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A Visit to the Other Congo, the Forgotten Congo

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Earlier this month, NPR's Tom Gjelten was on assignment in the Republic of Congo - not the Democratic Republic of Congo, the former Zaire - but the other Congo. Never heard of it? Here's a little story in itself.

TOM GJELTEN: I set out recently to do a story about the World Bank, which works in 180 countries, many of them small and far away. I chose to visit the Republic of Congo. Many people confuse this African country with the more famous Congo, the old Belgian Congo of King Leopold, later the domain of the deeply corrupt Mobutu Sese Seko. That's not where I went. I went to the little Congo.

The two countries are next to each other, separated by the Congo River. The Republic of Congo was part of French Equatorial Africa before it became independent. It's sometimes called Congo-Brazzaville after its capital and to distinguish it from the Congo across the river. I wanted to describe the poverty in Brazzaville.

(Soundbite of recording)

GJELTEN: Here in the rocky banks of the Congo River, women are washing their clothes, beating them against the rocks and rinsing them in the brown churning waters of a river.

(Soundbite of people talking)

GJELTEN: With that little scene, I was hoping to give my listeners a sense of where exactly I was. People at least have heard of the Congo River, I figured. I couldn't blame them for not knowing more about this little country of four million people. It seems we pay attention to these small African countries only when they're at war. In the case of Congo-Brazzaville, hardly even then.

A war there in 1997 was overshadowed by war in the big Congo, now called the Democratic Republic of Congo. About three million people died in the DRC. In the little Congo, about 10,000 people died, too few to warrant our attention, but still devastating.

Mr. ALAIN AKOULA (Minister of Communications, Congo-Brazzaville): (French spoken)

GJELTEN: The minister of communications in Brazzaville Alain Akoula told me how most of the schools in the country, most of the bridges were destroyed during the war. People outside, he said, don't know what happens here. I'd like to think my reporting from Congo-Brazzaville made listeners more aware, but I wonder.

After my story about this former French colony, we'd heard from many listeners who wrote to correct me. Congo was a Belgian colony, they insisted. No, I was in the other Congo, the forgotten one still.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: NPR's Tom Gjelten.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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