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In ‘Congo Tales,’ a visual reimagining of local folklore

"Congo Tales" is a new multimedia project that explores the environment, culture and stories of the people of the Congo Basin. The series highlights the mythical histories of the Congolese through photography and film as a counter-narrative to the one-note story often associated with the Republic of the Congo. NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All too often when we in the western media report on the republic of Congo, we bring you stories of civil unrest and violence.

    But there's a lot more to Congo than that, and a new multimedia project, five years in the making, is looking to change the narrative.

    NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano has more.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    For years, Dutch film producer Eva Vonk shuttled between Europe and the Republic of Congo trying to answer one question.

  • Eva Vonk:

    How can we create more awareness about the Congo Basin which is the second largest rainforest on the planet?

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    The nearly 500 million acre forest stretches across six countries in Central Africa, including the Congo.

  • Eva Vonk:

    So how we tried to kind of gather information and educate ourselves about this place was googling things. And if you actually look at the image search results of the Congo it's very discouraging, imagery of war and very fear-driven model.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Vonk is trying to change the perception of the region through a project and book called "Congo Tales." It's a multimedia effort that collects oral myths from the Central African country and pairs them with dreamlike pictures of those living around Odzala-Kokoua national park. The park makes up almost five million acres of the Congo Basin forest.

    But before these photos were taken the stories had to be collected.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Vonk hired social worker Maret Mouendet who traveled around the northern district of Mbomo gathering traditional Congolese tales.

  • Annie Idime:

    [French] There are really a lot of things…

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    His wife, Annie Idime, who runs the local radio station, had listeners call in with more stories.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    In total, 72 tales were collected, which included themes of jealousy, love, the age-old tension of humans versus nature, and the spiritual world.

  • Pieter Henket:

    I can also shoot from there…

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    To translate these stories into pictures, Vonk relied on Pieter Henket – a photographer better known for snapping high fashion pictures of celebrities like Lady Gaga than working in remote forests.

  • Pieter Henket:

    It's extremely hot, extremely humid. The cameras are literally sweating, like when you open a lens water would almost come out of the camera so it was tough.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    For Vonk, what proved to be the most crucial step in the project was building trust with the local community.

  • Eva Vonk:

    When we kind of cracked the code, by for example hiring the director of the local radio station that knew everyone, that would broadcast for us what we were doing, we started to really be just amazed by having asked for 10 women to join us to form a line to tell a story. And then 50 women would show up. And so finally it just grew greater and greater. And so I think that this connectivity and this collaboration and this co-creating, you can really tell from the pictures.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    The collaboration also became a way for the Congolese to record stories that might be forgotten.

  • Pieter Henket:

    We learned that — the people there were saying that when an old person dies it's like a library of stories burning down.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    It's a saying that resonated with the project participants.

    Kovo N'Sondé, a Congolese philosopher helped adapt the stories for the book, drawing from his own family's history.

  • Steve-Régis “Kovo” N’Sondé:

    These cultural identities are not, are not so much known. And that's why this project, the "Congo Tales" project, and similar projects are very important to– to push the oral traditions, values, and principles to share it to the world.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    In helping create this book, N'Sondé took great effort to make sure the stories bridged regional and cultural divides within the Congo.

  • Steve-Régis “Kovo” N’Sondé:

    It was part of my responsibility to– to– to make this project a very national project. Not only north, south, east or west, but all together. And– and people– people in Mbomo was very proud. And I am also proud that this little village with this project represents the entire nation of the Congo.

  • Eva Vonk:

    Our project started with, "Let's create awareness for the Congo Basin, but let's also create awareness for the local communities that call this place their home." Because the one thing can't exclude the other. The one thing is not necessarily more important than the other.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    There's obviously a very complicated and long history of European colonization in Africa. What would you say to critics who might take issue with two white people telling these stories through a white lens?

  • Eva Vonk:

    I think, of course, we are extremely self-aware of the fact that we are white Europeans going into the Congo Basin to do a project. And I think we really try to always start with dialogue and always invite the right people around us that can actually help us understand our privilege because it's hard to see that from within, right? We are not the storytellers here. But we're trying to create content, together with storytellers, that are often not being given the right attention we think they deserve.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    The multimedia project includes a 15 minute children's film based on the Congolese fable the Little Fish and the Crocodile.

    It's a tale of doomed friendship between a trusting fish and a conniving crocodile. Local children played characters in the story that reminds viewers nature's laws always prevail.

    And it's just one more tale Congo is sharing with the world.

  • Eva Vonk:

    So the great thing about this film is that it's in a format that can travel. A book, of course, is also– it's just something– it's something to have. There is so much wisdom in this book. And there is so much wisdom in these pictures and the stories that are behind them and engage with them. And so we have given you many ways to do that.

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