For this project, I dove deeply into an initiation ritual of the Ekonda pygmies in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Ekondas believe that the most important moment in the life of a woman is the birth of her first child.

The young mother (usually 15 to 18) is called Walé (“primiparous nursing mother”). She returns to her parents where she remains secluded for a period of two to five years. During her seclusion, a Walé is under very special care. She must also respect a taboo on sex during the whole period.

The end of her seclusion is marked by a dancing and singing ritual. The choreography and the songs have a very codified structure but also contain unique qualities specific to each Walé. She sings the story of her own loneliness, and with humor praises her own behavior while discrediting her Walé rivals.

I’ve always been fascinated by native tribes because I feel they have a wealth that we have somehow lost. Today, many initiation rituals in the Congo are disappearing. The ritual of the Walé woman has resisted the pressures of modern life — but for how long?

To document this beautiful tribute to motherhood, fertility and femininity, I proposed to five Walés to participate in staged photographs. Each set-up worked as a visual representation of one of the subjects that the Walé would sing about on the day of her release from seclusion.

This series is a personal reflection of women in general and the Walé ritual specifically. But first and foremost, it is the result of a unique collaboration with five pygmy women, their respective clans, an ethnomusicologist, an artist and many artisans of the forest. Working together, our mutual experiences become richer giving birth to “I am Walé Respect Me”.

—Patrick Willocq