Country Listing

Zaire Table of Contents



Early Economic Activity


Open-pit mining of copper and cobalt at the Gécamines Musonoi Mine near Kolwezi


Steam shovel loading copper and cobalt ore to be processed at Musonoi Mine
Courtesy Gécamines

In the precolonial era, economic activity in most communities in Zaire was largely subsistence in nature, characterized by a varying combination of shifting cultivation, hunting, fishing, and collecting. The agricultural technology of most groups was comparatively simple. Livestock was limited to chickens and sometimes a few goats or sheep. In most communities--particularly those in and on the fringes of the forest--the men valued hunting far above agriculture and devoted not only time but much ritual activity to it. This pattern was consistent with the division of labor: at best men played a small part in cultivation, usually that of cutting and burning forest or bush before planting. The high esteem of hunting persisted even where the declining availability of game made it economically less important.

Along the Congo River and its many tributaries, thriving riverine economies developed. The men of some groups devoted themselves wholly to fishing and the women to pottery, exchanging these items for food and other goods produced by their neighbors. These fishermen were also active traders along the navigable waters.

Other groups devoted themselves entirely to hunting and collecting. Occasionally these groups lived in villages with settled agricultural communities. More often they lived in physically separated hamlets but in symbiosis with specific cultivating communities, exchanging the products of the hunt for bananas and other crops.

Various groups in precolonial Zaire also played a substantial role in the trade of such commodities as ivory, rubber, copper, and slaves. To meet the demand for such goods, sustained caravan trade involving Arab and mixed Arab-African traders occurred throughout the interior of Central Africa, including territory in what is now Zaire. Although never great traders themselves, the Lunda apparently profited handsomely from controlling and supervising the caravan trade of others. And both the Kazembe Kingdom and later the Luba Empire prospered as a result of their control of the ivory trade (see Early Historical Perspectives , ch. 1).

Data as of December 1993