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, their sheer visual impact. One of them is Mandombe, the only writing system in the world that looks like 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.
Once given the command to create a writing system, 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 shapes: 5 and 2.
Building on these raw materials, so to speak, he incorporated the concept (found also in Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics and Ditema tsa Dinoko) 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 upwards, 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:
1. Pour les noirs
2. Ce qui est confié aux noirs
3. A la manière des noirs
In other words, “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 December 22, 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, and as such might be considered to be emerging rather than endangered.
Updated August 2020
General Script, Language, and Culture Resources
- World Afropedia
- Multidisciplinary Study of Mandombe Writing System (PDF)
- Mandombe Blog Post
- Mandombe Background
- Mandombe Classroom Video
- Ecriture Mandombe officiellement enseignée en R.D.Congo – 2 (Video)
- Ecriture Mandombe – Cérémonie de remise des brevets de l’écriture Mandombe, 07 mai 2017 – Partie 1 (Video)
- Books in/about Mandombe
- Mandombe Script Facebook
- Unicode Proposal Prepared by Centre de l’Ecriture Négro-Africaine en France
- Unknown Union – Script and Clothing
- Mandombe Writing Award Ceremony