Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 31, November 2002 


Publishing in hard times: DR Congo 1990–2000

Christophe Cassiau-Haurie
Christophe Cassiau-Haurie is Conservateur de Bibliothèque and technical assistant to the Bibliotheque Nationale du Congo. Ambassade de France en RDC, 128 bis rue de l'Université, 75 Paris Cedex 07 S.P France. email : or

Translated from the French by Sulaiman Adebowale

The 1990s were a turning point in the history of the relationship between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the West. Following the tragic events of 1990-1991, western countries ceased structural aid co-operation with the then Zaire. The country was deserted rapidly by aid workers who used to occupy all areas of civilian life. 1 An embargo was imposed on Congo until 2000, when aid workers resumed operations in the country. The decade was a period of considerable decline: a second looting in 1993, the overthrow of Mobutu’s regime in 1997, a civil war which started in 1997 and continues to divide the country, and the assassination of President Kabila in 2001. The socio-economic consequences of this series of events have been dramatic for the population: increasing poverty, investment freeze, galloping inflation, brain drain; the list is quite long.

It is, however, useful to go beyond this negative report and look into the events of the period, devoid of all forms of external technical assistance, and try to glean something from how Congolese went about their lives amidst the turbulence. In this respect, the book is an interesting aspect to study. Writing, with its label of ‘colonial importation’, is very susceptible to the vagaries of western aid. If the book in Africa is largely imported, what was written, published and printed in the DRC between 1990 and 2000, when we, the westerners were virtually absent? When people were desperately trying to survive in a very tumultuous period that touched every area of their lives?

The book from Kongo to Congo

The book in Congo predates the colonial era. Portuguese missionaries were using printed books from 1483, at the beginning of the Kingdom of Kongo, the first Christian kingdom in sub-Saharan Africa. The first writings in the Congolese language appeared in 1624,2 the first Kikongo-Latin-Spanish dictionary was printed in 1651, following the first grammar book on the Kikongo language, Structures grammatricales de la langue kikongo, published in 1650. These books were used in the interactions between the Kingdom of Kongo and Portugal, its protector during this period.

The colonial era clearly intensified book development in the Congo. The first writings from a Congolese author date back to 1887 for religious writings, and 1898 for the first non-confessional/ religious book. Later, Belgian colonialists built libraries, primarily for the European administrators.3 Thus the book had a vibrant tradition dating back long before that of most countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

It is difficult to know how many books are published annually in the DRC. In fact, the only way to study Congolese publishing is to use the list compiled from the legal deposits of the national library, the Bibliothèque Nationale du Congo (BNC). But the BNC does not collect all the works published each year. Inaccessible roads and bad communication linkages between provinces limit the efforts of the BNC to Kinshasa and from time to time to its environs. 4 For the cities in the east of the country (Goma, Kisangani, Bukavu, Mbandaka), as well as those in the centre (Mbuji-Mai, Kananga), covering 80 per cent of the territory, their published works are ignored by the BNC. Moreover, the charges levied by the BNC (equivalent to 85 euros) dissuade authors and publishers from depositing their works there. As a result, a lot of books are distributed illegally, without the required ISBN number. Lastly, the internal management of the BNC does not ensure that all the books deposited are registered and classified.

Although the entries at the BNC are limited, they constitute the only means at our disposal to analyse publishing output from the DRC. We can deduce several pointers from analysing the holdings of the BNC.

• The number of titles received during this period (1990-2000) is 1492. This is surprising. It puts the DRC among the most productive countries in Francophone Africa in terms of publishing. Studies by Culture et développement show that the whole of sub-Saharan Francophone Africa publishes about 300 to 500 books a year.5

• The 1974 law regarding legal deposits mandates only first editions; revised editions (rare nonetheless) are not required.
• The rate of published works does not show a significant decline during the 11 years under review. If 1995 constitutes a record year, with 179 titles registered, the ‘least productive years’ (1992 and 1993) still registered 99 titles each. The tragic events of Congo-Zaire seem to have had few repercussions on publishing in Kinshasa.
• Titles supported by development aid projects are insignificant: the rare publications of Journal Officiel, and the title by Isidore N’daywel, Histoire de la RDC 6 constituting the exceptions. All other titles are either published with local resources or co-published. 7
• The market for these works is mainly the Kinshasa public, coupled with some sales in Matadi and exports to Brazzaville, in Congo-Brazzaville – exports which are difficult because most of the books have no ISBN number. There are very few bookshops: five in Kinshasa, two in Lubumbashi, one in Matadi. Besides, most of the bookshops make money through stationery, with the exception of Afrique Editions and the bookshop Filles de Saint Paul. Therefore, titles are intended for a limited public, except for scholarly books, which are sold all over the country, including in the rebel-controlled territories.
• The majority of published works in Kinshasa are Francophone. Ninety per cent of the titles deposited and registered are in French. The remaining ten per cent are mostly in Lingala and cover religious books. Indigenous languages rarely touch other areas; for example, published academic books in DRC are all in French.
• It is difficult to know if the figure is an increase on the preceding decades. The BNC in its present form was created in 1989 and archives only a few material from past years. Paul Tete Wersey reveals, however, that 1320 works were published between 1974 and 1984, of which 72 per cent were from Kinshasa. The author also highlights the difficulty in putting the 1974 law on legal deposits into practice in the provincial towns.8

Religious knowledge and seasonal publishing

In spite of its apparent productivity, Congolese publishing contains a lot of disparities worth highlighting.

Firstly, in 1990 there were 102 publishing houses in the then Zaire, out of which 83 were located in Kinshasa.9 Of these 83 publishers, only 15 were still publishing in 1999 and 2000; all the others had disappeared. Of the 15 ‘decennial’ publishers from Kinshasa, 13 are products of Christian denomination institutions,10 of which two existed before independence. Although, several publishers were established during this decade, the majority were short lived. Of the nearly 1500 published works, 195 are from publishers with just one title and 351 titles are from publishers with a maximum of five titles in their list, often by the same author. In fact, these ‘occasional publishers’ publish on behalf of an author, who often writes the preface, publishes, distributes and disseminates the book. Inevitably the result, in spite of their efforts, demonstrates a level of amateurishness.

Furthermore, the abundance of published works disguises a reality where only publishers with solid external assistance can survive and sell. The National Association of Publishers and Distributors of Books (Association Nationale des Editeurs et Diffuseurs du livres - ANEDIL), the main professional body, has only 30 members. This suggests that the volume of work produced does not actually reflect the level of capacity in the publishing sector, and/or the level of commitment to developing the sector. One explanation can be found in the specific context of the DRC, where all public figures with the desire to pursue a political career must have published a work on a ‘serious’ subject, even if such a book remains unread. Editions Safari, founded by a former Minister of Transport, Henri Mova Sakanyi, exemplifies this phenomenon. This outfit has 21 titles on various subjects from poetry, drama, and economics to international law, all written by Henri Mova Sakanyi, who also sells the books from home and from door to door.

Secondly, sadly, there is no reliable figure on print runs in the DRC. Data provided by Afrique Editions gives an idea:

• The largest print runs are for textbooks. For primary level education, from 10,000 to 6,000 for each educational year. That is, the higher the level, the lower the print run. For secondary level schooling, around 3,000 for each level, except for classic textbooks such as Grammaire Grevisse, for example, where the runs are around 20,000 copies. The figures do not take into consideration donor-led projects.
• Other works are printed at around 1,000 copies, except for some successful titles such as Histoire du Congo and Terre de la chanson, with 7,000 and 4,000 copies respectively. Editions du Centre Etude Pour L’Action Sociale (CEPAS) provides relatively similar figures for their publications, which are exclusively non-textbooks. The print runs of nine titles are between 200 and 2,000 copies for the year 2001, but these runs also include reprints.
• Other unofficial figures from booksellers suggest that books financed by authors rarely go beyond 200 copies.
• We do not have the total sales figures for the entire country. Only Editions CEPAS, one of the oldest publishers, announced that it has distributed around 56,800 copies of books since January 1997. 11

Thirdly, the deposits at the national archive, classified according to the decimal classification system, provide a brief overview of subject areas covered by Congolese authors during this decade.

• The social sciences dominate, with about 35 per cent of titles registered.
• About 33 per cent are on religion and spirituality, further buttressing the importance of Christian bodies and institutions. Nearly a thousand titles are in these subject areas.
• The most analysed concepts are law and legislation (111 titles), politics (100 titles), ecumenism (88) and spirituality (82).
• The remaining eight categories in the classification system cover the remaining 465 titles. Some subjects are not treated, particularly the fine arts: art history, architecture, sculpture, photography and cinema. The fine art category registered only seven titles in eleven years.
• The category of ‘writing and literature’ is slightly more, with 85 titles registered during the period, although with some noticeable gaps: it does not include any critical essays on literature or literature history, and children’s literature accounts for only seven titles.
• ‘Biography, geography and history’ covers around 80 titles, which may be explained by the fact that they are actually under other categories.
• ‘Applied sciences’ is relatively important, with 151 titles registered, in particular, agriculture techniques (39 titles), management (22 titles), health information (19 titles).
• Publishing in Congo covers themes relating to the social, political, economic and cultural dynamics of the Congolese society. The considerable religious output is a response to the current religious fervour and proliferation of sects and churches in the country. The output is actually more significant than the figure represented in the category under which it appears. Almost all titles grouped under ‘biographies’ describe the lives of saints, the beatified, or the religious dignitary. A significant part of the works under the rubric ‘sociology and statistics’ are around religious themes.12 The output in politics and law is equally strong, in line with the wave of democratization from 1990 onwards, which heralded a freedom of expression never before witnessed, and the proliferation of human rights NGOs and works and publications in this area.
• The 39 titles on agricultural techniques are explained by the priority given to agriculture by successive regimes. Seventeen of the nineteen titles on health information are due to the work of Bureau d’Etude, de Recherche, et de Promotion de la Santé (BERPS), a Belgian NGO based in the lower Congo basin which has been publishing remarkable titles for the last 25 years.
• Titles from the category ‘history and civilization’ are more historical propaganda than real academic publications motivated by the worry to oppose the invading Rwandans (since 1998), the desire to describe all the ills of Mobutu’s regime (after 1991), or to demonstrate all the benefits of Laurent Desiré Kabila’s regime.

Fourthly, the professional background of the 1468 authors, of whom 404 are co-authors, is revealing: nearly 44 per cent of the authors (642) are from monasteries or religious institutions, further corroborating the overwhelming dominance of ‘religious knowledge’ in publishing in Congo. Monks, both foreign and Congolese, write on all areas of daily life: literature, education, politics, history, ethnology etc. Furthermore, 151 of these authors do not write on religious matters. Moreover, 76 of them have published several titles; for example, Father de Quirini, who writes only legal and judicial works, and is probably the most widely read author in Congo.13 The influence of churches goes beyond the religious sphere and highlights a certain intellectual hegemony in the DRC during the 1990s.


For the upholders of French language and culture, this literary explosion seems exciting and places the DRC as the second most published Francophone nation in the world – save for the fact that this study does not look at the content of the works. Nevertheless, courage and determination were needed both to write and be published during this critical period in the Congo. Attendance at school fell drastically, and the level of written and spoken French (the medium of teaching) of young Congolese is without doubt weaker than their elders, educated in the 1960s and 1970s.

Based on the most optimistic estimates, the number of school children is 65 per cent in Kinshasa, but lower than 50 per cent in the interior provinces, and about 20 per cent in the rebel-controlled areas. The number of schools 14 has not increased with the birth rate. The number of pupils in classrooms has exploded and undermined the quality and capacity of underpaid and demoralized teachers, trained from the under-funded Institut Pédagogique National in Kinshasa and Instituts Supérieurs Pédagogique in each province. Lastly, the complete absence in the country of books for children and school libraries ensures that newly educated pupils return quickly to being illiterate. Coupled with these impediments are the obstacles to distributing reading material widespread throughout Africa: very weak purchasing power, lack of power supply in most of the country, the continuing significance of oral traditions, absence of calm conditions necessary for reading etc. There is a marked distinction between the output of published works and the lack of an active reading public. It is here that we should situate the history of this tragic period, and underline it as one of the main challenges facing the DRC in the future.


1. For example, 185 French aid workers were present in Zaire in 1989.
2. A book of catechism, Doutina Christaâ, translated into Kikongo by Portuguese monks.
3. The first library for Europeans opened in 1895 in Matadi, the first library for the indigenous newly ‘evolués’ in 1943 in Lusanga.
4. To name three, Matadi (six titles in legal deposits in 2001), Lubumbashi (15 titles), Kikwit (one title in each year under review, as a result of the work of Institut Supérieur Pédagogique, Kikwit).
5. Culture et développement, January 2002.
6. The Italian Co-operation for the first and Communauté française de belgique for the second.
7. CEDI works with CLE (Cameroon), Afrique Edition with De Boeck (Belgium).
8. Wersey, Paul Tete ‘Le dépôt légal zaïrois, bilan d’une décennie : 1974-1984’ in Les cahiers du Cresa, Lubumbashi, I.S.E.S, n°10, 1992
9. Masimango, O. Muhabwa, ‘Contribution des éditions du C.E.P.A.S à l’épanouissement de l’élite intellectuelle zaïroise’.1994. Mé et téch. Info.: ISTI.: Kinshasa. p.35.
10. For example, Edition Loyola: Compagnie de Jésus; Edition Médiaspaul: Congrégation des missionnaires d’Afrique; Edition CEDI: Eglise protestante du Congo, etc.
11. Figure for 15 titles
12. For example, the position of the Catholic Church on democracy, Third World debts, acts from the different synods of the decade, etc.
13. For example, since 1970, Les droits des citoyens congolais, 112,141 copies; Comment fonctionne la justice?, 8,5304 copies; Petit dictionnaire des infractions, 76,675 copies. All published by CEPAS.
14. Estimated at 3,000 in Kinshasa. [end] [BPN, no 31, 2002, p. 16.]

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