In the remote reaches of the Congo, young mothers follow an ancient tradition of living in isolation with their newborns for months or even years. Here’s what happens when they come back.
Covered in red pigment from head to toe and sporting shiny copper anklets, Walé Asongwaka, Walé Lokito and their peers attract much attention — especially given how starkly they contrast with the lush green bush theater built behind them. Pygmies from the Ekonda tribe in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they’re continuing a ritual instituted by their ancestors. Following the birth of their first child, some young pigmy mothers – dubbed “Walés” – live with their babies in isolation for months, or even years, a longstanding tradition that aims to protect the family heir.
“The most important moment in the lives of women from Zaïre” – the country whose official name was changed to Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997 – “is the birth of their first child,” explains French anthropologist Hélène Pagezi in her documentary about Walé Chantale, whom she followed in 1991. “Thereafter, the mother, generally a young girl between fifteen and eighteen years old, returns to her parents’ home and follows the directives associated with her new status as a Walé, a breastfeeding woman. By virtue of the considerations she receives and the bans she abides by, she gains a status akin to that of a dignitary and is honored by the spirits.”
Twenty-some years later, while working with local pygmy communities, photographer Patrick Willocq encountered one of them. Stunned and intrigued, he sought to find out more and asked those around him to shed light on this “scarlet vision.”
“The Walé ritual is seen as an hymn to motherhood, womanhood and fertility,” he gathered. “In the Western world, we seldom acknowledge the moment when a woman becomes a mother. Of course, we’re talking about two very different value systems. A French woman would be scandalized if she were asked to live two years as a recluse. Yet a Walé does not understand how a mother can go back to work a few weeks after giving birth.”
The new mom is not allowed to perform any laborious chores, whether working in the fields or cooking. Instead she is served, much like a queen, by a host of ladies-in-waiting, former Walés tasked with feeding her and passing on their knowledge. They monitor her every move and make sure that she follows the rules – such as the prohibition of all sexual relations – set out for her.
“The different components associated with the ritual are ways to see to the education of the young mother, her health and that of her baby. It protects the firstborn, the heir of a family, and sometimes of an entire clan,” explains Martin Boilo Mbula, an ethnomusicologist and the director of the National Museum of Mbandaka in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). For instance, “Ngola,” the red powder Walés use to coat themselves, is believed to have sanitary and medical properties that help combat scabies and abscesses. Moreover, donning it wards off evil sorcerers. In a similar vein, intimacy with men is forbidden because sperm is thought to be toxic for the newborn, who could come into contact with it when breastfeeding. “And, it also turns out to be an effective means to stagger childbirths,” adds Mbula.
Over time, though, the utilitarian rite morphed, becoming more and more complex and demanding. “Originally, the seclusion period lasted only three or six months,” notes Mbula. “Eventually, members of the Ekonda tribe, who place a high value on the songs of their ancestors, felt that the practice should end with a bang.” The young women now have to learn a number of melodies and dances that they will perform during a three-hour spectacle commemorating their experiences as Walés. This, compounded with the requirement that the family gather several expensive goods, much like a dowry, has lengthened the time spent in retreat – sometimes up to three years. The clan’s honor is at stake.
“The first ‘exit ceremony’ I attended was mesmerizing, yet incomprehensible,” remembers Patrick Willocq. “Perhaps, they are best understood as an oral and embodied account of the Walés’ innermost thoughts. In the songs and the dances, they often compare themselves to nature’s finest – a bird, an animal, or even a stagnant pond – while freely recounting how their husband and family treated them. They even weave in old tales and new humorous anecdotes.”
Through several visits, Willocq, who divides his time between France and the DRC, gained the trust of a few Walés. They agreed to share with him the lyrics they were working on. Assisted by the ethnomusicologist, he translated them, chose the most symbolic verses, called essansas, and thought up ways to render them visually. To do so, he created elaborate “bush theaters,” measuring thirty-five square meters and using materials found in the nearby forest and villages for the decor and accessories. One picture shows Walé Epanza Makita hanging upside down dressed like a bat. In her song, the young mother explains that she felt as strange and unique as this half-bird, half-rodent creature, both feared and revered. In another image, a woman sits with her child on one side of a bamboo wall while her husband chats with another lady on the other side. This scene was inspired by the feelings of dejection Walé Oyombé mentioned in an essansa that recounts how her husband took a second wife while she was in seclusion.
“Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon that a man abandons his spouse while she complies with the ritual’s dictates,” remarks Willocq. “Either he goes looking for work in Mbandaka in hopes of making enough money to pay for the exit ceremony and never returns, or he finds another bride to replace the first one. In either case, the Walé then becomes the sole responsibility of her family, who rarely has the means to provide everything she needs – the trousseau [dowry] and the festivities – to come out of isolation.”
In two instances, Willocq helped impoverished Walés amass the goods necessary to put an end to their retreat. One of them, Walé Espanza Mpia, integrated this act of generosity in her final showcase, compelling the photographer to stage an image in which a white man – played by a black bystander – drives the young woman back to her home.
“At the beginning, it took months to convince them to take part in my project,” he says. “Today, they’re the ones who come to me, because, unexpectedly, the photo shoot has become part of the ritual.”
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Patrick Willocq is a self-taught photographer who, after spending a portion of his adolescence in Congo, returned to document indigenous culture through carefully crafted performative images.
A French-language version of this story was originally published in Polka Magazine in June 2014.