The Congo Basin sits in the very heart of Africa, spanning six nations and extending over 500 million acres. Labeled as the “world’s second lung” by ecologists, it is the Earth’s other Amazon—Congo Tales began as a project determined to tell us why.
This beautiful tome published by Prestel communicates the urgency of conservation efforts in the Congo Basin; highlighting the region’s role in preventing runaway climate change and its vulnerability to deforestation. It takes a different approach to those traditionally used to communicate environmental messages in Africa, steering clear of stereotypical stories of plague and war, and instead focusing on the unique mythologies of the region—as told by the people who live there.
The project took over five years to complete and was undertaken by editors Stefanie Plattner and Eva Vonk, famed portrait photographer Pieter Henket, and researchers Annie Lydie Idime, Maret Mouendet, and Bosco Ekany. During these years the team established close relationships with people from the Mbomo district, an area that lies on the edge of the Odzala-Kokoua National Park—considered the heart of the Congo Basin. Through friendships with people from Mbomo, they began to collect the tales of myth and legend that populate the book.
“We asked them to collect fables,” Vonk and Plattner explain. “As time went on, we started receiving handwritten notepads filled with stories.” These stories were then adapted for the publication by Congolese philosopher S.R. Kovo N’Sondé, and award-winning author Wilfried N’Sondé. Each tale is accompanied by photographs taken by Henket; these portraits show the people of Mbomo depicting their legends. “Together with my team and the people of Mbomo, we found different ways to tell the stories”, he explains, “creating large-scale scenes combined with classic, quiet portraits.”
In a foreword written by Auguste Miabeto, a specialist in Sub-Saharan African oral literature and traditions, and the director of the International Center for Research-Education of the Kongo Civilization, he outlines the significance of the publication. “S.R. Kovo N’Sondé’s adaptations are a call to recognise the diversity in the various centers of Congolese culture,” he explains, “[it is] an attempt to share our oral traditions without distorting them.”
By its very nature, a project like Congo Tales is bound to attract scrutiny and skepticism—what makes a German collective believe they have the right to tell these stories? Who benefits from its production? As Miabeto notes, the publishing of this book is a necessary step for the preservation not just of this vast rainforest area, but also of the cultures of those who call it home. “Odzala-Kokoua National Park is a biotope comprising thousands of creatures”, he explains, “an immense and precious reservoir which, like these myths, proverbs, tales, and events, must be saved from destruction.”
This collaboration between the people of Mbomo and Tales of Us illustrates the potential of such publishing endeavors to act as bridges between cultures—empowering and educating both sides in the process.