The Spectacular Return of the Pigmy Mother

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.

Twenty-one-year-old Walé Asongwaka spent three years in seclusion, then discovered her husband had disappeared.
Twenty-one-year-old Walé Asongwaka spent three years in seclusion, then discovered her husband had disappeared.

“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.”

The only authorized work during the period of seclusion and rest is traditional basketry weaving. In this recreation of their seclusion-ending performance by photographer Patrick Willocq, Walé Oyombé and Walé Mpia make all kinds of baskets they then hope to sell to other women in the village, providing them a meager source of income.
The only authorized work during the period of seclusion and rest is traditional basketry weaving. In this recreation of their seclusion-ending performance by photographer Patrick Willocq, Walé Oyombé and Walé Mpia make all kinds of baskets they then hope to sell to other women in the village, providing them a meager source of income.

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.”

In this recreation of her seclusion-ending performance, Wale Oyombé sings that she is proud to be compared to a patriarch as she is carried on a tipoy. Traditionally a native chief (nkúmu) would move about on a "tipoy" accompanied by his army.
In this recreation of her seclusion-ending performance, Wale Oyombé sings that she is proud to be compared to a patriarch as she is carried on a tipoy. Traditionally a native chief (nkúmu) would move about on a “tipoy” accompanied by his army.

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.

In Walé Asongwaka's performance, she sings that she went to school and therefore can read and write - which is quite rare, as young Pygmy girls do not always have access to education.
In Walé Asongwaka’s performance, she sings that she went to school and therefore can read and write – which is quite rare, as young Pygmy girls do not always have access to education.

“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.

Wale Oyombé compares her seclusion to life on board a boat, locked up and accompanied by her entourage. With the feathers of her hat in the wind, Oyombé’s boat nears the end of its journey, announcing the end of her seclusion.
Wale Oyombé compares her seclusion to life on board a boat, locked up and accompanied by her entourage. With the feathers of her hat in the wind, Oyombé’s boat nears the end of its journey, announcing the end of her seclusion.

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.

Walé Asongwaka being prepared by her entourage before starting her performance.
Walé Asongwaka being prepared by her entourage before starting her performance.
Young “basomis” dancing at the beginning of Walé Asongwaka's seclusion-ending festival.
Young “basomis” dancing at the beginning of Walé Asongwaka’s seclusion-ending festival.
Walé Lokito sings about how difficult it was for her to gather all the goods she needed to end her time as a Walé.
Walé Lokito sings about how difficult it was for her to gather all the goods she needed to end her time as a Walé.

“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.”

Walé Lokito in the middle of the final "ibuleyo," which will mark the end of her seclusion period.
Walé Lokito in the middle of the final “ibuleyo,” which will mark the end of her seclusion period.
Walé Asongwaka gets ready to climb aboard a carrycot that looks like the plane that flies overhead every night at ten p.m. On the day of her seclusion-ending festival, Walé Asongwaka climbed up a scaffolding and on to a plane-shaped pod that would free-drop on the ground, marking the end of the Walé ritual. This inspired Patrick Willocq’s photograph "Walé Asongwaka Takes Off," seen below.
Walé Asongwaka gets ready to climb aboard a carrycot that looks like the plane that flies overhead every night at ten p.m. On the day of her seclusion-ending festival, Walé Asongwaka climbed up a scaffolding and on to a plane-shaped pod that would free-drop on the ground, marking the end of the Walé ritual. This inspired Patrick Willocq’s photograph “Walé Asongwaka Takes Off,” seen below.
For Pygmies, the plane is an European invention that is out of reach. Addressing other Walés, Asongwaka sings her superiority as she claims that only her will have the means to fly (the Walé ritual is highly competitive as it’s all about having more prestige and power than your rivals).
For Pygmies, the plane is an European invention that is out of reach. Addressing other Walés, Asongwaka sings her superiority as she claims that only her will have the means to fly (the Walé ritual is highly competitive as it’s all about having more prestige and power than your rivals).

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.

For Pygmies, a bat is a strange creature, half animal, half bird. By comparing herself to a bat, nineteen-year-old Walé Epanza Makita expresses her uniqueness and shows her superiority. Her rivals (here Walé Lokito) will not be able to copy her.
For Pygmies, a bat is a strange creature, half animal, half bird. By comparing herself to a bat, nineteen-year-old Walé Epanza Makita expresses her uniqueness and shows her superiority. Her rivals (here Walé Lokito) will not be able to copy her.
A direct consequence of the Walé ritual is to encourage polygamy, socially accepted by the community. Here Walé Oyombé is with her husband and his second wife. Sometimes a husband will totally abandon his Walé. The burden of financing the seclusion-ending festival is then transfered to her parents. This extends her period of confinement, exacerbating her loneliness.
A direct consequence of the Walé ritual is to encourage polygamy, socially accepted by the community. Here Walé Oyombé is with her husband and his second wife. Sometimes a husband will totally abandon his Walé. The burden of financing the seclusion-ending festival is then transfered to her parents. This extends her period of confinement, exacerbating her loneliness.

“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.

Twenty-year-old Walé Mpia was grateful to have been assisted by Patrick Willocq, who offered her copper bracelets to help pay for ending her seclusion. On the day of the laying of her bracelets, she returned to her village by car, with Patrick driving; she wanted a picture recreating this event.
Twenty-year-old Walé Mpia was grateful to have been assisted by Patrick Willocq, who offered her copper bracelets to help pay for ending her seclusion. On the day of the laying of her bracelets, she returned to her village by car, with Patrick driving; she wanted a picture recreating this event.

“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.”

Immediately after the seclusion-ending festival, Walé Asongwaka returns to her husband’s hut and becomes a normal woman once again. The next day she and her child will flaunt their best set of clothes for the whole community. Her husband disappeared three years ago, immediately after childbirth. Surprisingly, he returned the day of her release. Asongwaka took him back without hesitation.
Immediately after the seclusion-ending festival, Walé Asongwaka returns to her husband’s hut and becomes a normal woman once again. The next day she and her child will flaunt their best set of clothes for the whole community. Her husband disappeared three years ago, immediately after childbirth. Surprisingly, he returned the day of her release. Asongwaka took him back without hesitation.

* * *

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.

Laurence Butet-Roch is a freelance writer, photo editor and photographer based in Toronto. She is a member of the Boreal Collective.

A French-language version of this story was originally published in Polka Magazine in June 2014.