Millisphere (noun): A discrete region inhabited by roughly 1000th of the total world population.

When Sam Manzanza played the Whanganui Musicians' Club, I quizzed him about the millisphere of Bandundu.

Soukous music, a speeded-up Congolese version of Caribbean rumba and samba rhythms, has become popular in the Congo since Sam left Kinshasa, even though the Government tried to ban soukous in 2000 because of its sexually explicit dancing.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) consists of 10 millispheres and, including the one Congo (Brazzaville) millisphere on the north side of the river, there are roughly 11 millispheres covering the watershed of the Congo.

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The Congo is the second-longest river in Africa and the world's second largest river by water discharge. The coastal millisphere of Atlantic Congo contains the non-navigable section of the river and the port of Matadi is connected to the DRC capital, Kinshasa, by road and rail. Kinshasa (11 million people), the third-largest African city after Cairo and Lagos, is a millisphere in itself.

According to Mike Davis in Planet of Slums, Kinshasa's infrastructure has been in decline since the Belgians left in 1963. "The Belgians took 20 per cent for themselves and put 80 per cent into the Government and infrastructure; after independence, the new leaders took 70 per cent for themselves," said Sam who moved to Kinshasa in the late 1960s.

Sam had been born by Lake Mai-Ndombe (black water) in the time of the Belgian Congo. Mai-Ndombe is part of the old Bandundu province (eight million), above the Stanley Pools, where the Congo becomes navigable and the Kasai and Kwango rivers branch off.

Bandundu is Kinshasa's hinterland, but still in the lower Congo, and there are another seven millispheres upriver.

The Congo has many languages and, before learning French and English, Sam spoke Lingala, which is spoken by about eight million people living upriver from Kinshasa, and is also the language used by the DRC army.

Sam said in the country everything grew and there was no food problem, but having no money to buy essentials, like medicine, sent people to the city to look for work.

In the late 19th century, during the first 30 years of Belgian rule by King Leopold II, the population dropped by a third. In 1961, when the DRC achieved independence, there were 13.5 million Africans and 100,000 whites; today the DRC has a population approaching 80 million and has one of the world's 10 fastest-growing populations.

The Congolese independence movement came from the intellectuals in Kinshasa and Belgian mining interests were quick to help the breakaway province of Katanga, at the top of the Congo watershed, in its bid for independence.

During the Katanga conflict, Patrice Lumumba, the country's first president, was shot by Belgian mercenaries (backed by the CIA) protecting Western mining interests.

In the late 1990s, the ethnic conflict in Rwanda spilled over into the DRC, claiming as many as five million casualties (mostly civilians) as the army, warlords and ethnic militia fought for control of DRC's mineral-rich eastern regions.

As well as being rich in diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, manganese, tin and uranium, the DRC has 80 per cent of the world's clotan, a semiconductor used in computer electronics.
"Paul Kagame (president of Rwanda and now head of the African Union) is a criminal, stealing the Congo's minerals," said Sam.

In World War I, copper from the Congo was used to made the brass shell casings for both sides.

The uranium in the nuclear bombs dropped by the United States on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in World War II came from a mine in southeast Congo.

Nothing much has changed since the days of the Belgian Congo, with global mining interests, working with a small, corrupt local elite and backed by the military and ethnic militia, controlling production.

"The first will be last and the last will be first," said Sam, as we discussed why a country blessed with so much abundance should be so poor and have the bloodiest conflict since World War II — "Africa's World War", a conflict for the control of minerals sought by global corporates and arms manufacturers.

When Fred Frederikse is not building, he is a self-directed student of geography and traveller, and in his spare time he is the co-chairman of the Whanganui Musicians' Club.