Congolese rumba and Senegalese fish dish join Unesco heritage list

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  • Félix Tshisekedi
    Congolese politician

The United Nations cultural agency Unesco has added the Congolese rumba dance to its intangible cultural heritage list, much to the delight of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo-Brazzaville. Senegal's national fish and rice dish known as "thiebou dieune" was also added.

A Unesco summit this week approved the two countries' joint application to add rumba to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, where it joins Cuban rumba, the Central African Republic's polyphonic pygmy music and the drums of Burundi.

DRC President Felix Tshisekedi welcomed the news "with joy and happiness" as citizens from both nations celebrated on social media.

"This cultural jewel unique to the two Congos is recognised for its universal value," Tshisekedi wrote on Twitter.

"Rumba is our identity! Its international recognition is a source of pride and a treasure," said DRC culture minister Catherine Furaha.

Philosophy of African music

"I'm extremely proud," pianist and composer Ray Lema told RFI's Claire Fages on Tuesday after learning of Unesco's announcement.

"I've seen the reaction to this music wherever I've been around the continent, and it has an effect on people," he says.

"Some say its the language, some say it's the melody ... and the rhythm called 'ostinato' which means circular phrases which represent the philosophy of African music.

"Unlike classical composition with a linear rhythm, for Africans, it's like a wheel spinning around, creating a kind of transe, and these little loops put everyone at ease, in their body and spirit."

Cuban connection

When asked about the origin of rumba in Cuba (already classified by Unesco), Lema said many of the slaves brought to the Caribbean were from the Congo basin.

"There's a direct connection between Cuba and Africa," he explains, adding "we are not Cuba's children, it's the Cubans who are Africa's children."

The name "rumba" however, was born in Cuba when the Cubans misheard the African word "Nkumba," meaning navel in Kikongo, referring to couples dancing with their navels opposite each other.

The people of both DRC and Congo-Brazzaville say the dance lives on and hope its addition to UNESCO's list will give it greater fame even among Congolese.

"It will be good for people to realise that music is a precious cultural artefact," Lema says, indicating that the teaching and preservation of traditional musical practices in the country has been somewhat neglected.

Rumba has been marked by the political history of the two Congos before and after independence and is "present in all areas of national life", Andre Yoka Lye, a director at the DRC's national arts institute in the capital Kinshasa, told AFP.

It draws on nostalgia, cultural exchange, resistance, resilience and the sharing of pleasure through its flamboyant "sape" dress code, he said.


Unesco also added Senegal's national dish, a rice-and-fish platter called "thiebou dieune", to its cultural heritage list.

Senegal's Culture Ministry had applied to include the dish, which is widely consumed in the West African country, on the list in October.

"Thiebou dieune" means "rice with fish" in Senegal's dominant Wolof language. It is often prepared with vegetables such as a cassava or tomato, and served at lunch.

The northern Senegalese city of Saint-Louis is believed be the birthplace of the dish.

The city, whose old centre is itself a Unesco World Heritage site, borders the Atlantic Ocean and hosts a thriving fishing community.

"The recipe and techniques are traditionally passed down from mother to daughter," Unesco stated, adding that the dish is traditionally eaten with hands.

Thiebou dieune – also spelled Ceebu jen in Wolof – joins other culinary favourites such as Italian pizza and Moroccan couscous on the Unesco list.

Find out about all of the other traditional practices that were added to Unesco's list here.

(with AFP)

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