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Congolese community leader draws African immigrants to Westbrook judo program

Two judo players wearing white uniforms grapple on a mat.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Sensei Papy Bongibo (left) demonstrates a leg sweeping maneuver with one of the more advanced students. Bongibo is also president of the Congolese Community of Maine, and says he wants immigrant youth to participate in judo to stay healthy and build self confidence.

Papy Bangibo is the president of the Congolese Community of Maine. But when he steps onto the mat at Fournier’s Leadership Karate Center in Westbrook, he goes by a different title — sensei.

Bongibo is a third-degree black belt in judo, the Japanese martial art with a name that means “the gentle way.” Rather than punching or kicking, it focuses on grappling and using your opponent’s movement to your advantage.

"Remember," Bongibo said to his students on a recent evening, "you push to create his reaction."

For Bongibo, judo has been a lifelong interest — he has been practicing it since he was a teenager growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"I fell in love with judo because I'm watching, you know, our elders," he said. "People doing it back home."

And, he said, there were plenty of people to watch, because judo is a popular sport in the Congo.

"Yeah, this is the No. 2 sport, like the big sport after soccer. A lot of Congolese love judo," he said.

A judo instructor wearing a blue uniform lets a young student practice a grappling move with him.
Ari Snider
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Sensei Francis Bola shows 4 year-old Jaodem Nguti how to perform a throwing move. Bola let Nguti pull on his sleeve, then carefully dove over Nguti to land on the floor.

After moving to Maine, Bongibo said he wasn’t able to find a judo program to join. So in Nov. 2020, he created his own, with some help from his friend Tony Fournier, who owns the martial arts gym in Westbrook.

Beyond his own affinity for judo, Bongibo said he was motivated by a concern for immigrant youth who were not participating in extracurricular activities.

He said he even did house visits, meeting families in person and encouraging the parents to enroll their children in judo.

"I wanted those kids to learn how to be disciplined, self confidence, you know, and self trust," he said.

More than a year later, Bongibo said he has around 80 students enrolled, but attendance varies widely week by week.

A judo instructor wearing a white uniform and a black belt looks out over a group of judo students.
Ari Snider
/
Sensei Papy Bongibo, center, and sensei Francis Bola, in blue, observe as students practice judo drills. Many students said Bongibo's standing in the community encouraged them to join the class.

On this day, there are about 30 students practicing grappling moves on the mat. The class is open to people of all national backgrounds, but draws heavily from the Congolese, Angolan, Rwandan and other African communities.

For eighth grader Joice Nguti, the program offers a chance to build on the progress she’d made in Angola before moving to the U.S. several years ago.

"And now I know a lot of techniques and I can defend myself, which is good. And defend others," Nguti said.

Nguti was joined by her dad and three of her brothers. One of them, Josemar, who’s in sixth grade, said he likes being part of a group that includes so many others who share a similar background.

Two judo students wearing white uniforms laugh while grappling.
Ari Snider
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Joice Nguti, right, laughs with a friend while practicing grappling moves. Nguti began studying judo in Angola, and says it feels special to be one of only a few girls in the class.

"Here, there are so many people like us," Josemar said. "They can understand us better and speak different languages."

In any given session, the languages spoken include French, Portuguese and Lingala, though much of the class is conducted in English.

While the Nguti siblings had some judo experience in Angola, other students started from scratch. That was the case for Lude Zombo, whose dad encouraged him to sign up for the class when it started.

"Judo is a very popular martial art back in Africa," Zombo said. "So [my dad] wanted me and my brother to you know, to go back to our roots, in some sort of way."

Zombo, originally from the Congo, is a tenth grader at Biddeford High School. He said one reason this class has become so popular is the fact that it’s led by Bongibo.

"Cause you know Sensei Papy is obviously a big figure in the Congolese community here in Maine," he said. "So if Sensei Papy does it, everybody wants to follow."

A judo instructor wearing a blue uniform high fives a kid wearing a black and red uniform.
Ari Snider
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Sensei Francis Bola high-fives Jaodem Nguti after working with him on a tumbling maneuver. Bola is one of about seven other blackbelts who teach alongside lead instructor Papy Bongibo.

For his part, Bongibo says he’s happy to see all these young people getting out of the house and being active. After watching his students develop over the last year, he feels good about the progress they’ve made.

"When they first joined, they knew nothing. They were very shy," Bongibo said. "But now you can see, they open up, you know, they really talk to each other, you know, they're playing with other kids."

And, he said, they’re doing some great judo.

Judo players wearing white uniforms line up to give each other high fives at the end of the class.
Ari Snider
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Jose Nguti, center, wearing an orange belt, greets fellow students at the end of the class. Nguti, originally from Angola, enrolled himself and four of his children in the course after becoming friends with Papy Bongibo.