Among the many indigenously created scripts of sub-Saharan Africa, several stand out for their sheer inventiveness – their out-of-the-Latin-alphabet-box thinking. One of them is Mandombe, the only writing system in the world whose visual template is a brick wall.

Like many of these African scripts, it is based on a revelatory dream – though in this case, the dream was not of a divinity but of a human prophet. The dreamer was David Wabeladio Payi (1957–2013) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a member of the Kimbanguist Church, who in 1978 dreamed of Simon Kimbangu, the church’s prophet, telling him to create a writing system.

Once given the command, Payi’s eye fell on the exposed brick wall of his room, and he noticed that the mortar around the bricks could be seen as a series of patterns that in particular featured two geometrically opposed sacred shapes: 5 and 2.

Building on these raw materials, so to speak, he incorporated the concept that the direction in which a basic shape pointed would affect its pronunciation. He also extended the basic shapes not only left and right, but upward, defying the implicit tradition, inherited from medieval European monks, that letters should be consistently constrained by height.

He called the new script Mandombe, a word that has three possible meanings: “For the Blacks”; “That which has been entrusted to the Blacks”; and “In the manner of the Blacks.”

His original intention was to use the script to write religious texts in the national languages of the Congo – Kikongo, Lingala, Tshiluba and Swahili – but as the script has steadily gained acceptance, its ambitions have grown as well, and the Mandombe Academy at the Kimbanguist Centre de l’Écriture Négro-Africaine (CENA) hopes it may one day be used to write all African languages.

David Wabeladio Payi was granted a patent for his script by the Ministry of Industry and Trade of the then Republic of Zaïre (now the DRC) in 1982. It was officially introduced to the public in 1994. He was given a professorship at the Kimbanguist University in Kinshasa, where he taught the script to numerous students. On 22 December 2011, he was granted the title doctor honoris causa at the University of Kinshasa. He died in 2013 and was buried in Nkamba, the holy city of the Kimbanguists, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Mandombe script is taught in Kimbanguist church schools in Angola, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in France and Brussels. As such, it might be considered to be emerging rather than endangered.

–Edited and updated by Eddie Tolmie.
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