Building Community Through the Mbongi

Mbongi is a word in the Kikongo language which means “learning place.” (In Kiswahili, it is Baraza; in Tswana, Kgotla.) When people come together to resolve community problems in a Congolese village, that problem-solving meeting is an Mbongi. And the issues that they address will be as varied as the care of seniors and orphans, the cost of education, fixing potholes in the road, availability and safety of the local water supply, or matters of national interest. The Mbongi is the place where one looks for and finds solutions to problems. In the Mbongi, everyone has the right and the responsibility to speak up.

In today’s DRCongo, where political leaders’ sense of ethical, moral, and political leadership has severely atrophied, most Congolese are eager for ways of re-rooting themselves so that, at the same time, they can be full participants in a process of re-orientation of self and of the larger community. In a country where dictatorship, war, and poverty have strained all social relationships, the Mbongi is one starting point for rebuilding community unity and empowering members to take action at a community level. It is re-invigorating to hear and see in practice the principle—central to the Mbongi—that “everyone thinks, everyone counts, no one counts less or more than one.”

For so long, Congolese have stopped trying to address their issues collectively, stopped bringing to the attention of appropriate government officials issues and problems that are properly addressed by government. Instead each family addresses their problems by themselves or gives up. But there are things that need community rather than individual action. There are basic services that only government can provide, and it is the proper role in a democratic state for communities to insist on these services. The work of today’s Mbongi draws strength from its village roots of consensus and participatory democracy.

For further reading:

Depelchin, Jacques. “Mbongi and the Practice of the Communalist Palaver” (2006)

Depelchin, Jacques. Silences in African History. Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota Publishers; North American Distributor: Michigan State University Press, 2005.

Wamba dia Wamba, Ernest. “Experience of Democracy in Africa: Reflections on the Practice of Communalist Palaver as a Method of Solving Contradictions Among People.” Philosophy and Social Action, Vol. XII, No. 3, 1985.

For Peace, Dignity and Healing