A curious maternity leave in Congo (DRC)

On the 2023 Jungle Kongo Expedition trip, Austerio Alonso and the other travellers had the good fortune to witness a ceremony to mark the end of the Ekonda pygmies’ “maternity leave”. But let’s start at the beginning…

The Democratic Republic of Congo never ceases to surprise us with its great ethnographic wealth. We have already talked about the Kuba kingdom and the masks of the Pende, and now we can add this custom of the Ekonda people .

The territory of the Ekonda Pygmies extends in the area of Mbandaka (the provincial capital) and the territory of Bikoro, along Lake Tumba.

We are dealing with what used to be a hunter-gatherer people, today sedentary, who live in the forest or jungle and maintain some traditions, despite the economic difficulties imposed by the 21st century. Among these traditions that they are determined to preserve is their curious “maternity leave”.

A very special maternity leave

The most important moment in a woman’s life is the birth of her first child.

Hélène Pagezy – French anthropologist who filmed a documentary on the Walé in 1991.

The Ekonda “maternity leave” is a very curious tradition that develops around new mothers called Walé, and today we will try to answer the basic questions we all ask ourselves when faced with such a custom.

Who are the Walé and what is their “maternity leave”?

Walé is the title given to women who become pregnant for the first time. Generally young girls. Teenagers between 15 and 18 years old.

The rite of the Walé is a rite of passage or initiation. Women facing their first pregnancy and breastfeeding are about to begin a new stage of life, and must therefore be initiated into it.

It is their parents who decide, once they are informed of the pregnancy, that their daughter will undergo the rite. In other words, not all young Ekonda girls and new mothers undergo the Walé rite. At least not nowadays. But there are still families, and not a few, who decide to go ahead with it.

This is the most traditional, official and prestigious way of recognising a marriage and its offspring.

Walé woman prepared for maternity leave ceremony
Walé woman ready for end of maternity leave party

What is maternity leave in this Congolese community?

New mothers return to their parents’ home. There they will spend a period of two years without their boyfriend. Tradition dictates this, although this period is changing, as we will see below.

Despite the separation, the boyfriend (also quite young) must pay for her expenses: food, clothes, etc. If he does not pay them, he will not have the right to release her and be her husband at the end of this period.

The financial burden of this “maternity leave” is a common source of conflict and even abandonment. The separation situation does not help either.

In colonial times, the duration of this process was clearly established: 2 years. The first year for breastfeeding. The second, so that the mother could acquire a series of skills, including the creation of her own songs and dances.

After independence, some say that this period has become longer. There are walés who live with their parents for three, four, five or more years. The reason for this has already been mentioned: their boyfriends do not have the money or do not want to provide them, and they are left in the limbo of “maternity leave” waiting to be released.

There are also those who claim that this tradition is falling into disuse, or that there are now walés who only stay on “maternity leave” for a few months.

In any case, during this period, mothers only have to take care of their baby and certain learning activities, not work. They are also protected and respected.

At the same time, they must observe a number of rules:

  • They cannot have sex with other men (or their husbands). The Ekonda believe that sperm can spoil breast milk.
  • They should not do any work, including housework.
  • They cannot go into the forest with the others, so they spend most of the day alone.
  • They must make up their body with a red powder. It is apparently extracted from the ground wood of the Palo Rojo or Ngola tree, which grows in the tropics of central and west Africa. In addition, they smear their hair with a black paste that they make themselves.

The walé will be watched over by her sisters or cousins, who will make sure that she does not break the prescribed rules and taboos. In particular, the taboo on sexual relations.

walé woman with red face painting dancing
Walé woman dancing at the ceremony with her red make-up – maternity leave in Congo

If the young mother makes it through without any setbacks, she will acquire a status similar to that of a dignitary, and she will not lose it. She will be honoured and blessed by the spirits, and socially recognised for her effort and dedication.

Why the Walé rite is performed

In the first instance, the Walé rite responds to the need to guarantee the success of the first offspring. In a context of high infant mortality, it makes perfect sense.

The woman is also protected during the initial period of motherhood by returning to her parents’ home. A more secure environment than, in principle, that of the in-laws.

Beyond the mother’s immediate environment, it is also a social recognition of women and their capacity to give life.

two ekonda girls dancing in a corro at the maternity leave ceremony
Ekonda girls dancing on the big day – Maternity leave in Congo

The big day of the Walés

When maternity leave comes to an end, there is a big party called “the leaving ceremony”. It is time to return to the outside world.

In order for this ceremony to take place, the boyfriend must pick her up and pay for the expenses of the party. If there are also outstanding debts, this is the time to settle them.

Party expenses include musicians, drinks and food for the guests, the construction of the tower symbolising the jump to freedom, and gifts for the mother and baby. The latter is grouped in a suitcase that represents the beginning of the new life and is delivered full of clothes for her and her child, shoes, wigs and jewellery.

From this ceremony onwards, they are considered to be married. In addition, the husband (if there is one) earns the respect of the community for not having abandoned his wife.

For the young mother, it is time to regain her freedom and begin a life independent of the family home.

As we have already pointed out, this is not always the case, and the case we can describe in this article is precisely the case of a walé mother who was abandoned by her partner.

Watching the departure ceremony

In the case of the exit ceremony witnessed by the Kumakonda group, the girl who was the protagonist had been a walé for more than two years, but her boyfriend had left her and she had no prospect of being able to finish her “maternity leave”.

After several conversations with her and her family, Alonso decided to cover the costs of the departure ceremony. In this way she would achieve her freedom, and they would be able to attend the ceremony.

On the chosen day, the Walé receives her suitcase with the contents that will allow her to start her independent life.

Then his “guardians” or companions walk through the village with the child, who has been dressed in new clothes and accessories: colourful sunglasses, slippers, etc. They do so singing and dancing, in a clear demonstration of the gifts received.

Meanwhile, the women make up and dress the mama walé, covering her in red powder from head to toe and finishing with a feathered headdress that looks like a crown.

walé preparing for ceremony with red powder
Preparing the walé for the end of maternity leave
walé doing her make-up for her maternity leave ceremony
Preparing the walé for her release from maternity leave

The arrival of the Walé at the chosen place is spectacular. She rides on a kind of palanquin with her guardians or godmothers, and is carried on the shoulders of several men.

This staging is a representation of the status she has acquired by overcoming her “maternity leave” and, to be more specific, imitates the chiefs or patriarchs of yesteryear, who travelled in a tipoy accompanied by their army.

walé arriving in palanquin at the place of celebration
Walé arriving at the venue to celebrate the end of her maternity leave.

Then the party proper begins. Everyone is in high spirits (and some are already a bit drunk, as the beer is flowing freely).

She is the absolute star of the show. Musicians accompany her and there are songs and dances for a couple of hours. Among these dances, the ones that Walé herself performs stand out. She has prepared them during her exile, this being one of the duties she had to fulfil in her second year of retirement or “maternity leave”.

The songs and dances that the Walées perform in front of the audience refer to the lessons they have learned during their maternity leave. They also speak of their loneliness, dreams and more personal experiences in this particular confinement. The songs are unique to each walé.

walé in red make-up at maternity leave ceremony
Walé at her maternity leave departure ceremony

The last test

When the party comes to the end, the walé climbs a tower that the men have built.

It is made of materials from the forest and has a system of pulleys and ropes. Once at the top, they drop it. Plumb down. The height is four or five metres and it’s a big blow. There is also a risk of fracture or worse. But she has to hold on. It is the ultimate test.

This is the jump to freedom.

wale climbing the tower
Walé climbing the tower from where she will be dropped to end her maternity leave.
young wale after the jump on maternity leave ceremony
Walé after the jump. His pained expression says it all…
young wale after maternity leave
Our walé after maternity leave

We highly recommend you to visit the website of the photographer Patrick Willocq. Patrick Willocq is of Belgian origin and was born in the DRC. After a few years working in other countries and continents, he decided to return. He is currently dedicated to showing an innovative and non-stereotypical image of his country, and his work with the walé is magnificent.

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