With its advent into the modern State in 1895, Mai-Ndombe – called ‘Lake Leopold II district' – became ontologically determined by colonial capitalism and associated twice over with one of its most prominent and controversial figures. Today, the topological sweep carried out by the ‘authenticity' of the Mobutu regime has removed all references to the former ruler of Belgium. Likewise, an attempt was made to dissociate the province from its lake by erasing its name from the latter. But the province still bears traces of its colonial markers. The term ‘Mai-Ndombe', meaning ‘black waters', that the State of Zaïre used to replace the old ‘Lake Leopold II', effectively designates a physical qualifier that was given to the lake by H.M. Stanley's Bakongo carriers when he passed through in 1882.
Historically, the vast primaeval district area that is now a province corresponds to the personal reserve known as the ‘Crown Domain' carved out by Leopold II north of the Kasai River in the Congo Free State, and whose limits, like the identities of its administrators and commissioners, remain unclear. The rubber-rich region was bled white by the system of economic predation organized by Leopold II, which suppressed all other forms of trade that competed with it and abandoned certain territories and their inhabitants to brutal treatment by European agents and their auxiliaries.
Mai-Ndombe is both a geographic and human mosaic. No unifying element can be found in its natural configuration. The lake's central position does not make it a catalyst for unity. It serves more as a symbolic geographic marker rather than a cradle of identity. The territories of Kutu, Inongo, and Kiri, which form the province's historical nucleus, are found on the shores of the lake. The territories of Yumbi, Bolobo, long acquired from Équateur; Mushie and Kwamouth from Congo-Kasaï; and Oshwe, from Dekese, were added much later. Heterogeneity is everywhere. The forest, which reigns supreme in the north and east of the province, gives way to savannah in the south and west. Moreover, a demographic imbalance matches the disparity in vegetation: there is an emptiness in the very sparsely populated forest territory of Oshwe, part of the Congo basin. The neighbouring territories of Kri and Inongo, with somewhat denser populations, see their inhabitants scattered along the lake, rivers, and a few roads. This green desert in the north and east stands in stark contrast to the highly populated pockets of land found in the west and south (or part of it), whose population densities are much higher. A common denominator for the manner in which Mai-Ndombe populations are organized is thus hard to find.
The thick administrative thread thus stitches together smaller areas with very distinct socio-cultural, political, and economic characteristics. Was the construction of this provincial body simply a piece of administrative patchwork created by the modern State, the same one that – from the outset – prioritised economic needs and neglected social considerations?
Mai-Ndombe is also synonymous with natural heritage. Three-quarters of the province is covered by forest, a source of authority and prestige as well as a vital resource, containing exceptional biodiversity that has warranted the creation of a number of conservation areas. The province receives significant funding to preserve them. But for now, the wealth of this globally recognized natural heritage stands sharply at odds with the precarious socio-economic situation of its inhabitants, whose intensive farming practices are often singled out as being a leading cause of deforestation. Along with fishing (of varying intensity depending on the group and on proximity to the rivers or lake) and hunting, depending on the availability of game, most inhabitants also engage in a supplementary trading activity. Rudimentary whalers and a smattering of boats, all systematically overloaded, cross the lake and go down the rivers towards the capital. In the absence of industry, these same vessels head back in the opposite direction bearing manufactured goods that are consumed locally. The characteristics of these trade flows bear a curious resemblance to the harvesting regime of Leopold's time. Like the rubber, copal and ivory of yesteryear, today's commodities – with the exception of Sodefor timber – leave for Kinshasa as raw materials.