Plaisance Mbounga: Laying the Foundation for Camp Imbalanga

In 2023, Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo opened Camp Imbalanga, an eco-tourism destination in the middle of the rainforest. An aura of magic and mystery surrounds the site, named after a character from a local legend who brought hope and prosperity to the area’s inhabitants and taught them the value of working together.  

Camp Imbalanga is managed by African Parks. Its main aim is to promote domestic tourism. Four tents on wooden platforms and a communal kitchen and seating area jut out from the lush rainforest floor. Just about everything was built by hand using local and sustainably harvested timber. A narrow footbridge meandering through the trees connects the camp with an observation tower overlooking Imbalanga Bai, one of the many forest clearings unique to Odzala-Kokoua which provide reprieve from the dense vegetation and where wildlife, such as forest elephants and western lowland gorillas, can be observed out in the open.

But it is the story of the people behind Camp Imbalanga, like Plaisance Mbounga, that make it so special.

Plaisance is a self-taught carpenter and works as an eco-guide and builder in Imbalanga. The eco-guide programme was initiated in 2023 by the park with seven trained guides, all from surrounding communities. Eco-guides accompany visitors on excursions, leading them through the rainforest and sharing their deep, ancient knowledge of the area. Plaisance lives close to the camp with his wife, Aude. His job not only enables him to support his three daughters and save money for a new house, but also to spend his days in his favourite environment, the forest.  

Eco-guide Plaisance grew up learning the secrets of the forest around Odzala-Kokoua ©Irene Galera

Plaisance spent his childhood in the village of Lango, five kilometres from the camp. After working in the city of Ouesso as a carpenter from an early age and not making ends meet, he returned home in 2017, which was around the time African Parks started constructing a new base in Imbalanga. Employed at first as a casual worker to build key access roads, Plaisance’s carpentry skills were soon noticed and he was tasked with building Camp Imbalanga, which he completed almost single-handedly. This included laying  cement foundations and crafting wooden platforms, stairs, roofing, and two watchtowers. He even created decorative objects out of wood, many of which are now on display in the camp’s tents and communal area.

Plaisance and team building the infrastructure for Camp Imbalanga ©Manon Jampy

"Ever since I was little I've been making things. I left home when I was young and started working as a carpenter in Ouesso without any pay. I slept under a tarpaulin outside the house,” says Plaisance.

“I love the forest and know it very well because I grew up in the village. When we were children, we used to play “humans” and “gorillas” [hide and seek] among the marantaceae plants [Marantaceae grows abundantly in the forest and is an important food source for gorillas]. I also accompanied my uncle when he went hunting. I was too little to hunt myself, but I assisted him and the other hunters. The forest is my home. My life has changed since I started working in the park. I've learnt that what I know about the forest is important and that this knowledge needs to be shared. This way, people from the city will understand the forest better. I can show visitors the fruit that we eat at home, or what we use to treat ourselves when we fall ill. It's all here in the forest.”             

Together with the other employees of the camp, Plaisance has helped lay the foundation for a domestic tourism economy that in time will create greater benefits for the local communities around Odzala-Kokoua National Park.

The Imbalanga Team: Gilsone (Housekeeper), Brunelle (Chef), Louisette (Housekeeper), Vladimir (Camp Manager) © Irene Galera

Across the 22 protected areas under management, African Parks currently operates 40 self-run facilities in nine countries, from self-drive camps to mid-market lodges, employing more than 250 local people in this sector. An integral part of African Parks’ long-term tourism strategy, these facilities cater to the domestic market and budget-conscious regional travel. More than sixty percent of all visitors across the landscapes managed by African Parks are local nationals or residents, and the number is growing.

The seven eco-guides receiving their diplomas © Manon Jampy

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