmy Chimpanzee), mountain gorilla, okapi (found only in Congo), and white rhino. Other animals found include lions, leopards, elephants, giraffes, exotic birds, and many reptiles and insects.

Environmental issues

The civil war and resultant poor economic conditions have endangered much of this biodiversity. Many park wardens were either killed or could not afford to continue their work. Deforestation, human encroachments, and poaching are all factors affecting the wildlife.

Over the past century or so, the DRC has developed into the center of what has been called the Central African "bushmeat" problem, which is regarded by many as a major environmental, as well as socio-economic crisis. "Bushmeat" is another word for the meat of wild animals. It is typically obtained through trapping, usually with wire snares, or otherwise with shotguns or arms originally intended for use in the DRC's numerous military conflicts.

The "bushmeat crisis" has emerged in the DRC mainly as a result of the poor living conditions of the Congolese people. A rising population combined with deplorable economic conditions has forced many Congolese to become dependent on bushmeat, either as a means of acquiring income (hunting the meat and selling), or are dependent on it for food. Unemployment and urbanization throughout Central Africa have exacerbated the problem further by turning cities like the urban sprawl of Kinshasa into the prime market for bushmeat.

Hunting has been facilitated by the extensive logging prevalent throughout the Congo's rainforests, which allows hunters much easier access to previously unreachable jungle terrain, while simultaneously eroding habitats. 3 Due to violent instability, most rainforests in the DRC were left alone by commercial logging, but the return of a relative peace has brought a renewed interest in logging.


Early history

The first inhabitants of the region now known as Congo were the Pygmies, hunter-gatherers who once lived throughout the Congo River Basin but later retreated into the forests and mountains in the east. About four thousand years ago, the early Bantu-speaking farmers started moving into the coastal area from the north, and that population became more dense as the migration continued, leading to the formation of chiefdoms and kingdoms. The Kongo Kingdom emerged in the thirteenth century and was the first to encounter Europeans.

Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão reached the mouth of the Congo River in 1482, followed in 1491 by Roman Catholic missionaries, who were welcomed by the Kongo king. Shipments of slaves to the Americas, particularly Brazil, also began. Arab slave traders had also found their way into Congo from the east. Though cannibalism had existed in isolated societies before then, the devastation of rural Congo wrought by the slave trade made it much more common and widespread.

But the interior of the country remained mysterious to Europeans, who were blocked by the formidable cataracts that the river flowed through on its final two hundred miles. Two priests had managed to make their way past that point, but their reports were buried and it was not until the early nineteenth century that further attempts were made. By the 1880s, British trading firms were dealing in ivory, copper, and palm oil, and British and American missionaries were active.

The Congo Free State (1885 - 1908)

A Congolese farming village is emptied and leveled to make way for a rubber plantation.

European exploration and administration took place from the 1870s until the 1920s. The first was Englishman Henry Morton Stanley, who undertook his later explorations under the sponsorship of King Leopold II of Belgium. The Congo territory was acquired formally by Leopold at the Conference of Berlin in 1885. He made the land his private property and named it the Congo Free State. Though Leopold began various development projects, such as the railway that ran from the coast to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), nearly all these projects were aimed at increasing the capital Leopold and his associates could extract from the colony. The selling of rubber made a fortune for Leopold.

Between 1885 and 1908, about ten million Congolese died as a consequence of exploitation and diseases. A government commission later concluded that the population of the Congo had been "reduced by half" during this brutal period. 4 To enforce the rubber quotas, the Force Publique (FP) was called in, an army created to terrorize the local population. The FP, for example, cut off the hands of those who did not fulfill rubber quotas. Eventually there were international protests, spearheaded mainly by British reformer Edmund D. Morel and British diplomat/Irish patriot Roger Casement, as well as by famous writers such as Mark Twain. Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness also takes place in Congo Free State.

In 1908, the Belgian parliament, which was at first reluctant, bowed to international pressure (especially from Great Britain) and took the Free State as a Belgian colony. From then on, it became the Belgian Congo.

Belgian Congo (1908 - 1960)

Initially unprepared to govern a colony, much less one as huge as Congo, eventually Belgium instituted reforms. But the desire to have its colony pay for itself led to continued exploitation of Congo's mineral and agricultural riches. Railways, ports, roads, mines, plantations, and industries were constructed, often with forced labor, especially in copper-rich Katanga. Europeans flocked into the new urban areas, but the majority of Congolese still lived in traditional rural villages.

Even the educated Congolese, however, lacked political power and lived in an apartheid-like society where the Belgian authorities had absolute power. Resistance against this lack of democracy grew, and in 1955 the Westernized, mission-educated Africans, called évolués, initiated a campaign to end the inequality. One of them was Patrice Lumumba.

Political crises (1960-1965)

In early 1960, Belgium agreed to independence for its colony. Shortly before independence, in May 1960, the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), which advocated national unity and was led by Patrice Lumumba, a fiery orator, won the parliamentary elections. Lumumba was appointed prime minister. Joseph Kasavubu was chosen to serve as president. Neither had any experience in government.

The Belgian Congo achieved independence on June 30, 1960. Within days, the provinces of Katanga (led by Moise Tshombe) and South Kasai had seceded and violence had erupted against Europeans. United Nations troops were rushed in, but when Lumumba tried to use them against the Katanga separatists, the UN withdrew its military and economic support. Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union for help. Subsequent events led to a showdown between Kasavubu and Lumumba. Lumumba had previously appointed Joseph Mobutu chief of staff of the new Congo army. Taking advantage of the leadership crisis, Mobutu garnered enough support within the army to inspire a mutiny. Once in control, he ordered the Soviets to leave. Lumumba was assassinated by Tshombe's followers, who were finally defeated in August 1961. Amid widespread confusion, corruption and renewed violence, several civilian governments took over in quick succession, until the military took over again under Mobutu. With U.S. support because of his anti-communist views, he consolidated his power.

Zaire (1971 - 1997)

Following five years of extreme instability and civil unrest, Joseph Mobutu, now a lieutenant general, overthrew Kasavubu in a coup. He had U.S. support because of his staunch opposition to communism. A one-party system was established, and Mobutu declared himself head of state. He would occasionally hold elections in which he was the only candidate.

Relative peace and stability were achieved; however, Mobutu's government was accused of human rights violations, repression, a cult of personality, and excessive corruption.

In an effort to spread African consciousness, starting on June 1, 1966, Mobutu renamed the nation's cities (Léopoldville became Kinshasa, Stanleyville became Kisangani, and Elisabethville became Lubumbashi). In 1971, he renamed the country the Republic of Zaire, its fourth name change in eleven years and its sixth overall. The Congo River became the Zaire River. In 1972, Mobutu renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. relations with Kinshasa cooled, as Mobutu was no longer deemed a necessary Cold War ally, and his opponents stepped up demands for reform. This atmosphere contributed to Mobutu's declaring the Third Republic in 1990, whose constitution was supposed to pave the way for democratic reform. The reforms turned out to be largely cosmetic, and Mobutu's rule continued until conflict forced him to flee in 1997. The name of the nation was changed to Congo, since the name Zaire carried strong connections to Mobutu.

Conflict and transition (1996 - present)

Since 1994, the Congo has been rent by ethnic strife and civil war, touched off by a massive inflow of refugees fleeing the Rwandan genocide. The government of Mobutu was toppled in May 1997 by a rebellion led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who changed the country's name back to Democratic Republic of Congo-Kinshasa. His former allies soon turned against him, however, and his regime was challenged by a Rwandan and Ugandan-backed rebellion in August 1998. Troops from Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad, and Sudan intervened to support the new regime in Kinshasa.

UN peacekeepers to the DRC in 2005

A cease-fire was signed in July 1999; nevertheless, fighting continued, especially in the eastern part of the country. Kabila was assassinated in January 2001 and his son Joseph Kabila was named head of state. The new president quickly began overtures to end the war, and an accord was signed in South Africa in 2002. By late 2003, a fragile peace prevailed as the transitional government was formed.

This period of conflict was the bloodiest in history since World War II. 5 Almost four million people died as a result of the fighting. 6

On July 30, 2006, the Congo held its first multi-party elections since independence in 1960. Kabila took 45 percent of the votes and his main opponent, Jean-Pierre Bemba, took 20 percent. That was the origin of a two-day fight between the two factions in the streets of the capital. Sixteen people died before police and the UN mission, MONUC, took control of the city.

A second round of elections between the two leading candidates, Kabila and Bemba, was held on October 29, 2006. Rioters destroyed polling stations in Congo's east and electoral officials organized a revolt over burned ballots in the north. Despite that, the presidential vote was called a success. Both Kabila and Bemba assured that they would respect the result, 7 but Bemba's militants rioted when the Supreme Court legitimized Kabila's winning result in the run-off. 8 Bemba took refuge in the South African Embassy when he was accused of treason and maintaining a militia and then flew to Portugal with his family in April 2007 for medical treatment.


The government of DRC is a republic with executive power vested in the president, who is head of state. The cabinet is appointed by the ruling party in the parliament. The prime minister is elected by the parliament. The sixty-member cabinet is headed by a pentarchy of a president and four vice presidents-one from each of the two main armed opposition movements, one from the government, and one from the unarmed political opposition. Ministries were divided up and former opposition fighters integrated into the army and police. The president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

The 500-member lower house of parliament was elected in July 30, 2006, national elections. Provincial Assemblies elected the Senate in October 29, 2006, elections. The Senate elected provincial governors.

The DRC held a constitutional referendum on December 18-19, 2005. Official results indicated that 84 percent of voters approved the constitution. The new constitution was promulgated in a ceremony on February 18, 2006.

Political parties

President Joseph Kabila's party is the People's Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD). Opposition parties include Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) and others, as well as former rebel movements-turned-political parties.

Administrative divisions

The Congo is divided into eleven provinces, including Kinshasa):

  1. Kinshasa
  2. Province Orientale
  3. Kasaï Oriental
  4. Kasaï Occidental
  5. Maniema
  6. Katanga
  7. Sud-Kivu
  8. Nord-Kivu
  9. Bas-Congo
  10. Équateur
  11. Bandundu

The provinces are divided into districts and then subdivided into territories. According to the constitution adopted in December 2005, the current administrative divisions will be subdivided into 26 new provinces by 2009

The provincial governments gain new powers under the new decentralized model, with the creation of provincial parliaments in early 2007.

President Joseph Kabila has made significant progress in liberalizing domestic political activity. However, serious human rights problems remain in the security services and justice system.

National holiday

Independence Day is celebrated on June 30.

Foreign relations

DRC's relations with neighboring countries have often been driven by security concerns, leading to intricate and interlocking alliances. Domestic conflicts in the Central African Republic, Sudan, Uganda, Angola, Rwanda, and Burundi have at various times created bilateral and regional tensions. The current crisis in the eastern DRC has its roots both in the use of the Congo as a base by various insurgency groups attacking neighboring countries and in the absence of a strong Congolese government with a military capable of securing Congo's borders.

Despite significant repatriation efforts by governments and international organizations, in 2006 Angolans, Rwandans, Sudanese, and residents of other neighboring states lived as refugees in the DRC; members of Uganda's Lords Resistance Army take refuge in the DRC's Garamba National Park. The location of the boundary in the broad Congo River with the Republic of the Congo is indefinite except in the Pool Malebo/Stanley Pool area.

There were also 1.1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) as a result of fighting between government forces and rebels since mid-1990s; most IDPs are in the eastern provinces, which are characterized by ongoing violence and armed conflict.

The DRC is one of Africa's biggest producers of cannabis, but mostly for domestic consumption; while rampant corruption and inadequate supervision leaves the banking system vulnerable to money laundering, the lack of a well-developed financial system limits the country's utility as a money-laundering center.


In addition to the Congolese armed forces, in 2006, the UN Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) maintained over 18,000 uniformed peacekeepers in the region, first deployed in 1999.


The economy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo - a nation endowed with vast potential wealth - has declined drastically since the mid-1980s. The two recent conflicts (the First and Second Congo Wars), which began in 1996, have dramatically reduced national output and government revenue, have increased external debt, and have resulted in the deaths from war, famine, and disease of perhaps 3.8 million people. Foreign businesses have curtailed operations due to uncertainty about the outcome of the conflict, lack of infrastructure, and the difficult operating environment. The war intensified the impact of such basic problems as an uncertain legal framework, corruption, inflation, and lack of openness in government economic policy and financial operations.

Malnutrition affects approximately two-thirds of the country's population. Conditions improved in late 2002 with the withdrawal of a large portion of the invading foreign troops. A number of International Monetary Fund and World Bank missions have met with the government to help it develop a coherent economic plan, and President Joseph Kabila has begun implementing reforms.

Agriculture is the mainstay of the Congolese economy. The main cash crops include coffee, palm oil, rubber, cotton, sugar, tea, and cocoa. Food crops include cassava, plantains, maize, groundnuts (peanuts), and rice.

Industry, especially the mining sector, is underdeveloped relative to its potential. The Congo was the world's fourth-largest producer of industrial diamonds during the 1980s, and diamonds continue to dominate exports, accounting for over half of exports ($642 million) in 2003. The Congo's main copper and cobalt interests are dominated by Gecamines, the state-owned mining giant. Gecamines production has been severely affected by corruption, civil unrest, world market trends, and failure to reinvest. Congo has significant deposits of tantalum, which is used in the fabrication of electronic components used in computers and mobile phones.

For decades, corruption and misguided policy have created a dual economy in the DRC. Individuals and businesses in the formal sector operated with high costs under arbitrarily enforced laws. As a consequence, the informal sector now dominates the economy.

The Congolese government has approved a new investment code and a new mining code and has designed a new commercial court. The goal of these initiatives is to attract investment by promising fair and transparent treatment to private business. The World Bank also is supporting efforts to restructure the DRC's large parastatal sector, including Gecamines, and to rehabilitate its neglected infrastructure, including the Inga Dam hydroelectric system.

The Democratic Republic of Congo exports diamonds, copper, crude oil, coffee and cobalt. Its export partners in 2005 were Belgium 38.2 percent, US 17.8 percent, China 11.7 percent, France 8 percent, Finland 7.8 percent, and Chile 4.3 percent.

Its import items were foodstuffs, mining equipment and other machinery, transport equipment and fuels. Its 2005 import partners were South Africa 17.7 percent, Belgium 15.3 percent, France 8.6 percent, Kenya 7.5 percent, Zambia 6.6 percent, Germany 4.4 percent, US 4.3 percent and Cote d'Ivoire 4.1 percent. (2005) 9


The population was estimated at 63 million in 2007, growing quickly from 46.7 million in 1997. As many as 250 ethnic groups have been distinguished and named. The most numerous people are the Kongo, Luba, and Mongo.

The population growth rate is 2.9 percent a year, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The UN and international NGOs estimate that at least 1,200 Congolese die every day from conflict-related causes: preventable diseases, poverty, and gender-based violence.

About 3.8 million people are estimated to have died since the conflict began in 1998. Many suffered horrific abuse, including rape and sexual slavery by armed groups, which has contributed to the advance of HIV/AIDS.


About 80 percent of the Congolese population are Christian, predominantly Roman Catholic. Among the largest Protestant churches are: Anglican Church of Congo, Église des Frères mennonites, Église du Christ au Congo.

Muslims was first brought to the country by traders from East Africa. Adherents now constitute 10 percent of the population. 10

Most of the non-Christians adhere to either traditional religions or syncretic sects. Traditional religions embody such concepts as monotheism, animism, vitalism, spirit and ancestor worship, witchcraft, and sorcery and vary widely among ethnic groups. The syncretic sects often merge Christianity with traditional beliefs and rituals. The most popular of these sects, Kimbanguism, was seen as a threat to the colonial regime and was banned by the Belgians. Kimbanguism, officially "the church of Christ on Earth by the prophet Simon Kimbangu," now has about three million members, primarily among the Bakongo of Bas-Congo and Kinshasa.


Major Bantu languages in the Congo.

An estimated total of 242 languages are spoken in the DRC, but only 4 have the status of national languages: Kongo, Lingala, Tshiluba, and Swahili. French is also an official language. It is meant to be a neutral language, to ease communication among the different ethnic groups.

When the country was a Belgian colony, the four national languages were already being used in primary schools, which makes the country one of the few to have had literacy in local languages during the occupation by Europeans.


School enrollment rates are declining. More than 4.4 million children (nearly half the school-age population) are not in school, mostly due to problems of access, retention, and affordability. This number includes 2.5 million girls and 400,000 displaced children. Only 15.4 percent have a secondary school education, and those going to university 0.7 percent. Although primary education is supposed to be free, parents are still liable for quarterly fees. According to UNESCO, the literacy rate in the population over 15 was 54.1 percent for women compared with 80.9 percent for men from 2000-2004.

At least 33,000 child soldiers are currently active in the DRC, and an estimated 25,000 live in Kinshasa as street children.

Rates of infant, under-five and maternal mortality are catastrophic, with one in five children dying before the age of five, according to UNICEF.

Nearly one-third of children are underweight. Malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies are responsible for nearly half the deaths among children under five. Less than half the population has access to a safe source of clean drinking water. Less than one-third has access to adequate sanitation facilities.

There are more than four million orphans in the country. Child labor is commonplace, with more than a quarter of children aged between five and fourteen working in mines and other industries.


The majority of Congolese cannot afford healthcare or have limited access to it. Across the country, hospitals are in a state of decay and neglect. Doctors and nurses are rarely paid. Appropriate and timely healthcare provision remains a challenge in the vast country. Although there has been a marked reduction in contagious diseases such as measles and diarrhea, there has been a return of sleeping sickness in some areas where the disease was eradicated in the 1960s. Malnutrition has been the primary or contributing cause in 10.9 percent of all deaths in the east and 8.1 percent in the west.

There have been efforts to prevent and reduce the impact of HIV in the DRC, where at least 5 percent of the population is infected with the virus. The rate is believed to be significantly higher in areas of recent armed conflict, where sexual abuse and violence against women was widespread, according to UNICEF.

While the eastern provinces used to be the country's major food producers, repeated looting of crops by armed groups continues to force farmers into subsistence farming. In other parts of the country, crumbled infrastructure has significantly decreased the country's food-production capacity.

Acute malnutrition is at 16 percent in some parts of the DRC. At least 71 percent of Congolese are food insecure or face an unstable food security situation. In the east, access to fields is risky for the women due to the presence of armed men. Almost non-existent roads limit movement by humanitarian workers.

Status of women

Women remain marginalized in the DRC. Before the war, women suffered economic, social, cultural, and political discrimination. With the start of the 1996-2002 armed conflict, the situation deteriorated, with widespread sexual and gender-based violence. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of people were affected.

Originally used as a weapon of war by soldiers to humiliate the enemy, sexual and gender-based violence is also perpetrated by civilians. The reason is twofold: sexual and gender-based violence is shrouded in silence and the perpetrators are seldom tried because of the prevailing climate of impunity. In addition, sexual and gender-based violence has a negative impact on the ongoing peace and reconciliation process that is vital to the development of the country, according to UNDP and UNFPA.

Widows and rape survivors fare worse than the rest of the female population. Women are also underrepresented in leadership positions, while customary law is generally highly discriminatory against women.


The culture of the Democratic Republic of the Congo reflects the diversity of its hundreds of ethnic groups and their differing ways of life throughout the country-from the mouth of the Congo River on the coast, upriver through the rainforest and savanna in its center, to the more densely populated mountains in the far east. Since the late nineteenth century, traditional ways of life have undergone changes brought about by colonialism, the struggle for independence, the stagnation of the Mobutu era, and most recently, the First and Second Congo Wars. Despite these pressures, the customs and cultures of the Congo have retained much of their individuality.

The country's 60