In the heart of central Africa, the Mbomo district sits within the vast Congo Basin. As the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest, the Basin sprawls across 500 million acres, leaving an indelible mark on the people who live within its wondrous beauty. Though the multitude of cultures that reside in the Congo Basin are intertwined in the environment, the area receives little attention.
Congo Tales is a multimedia effort to use the rich heritage of the people of the Mbomo to shine a light on this fragile ecosystem and preserve an oral history that is in danger of disappearing. Over the course of five years, a group of authors, researchers, and photographers came together to use a means of positive communication in order to pay homage to the Congo. Inspired by the Brothers Grimm, Congo Tales is a work of high art that records the fables and myths that lay the moral and cultural foundations of the Mbomo.
The project is the first of many within Tales of Us, which is the brainchild of Dutch film producer Eva Vonk. Together with fellow editor Stefanie Plattner, community activists, teachers, and local radio producers, Vonk spent three years in the Republic of the Congo recording mythologies. The fables, which often deal with relationships and the environment, were then translated and adapted by Congolese brothers Wilfried N’Sondé, an author, and S.R. Kovo N’Sondé, a philosopher.
The work is all the more critical when one considers that most of these stories had never been previously recorded and were at risk of being lost as elders in the communities passed. “Tales are powerful, whether you read them by candlelight next to an AGA or, thanks to modern-day technology, on a tablet,” writes Plattner. “Tales also possess the ability to bring people together around important topics. I believe that this project will, through the magic of stories, link children from the extremes of the world.”
To bring visual light to these traditional tales, fine art portrait photographer Pieter Henket was brought on board. (Known for his cinematic style, Henket has photographed celebrities like Mary J. Blige, Lady Gaga, and Kristen Stewart.) After the myths were curated, Henket flew in with his team and re-enacted the stories with the help of local volunteers.
His incredible photographs bring a stateliness and importance fitting of the stories that make up the Mbomo. Henket is greatly influenced by the large-scale paintings of 17th-century masters like Rembrandt, which shows in his use of light and staging. Whether in intimate black and white portraits or complex multi-character compositions, the people of the Mbomo take their roles seriously. With pride shining in their eyes, their contributions in acting out these sacred tales to their fullest don’t go unnoticed.
“During the process of our shoot, the pictures gained additional layers as the people created new, richer tales,” shares Henket. “Everyone was so incredibly welcoming and generous, and the excitement on their part to have their family stories captured in such an ‘epic’ way was positively motivating for our crew.”
Congo Tales is an incredible glimpse at the heritage left to the world by the people of the Mbomo. Living on the edge of the Odzala-Kokoua National Park—the largest and oldest of the Congo Basin—they’ve remained incredible gatekeepers of their natural world. Never logged or overrun with poachers, the pristine nature of the Odzala-Kokoua is a testament to the respect these communities show for their surroundings. For this alone, the public would do well to take heed of the lessons given within their traditional tales.