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Between writing and art

The invention of Mandombe
Ramon Sarró
Traduction(s) :
Entre écriture et art


The Mandombe, graphic system invented by David Wabeladio Payi, responds to complex logic. As a system of writing and artistic creation, entirely conceived from the 5 and 2-shaped symbols that Wabeladio recognized in the lines joining the bricks of the wall of his bedroom, the Mandombe is a good example of writing that does not respond to the great classical functions. Wabeladio chose to prioritize mathematical elegance over ease, the spirit of system on simple efficiency, developing a script serving more support for the semiotic or aesthetic imagination than a simple transcription of languages.

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Those who have been told that my works are but an unscientific and irregular eccentricity, a madman’s scrawls, I demand of them to do me the justice to examine before they decide (William Blake, « Exhibition and Catalogue of 1809 » (1982 : 528))


1Mandombe, literally meaning “the writing of the Black Africans,” is a graphic system invented—or “discovered,” according to interpretations—by the Mukongo man David Wabeladio Payi in Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo, during quite a long process that started in 1978. Wabeladio (1957-2013) spoke of “invention” more often than of “discovery,” but in his writings he also used the concept of “revelation” (e.g. Wabeladio Payi 2007), because his first vision of Mandombe took place after he had been praying for nine months in front of a wall in his room in Mbanza Ngungu.

2After some previous mystical episodes in 1978, when the anti-colonial Kongo prophet Simon Kimbangu (1887-1951) had appeared to him in dreams, young David was instructed by the leaders of the Kimbanguist church to pray and see what mission God had for him. In 1979, looking at the wall he had been gazing at for months, he suddenly understood that the mission was hidden in the bricks. He found that the lines in between them could be decomposed into two elementary signs, in the shape of a five and a two, and then he recombined the signs in as many ways as he could think of (including three dimensional rotations) in order to generate more and more forms.

  • 1 Strictly speaking it was at first a syllabary, not an alphabet, but the tendency of Wabeladio and (...)

3This exercise of decomposition and re-composition led him eventually to invent a geometrical generative system which was applauded by innovative artists in Kinshasa in 1979, and which immediately interested mathematicians and scientists too. Wabeladio took years to develop his invention, which at first was not a writing system but rather, to use his words, a study of the geometry of creativity (Wabeladio Payi 1984). He was convinced that his investigations were leading him toward the elementary principles of creation in science and art, and thus he set out to explore the mathematical aspects and geometrical dimensions of the combination of forms that, in his own aesthetic theory, lay behind any creative process. His exploration led him eventually (around 1994) to attribute phonographic values to some of the forms he discovered so as to be able to transcribe Kikongo, his mother tongue, as well as Lingala, the lingua franca of Kinshasa and other regions of the country. “Mandombe” as an alphabet was born.1 As he invented the alphabet properly speaking, he also started to anchor it in the Kongo millenarist tradition, showing that Mandombe could be understood as a writing that God had sent to the Bakongo and, through them, to Africans in general. In this sense, his writing system can be seen as an example of a “messianic script” (Smaley et al. 1990) and in fact his biography and that of the Hmong prophet nicknamed “Mother of Writing” offer many parallels, as I hope to show in other writings on Wabeladio’s invention. Wabeladio had been born a Catholic, but he had converted to Kimbanguism, a Kongo prophetic religion, in 1988, both because he wanted to acknowledge that it was Kimbangu who had been at the root of his invention and because he wanted to thank the official Kimbanguist church (at the time led by Kimbangu’s sons) for having looked after him at a time when most people in Kinshasa simply thought he was either mad or bewitched (or both).

4It would be impossible to do justice to all the implications of Mandombe in the space of an article. Mandombe is connected to geometry and even to fractals theory, to messianic cultural notions, to spirituality in general, to science, to history, to creativity, and to identity politics too. One could take a postcolonial attitude and see Mandombe as a movement of rupture, a “rebellion of the signs” and a contestation of what some interviewees called “linguistic colonialism,” referring to the fact that Africans are forced to write in the Roman alphabet. One could, however, also take the opposite view and see Mandombe as a continuist, even revitalist, movement of the Kongo. Building on cutting-edge studies of precolonial Kongo graphic systems (eg. Martínez Ruíz 2013), one could indeed attempt to unveil the possible historical continuities between Kongo graphic traditions from a very distant past and the Mandombe of today. Studies of the Kinshasa cultural and artistical ambiance in 1978-79 would also help us understand why the so called “New Generation” artists of those days encouraged Wabeladio to pursue exploring the roots of creativity (and inspiring artists as he did). In some other writings I have referred to prophets as “masters of connectedness” (Sarro 2018). Whether Wabeladio was a prophet or not is a matter of interpretation, but in any case he managed to generate what I would call, with apologies to Marcel Mauss, a phenomène créatif total, one that has an endless amount of connections with other domains of knowledge and practice, and that is therefore very difficult to grasp from a single angle. Perhaps this is the reason why, shortly before his death, Wabeladio was elevated to the rank of “Doctor Honoris Causa” at the University of Conakry, where he was ipso facto hired. Last time I saw him, in 2012, he was developing the Chair of Mandombe, in which he and his collaborators would be analyzing all the dimensions of his invention. Sadly, his untimely death in 2013 put a tragic end to this original academic project.

The prose of the wall

The learning of this writing system helps the development of intelligence and judgment through exercises of variation and progression of syllables engendered according to the principles of mirroring and of optics. Through the writing system, one gets in touch with the new schemes of thought of Negro-African culture, one of the fundamental elements of African identity.

5This was written by Wabeladio Payi in May 2012 (personal correspondence with the author of this article).

6As he explained on many occasions, by observing the wall of bricks, Wabeladio realized that builders, when erecting a wall of bricks, repetitively combine these two elements, which at the beginning he called “five” and “two” and referred to as “cyphers,” or ntalu (“number”) in his native Kikongo. More or less like this:

  • 2 To see the graphic forms of this symboles, the reader is invited to check the table at the end of (...)

7A wall is thus an ordered progression (potentially, an infinite one) of these two elements. Wabeladio used to insist that builders are not aware of what they are doing, i.e. putting [5]2 and [2] together when they are building. But finding the grammar behind the appearances, the “prose of the world,” to use Hegel’s powerful metaphor, was precisely what Wabeladio set out to do. Can we reduce writing, art, and scientific creation to a set of basic elements and generative rules? This is the question 22-year old Wabeladio decided to tackle in March 1979, a year after his initial dream, in which the prophet Simon Kimbangu had appeared to him and urged him to ascend to mount N’kamba, the holy mountain of Kimbanguism.

8Wabeladio did not invent the alphabet with the bricks, but rather with the mathematical relations in the lines between bricks. As in the spiritual ladders imagined by mediaeval thinkers such as Ramon Llull (which consisted of seven steps, God being the eighth, final one), the materiality of the brick (or of the stone in Llull’s case) was the first step towards the most immaterial principles and ultimately, towards knowledge of God. In conversations with me, Wabeladio insisted that his invention, unlike some other alphabets such as the West African Nko (which he knew from a Malian friend), was not “pure imagination.” He was referring to the intimate connection between materiality, mathematics, and revelation that his invention deploys. However, in his writings, especially his 1985 report on the invention (Wabeladio Payi 1985), he argued more generally that for creative imagination to construct beauty it must abide by arithmetical principles.

Dreaming and studying

9A Kikongo proverb states that “the sleeping person is an active person; the awoken one is blind” (Kunzika 2008: 13). As such, the proverb resonates with many theories asserting that the free connections we make while dreaming are more important for creative processes than the conscious ones we make in states of alertness. And the proverb is certainly apposite for thinking about what happened to Wabeladio after seeing the two forms on the wall in 1979. Indeed, he immediately had two dreams. In the first he dreamt that an insect landed on his shirt and trousers. With its saliva it started to draw [5] and [2] repetitively, until Wabeladio himself became a wall. In a second dream, the prophet Simon Kimbangu offered him a certificate and told him that the mission he was about to be given was hidden in these two elements. These dreams validated his vision, and following them, Wabeladio decided to seriously “study” these two elements, or “cyphers.” At first, he also called them cannes (canes, walking sticks), an effective metaphor to refer to their materiality and minimize their mathematical dimension. You can get hold of a cane, but not of an “element” and certainly not of a cypher. Eventually, in the 1990s, he gave up “five,” “two,” “cyphers,” and “canes” and renamed the two elements in Kikongo: pakundungu and pelekete. These have nothing to do with numbers but are onomatopoeias of drum sounds: pakundungu reproduces the grave sound of big drums and pelekete the higher-pitched sound of small ones.

10Wabeladio’s first dream deserves our attention. By mirroring the wall, Wabeladio was himself becoming Mandombe, embodying not only the two basic elements of his future writing system, but also “the mirror principle,” one of the two geometrical principles upon which it was to be based. This transformation first frightened him, but I am sure it also gave him the inner strength he needed in order to develop his writing system in spite of all the accusations of madness, witchcraft and even military insurgence with which he was showered.

11Following his dreams, the first thing Wabeladio discovered in his meticulous study of the elements on the wall, was that the two elements are symmetrical: [5] is the reversed form of [2]. The geometrical principle by which you can generate an image by inverting a previous one, he called the “mirror principle.” The second thing Wabeladio discovered was that by adding one line, which he initially called the “false element” (element postiche, in French), to each of the two extremities of the first element ([5]) he could obtain two new figures without recourse to the mirror principle. These new figures looked very much like the numbers 9 and 6.

12But he also discovered something else, which was to become very important in the generation of new elements; namely, that [9] and [6] are in a rotating relationship, i.e. if you rotate a [9] 180 degrees you obtain a [6], and vice versa. The principle according to which you can generate a figure by rotating a previous one he called the “principle of optics.” By applying the “mirror principle” to these two new elements, he could generate two new ones:

13Thus, from initially having only two elements, Wabeladio instantly progressed to six different ones. Note that the “false element,” central as it is to Mandombe, not only allowed him to multiply the number of elements, but also the number of principles. The new “principle of optics” allowed him to rotate an object, thus obtaining an image proportionally identical to the original one but in an inverted position. He then realized he could do the same with [5] and [2]. Thus, if you rotate a [5], you obtain a [5]. The two of them look exactly like each other, but they are different, for the starting point, the extremity where you started to draw the [5], gets inverted. If you start to write a [5] from below, so that the end point is on its top, and then you rotate the element, the new [5] you obtain will have the starting point on its top and the end point on the bottom. This will become very important in Mandombe, as, for calligraphic reasons, vowels are to be added to the end point of a consonantal element (called clé, “key”). Depending on whether they are on the top or on the bottom they give a different consonantal value to the element to which they are added. This will become clearer as I proceed.

14Wabeladio called these four new elements ([9] and [6] and the two inverted equivalent ones [6inv] [9inv]) either “composite” or “transitional” elements, for, as we are going to see, they allowed him to move from the “simple” elements seen in the wall to a set of elements which he, on good grounds, saw as “complex” ones. Indeed, Wabeladio’s next idea was to put together one “simple” element (let us take a [5]) and a “transitional” one (let us take a [9]). By making this connection he discovered the first “complex” element, or, as he called them, “key.” Like this (the symbol [U] indicates junction):

15By applying the principles of symmetry and of rotation, more elements can be generated from this one. Look, for instance, at the following succession of keys, in which the second one is the result of applying the mirror principle to the first one, and the third one is the result of applying the principle of optics to the second one (Wabeladio, the author of these graphics, made a thick point at the starting end of the key, in order for the reader to see the difference between the figure emerging out of symmetry and the one emerging out of its rotation):

16It is in the next step of discovery that the “engendering” (engendrement, in French) of new elements becomes fascinating. So far, Wabeladio had been using principles of elementary plane geometry. With the two principles of mirror and of optics he could generate complex forms on a plane, but only a limited amount of them. Then Wabeladio made a bold leap to the three-dimensional domain of descriptive geometry, adding a third dimension to the two-dimensional plane on which he had so far been operating. This step involved making the “false element” rotate upon itself in a continual movement in a plane perpendicular to that of the images. Through this rotation he obtained five new figures which in French he called, somewhat cryptically, the five “clés de temps”, also called “angles de temps” or “nouveau types d’angles.”

17The “false element” rotates clockwise along a plane perpendicular to the one where they are designed, i.e. in the same plane as our view. New figures emerge by freezing the rotating image at five different positions, namely when it is at 0, 45, 90, 135, and 180 degrees respectively. Here they are:

18This image may help visualize the rotation:

  • 3 There is a small geometrical problem here. Pierre Déléage (personnel communication) has reminded m (...)

19Wabeladio’s imagination led him to think in three dimensions, with the “false element” rotating in a perpendicular plane to the main elements, like a mechanical device. Indeed, Wabeladio always insisted in his public presentations that Madombe writing could be used to explain how a 4-stroke engine worked. It seems obvious that Wabeladio’s three years of training in mechanics has to be taken into account in the genesis of his invention. I do not know how much descriptive geometry—if any—Wabeladio had studied up to 1979; probably very little, as we will see further on. 3

20Note that there are five different keys in each side, five belonging to the [5] (or pakundungu) family, on the left side, and five belonging to the [2] (pelekete) family, on the right side. The reader must remember that the position of a key is important. Therefore there are not only five different keys on each side, but, by rotating each one of them, ten. Thus, in total, there are 20 different keys. Each of them can be attributed a consonantal value. Mandombe worked, in principle, with 20 consonants. I say “in principle” because, in actual fact, further thinking allowed Wabeladio to imagine new forms for unheard-of consonants (especially as Mandombe started to be used for Congolese languages other than Kikongo, such as Lingala, Kiswahili, Tshiluba and even French), or for consonants with double articulation (kp, mb, etc.). He also developed ways to express the pre-nazalization and tonality common in Kikongo and other local languages. For over thirty years, Mandombe has thus been, rather than a mechanical technology, an evolving organism (though always according to solid principles), frozen in time by the death of its inventor.

Konde, weaving a grid of letters (and not only)

21In order to grasp why Wabeladio decided to attribute a consonantal value to each of the 20 keys, as well as to understand how he added the vowels into Mandombe, we need to introduce another important feature of Mandombe: the konde grid. Here it is:

22Konde is a Kikongo word meaning “grid” or “net,” like those used for fishing or capturing small animals. Wabeladio himself used to translate konde into French as filets, i.e. “fishing net.” He also claimed that konde could mean “spider’s web,” thus invoking a very powerful symbol of creation and connection in Africa in general. As Wabeladio discovered, and as any student of Mandombe should be able to demonstrate, in the konde grid you can not only see the pakundungu and the pelekete, but also all the letters of the Roman alphabet. But Wabeladio also saw in the grid a series of five shapes that could be used to translate the vocalic sounds if added to the complex keys presented above. Before I show you these vocalic elements, we need to know a bit more about how he imagined the grid—and about how other people imagined he had imagined the grid.

23Wabeladio explained that the konde grid was first constructed out of one single element, a little square which could also be called “zero,” as it looks like a kind of 0. From one square he built two, which could also be interpreted as an 8, and therefore be called “eight”. By then putting two such “eights” together, he obtained an elementary grid. Like this (inspired by a drawing of Wabeladio himself):

24By scrutinizing this simple, elementary grid, he realised that he could extract some of the letters of the Roman alphabet out of it, but not all of them. You could extract A, C, E, F, G, H, I, J, L, O, P, S, T and Z, but not B, D, K, M, N, Q, R, X, W, X. However, if you added two diagonals to this very basic grid so as to divide it in 8 little triangles, you obtained the complex konde grid out of which you could extract the entire Roman alphabet. In an exercise of typography likely to have impressed any other classic designer of letters from Durer (Durer 1525) to Eric Gill (Gill 1931), Wabeladio elegantly proved in his oral presentations that there are two lists of consonants: one that emerges out of the full konde grid (List 2) and one that could also emerge out of the simple grid with no diagonals (List 1).

25List 1: C, F, G, H, J, L, P, S, T, Z (z must be drawn with a vertical, not a diagonal, line)

26List 2: B, D, K, M, N, Q, R, X, V

27He then associated the consonants in List 1 to the ten keys belonging to the pelekete family, and list 2 to the ten keys of the pakundungu family. Despite our tendency to see Mandombe as a succession of the “[5]-[2]” compositions (in which [5] comes, at least visually, before [2]) and to speak of “pakundungu and pelekete” and not of “pelekete and pakundgungu” as its basic elements, Wabeladio, on the contrary and somewhat surprisingly, stated that [2] is prior to [5], and that [5] is the mirror image of [2], the true primary cypher (Wabeladio Payi 1985:2). I suppose that this anteriority of [2] over [5] parallels that of the simple grid over the full konde grid, and that this justified the analogical assimilation of pelekete family to the simple grid and the pakundungu family to the complex konde grid. Why [2] is prior to [5] is difficult to ascertain. Perhaps there is here an element of arbitrariness in the system. I do not think that a certain degree of arbitrariness would be in contradiction with the initial revelatory nature of Mandombe. God gave Wabeladio the two elements and told him to study them. God did not follow every single step of Wabeladio’s progress to tell him each time what to do with the elements. Revelation and a great amount of creativity are not mutually exclusive. Besides, I for one wonder whether a linguistic system, be it a revealed alphabet or a spoken language, would be at all possible without some degree of arbitrariness in it…

28The progression from the square grid to the complex one with diagonals is perhaps an abrupt one in what otherwise is a very coherent and step-by-step graphic evolution. He merely told me the idea was to divide the grid into isomorphic triangles, and I wonder whether this may have to do with the Kongo cultural tendency to see the “triad” as the basis of everything, from the three stones which support a cooking pot in a household’s kitchen to the ideal three-clan partition of Kongo sub-groups and to the three national states—Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Republic of Congo—in which the Bakongo are today divided.

29Posthumously, one of his disciples gave me a most important bit of information that rooted the invention of the grid in a more mundane ground. According to him, Wabeladio got his inspiration from watching footprints of chickens and ducks on the sand. This would make perfect sense to me. Wabeladio’s sources of inspiration were very varied, but, as the reader has already realized, they often came from simply looking with his innovative gaze at the mundane prose of the wall, from bricks and stroke-engines to spider’s webs and chicken’s and ducks’ prints on the sand. Besides, this precise one resonates with a long tradition of sand drawings and divination common among some Central African peoples, most famously the Chowkwe and Lunda (Gerdes 2007). Somewhat ironically, the connection between writing and birds’ footprints brings us back to the early “origin of writing” debates. Linguist Roy Harris reminds us that “before the decipherment of Persian cuneiform, sceptics held that there was no such script, on the ground that the marks which excited the attention and ingenuity of philologists could have been made by birds walking at random across newly soft clay” (Harris 1986: 17). What these sceptics did obviously not know is that some people can see a script in random bird’s footprints!

30Sometimes, the discovery of the konde grid is presented in a rather different way by Wabeladio’s followers, and while I do not agree with them, I believe this alternative explanation needs to be analyzed. They claim that the original konde grill should look like this:

31This, according to these interviewees, was Wabeladio’s original grid (some people even draw bigger ones; the grid, like the wall of bricks, is potentially infinite). According to them, Wabeladio got his inspiration, again, from looking at buildings. In order for buildings to be cool inside, it is usual in Central Africa to have a grid wall instead of a densely opaque brick one, at least in some parts of the construction. This architectonical device is also called konde.

32It was, according to this version, through looking at the konde grid of the buildings that Wabeladio constructed his own grid. This is an ingenious view, as it roots the konde grid in the materiality of human building, just as the two basic elements of Mandombe were grounded in the materiality of a wall of bricks. However, I am sure it is an a posteriori explanation. Wabeladio never said anything along those lines. Whatever the case, it may be relevant, to understand the fascination of Mandombe, to notice the graphic relationship between the huge grid of the builders and the small konde grid Wabeladio designed by joining two little squares. The two grids are in a relationship of fractality. The big one can be decomposed into small sections, which can also be decomposed in even smaller units, until you reach the square called “zero,” equivalent in konde to what [2], pelekete, is in relation to an entire wall. Vice versa, from the small units you can reconstruct the whole grid by changing scales and following precise mechanisms and principles. This fractality lies at the heart of Mandombe and of the philosophy of its inventor. He was convinced that he was not only discovering a writing system, but the very source of creativity and the basic structure of the entire universe by following a method of inquiry focusing on primary elements, in a ‘bottom up’ approach leading him from the microcosmos to the macrocosmos. We will see how important this “first things first” approach is for art too in a following section.

33Reverting to the steps involved in developing Mandombe, apart from all the consonants, you can also extract from a konde grid many other shapes following the lines of the grid. For instance:

34In French, Wabeladio called this kind of line filandres (a word used in French to refer to kinds of very fine threads, meaning, in this case, the threads of a spider’s web). They were to become very important for the development of a Mandombe art. Wabeladio extracted five such filandres to which he gave vowel value. In order to make them easy to remember, he selected lines that would evoke Roman alphabet equivalents. Here they are:

35Once he had got hold of vowels, he could join them to the other elements (the complex keys) and create pairs of elements that would express monosyllabic sounds, like pa, ba, ka, ke, si, ma, ndo, mbe, etc.

36Unlike the vowels, it is impossible by simply looking at a key to know what consonant it expresses (unless you know which of its extremes is the starting point and which one the end). By virtue of the principle of optics, a key can be used to express two different consonants, depending on which of its two ends you attach the vowel to. Thus, in the following image, the key and the vowel (an “a”) together produce the syllable “ba”.

37But if we had put the vowel (a) on the other extremity of the mvuala, i.e. in its left instead of its right side, we would get a different syllable, namely “da”:

38This is because in fact it is not the same key, but the image obtained through applying the principle of optics. The first syllable is drawn by starting the key from below, then continuing to the vowel “a”. The second syllable is drawn by starting the key from the upper end and then progressing to the vowel “a” at the bottom end. Incidentally, here is an important tip: in Mandombe you are not supposed to raise the pen or pencil from the paper when writing syllables. This is a fundamental principle not only of writing, but most especially of Mandombe art, as we shall see.

39If you then apply the mirror principle to the last image, you obtain a new key, not of the pakundungu family, but of the pelekete one, namely, “ga”.

40If you rotate this one, you obtain a new syllable, “fa,” which is the mirror image of the one we had started with (“ba”). This reads as “fa-ba.”

41This makes Mandombe symmetrical to an almost awe-inspiring point. It was this “fearful symmetry,” to borrow Frye’s concept (Frye 1969), that got Wabeladio into serious problems at one point, since mirrors are very powerful magical devices in Kongo culture. He was formally accused of occult and obscure practices because of this.

42Fearsome or not, this symmetry makes mastering Mandombe hard and fun at the same time. Learning Mandombe in a nsanda (as Mandombe learning centres are called), or at the Simon Kimbangu University of Kinshasa, is often a riotous affair. Students are encouraged to imagine syllables in different strokes (i.e., rotating the “false element” from one stroke to another one), to create mental images of symmetrical syllables, to visualize the three dimensional rotation of the “false element” so as to find new words, etc. They engage in playful competition against each other, and the teacher gives symbolic prizes to those who are fastest in rotating one element, say, 45 degrees. Some students I interviewed in Kinshasa amused me by showing me entire words which, once inverted or rotated, meant something different.

43Having reached this point, we can now go back to Wabeladio’s verbatim quotation opening this article. Wabeladio was convinced that Mandombe was not only an effective writing system for the transmission of knowledge, but one that by its internal structure and its learning methodology encouraged the development of intelligence. But notice that the quotation also insists on another type of development, namely that of African identity. It is to this aspect I turn in the following section.

The art of mandombe

44Art had always accompanied Wabeladio. In 1979, Kinshasa artists of the so called Nouvelle Generation, such as the very famous Konde Bila, were the first people to express an interest and to help young Wabeladio develop his creativity when others thought he was mad. In fact, Mandombe was born an art before it became an alphabet. Today, every student of Mandombe may, if they so wish, learn the principles of art together with those of reading and writing. In this process, they learn to use the elements not to construct words and extract sounds, but to make ornamental patterns and extract figures out of them, using the Mandombe concept of “key” with the technical meaning this receives in decorative graphic design. Normally, Kimbangula (as the teaching of art is known), follows Mandombe properly speaking (the teaching of the reading and writing), but this is purely conventional. The art could be learned without the writing and many of the youths I know who learned both retain their capacity to draw sketches for longer than they keep their ability to write. In fact, the latter gets forgotten very quickly, as any Mandombe teacher knows.

  • 4 Scription is the muscular act of hand writing. See Barthes (1973), for a reflection on this concep (...)
  • 5 As I hope to show in future writings on Wabeladio’s aesthetic ideas, there is a parallelism betwee (...)

45The learning of the art is, in any case, as complex and repetitive as the learning of the Mandombe alphabet, and, like the latter, it takes at the very least three months of hard work. The student must first learn to find patterns based on Mandombe elements and principles: mirror, optics and the very important principle of lubamba, which means writing lines without lifting the pen from the paper or canvas (Wabeladio Payi 2012: 7). By combining, rotating and mirroring elements, and then coloring them, beautiful decorative patterns emerge. The discipline imposed by teachers is quite stringent. Students have to be closely followed by their teachers so as to make sure they are making the appropriate steps without jumping ahead. In an intensive course on Kimbangula I attended in Lisbon, I realized how important the teacher’s body (Wabeladio’s, in this case) became in the teaching, making it not only an intellectual skill, but also a body technique. Wabeladio would stand by the young students, take their hand and pencil, and do the drawing so as to inscribe his own action, his muscular scription, upon the body of the student, so that the latter could reproduce it onto the paper.4 He was making sure that students got the point that art is something that emerges from inside.5

46If they are tenacious and hardworking, in three months students should be able to elaborate basic patterns and to see some figures emerge in them. And, from then on, some of them (but only a tiny group of them), will become proper artists and will let their creative imagination flow so as to elaborate forms beyond the purely symmetrical composition of Mandombe keys. We can quote the example of the professional painter Rubain Watulunda.

47These are individual creations, more or less original or pleasant depending on the artistic ability of each of their makers. But there is one figure that must be learned by everybody: Nkua Tulendo. You will not be given a certificate at the end of a Kimbangula course if you do not prove that you know how to find the Nkua Tulendo in between the lines you have yourself drawn.

The hidden messiah

48Nkua Tulendo emerges out of one single decorative key. This key looks very much like a syllable composed of pakundungu and a vowel, but the vowel has a rather anomalous shape. It is not one of the five standard vowels, but a different one, though it is also one of the threads extracted from the konde grid (Mandombe artists must be faithful to the konde grid). As he explained in his manual of Kimbangula learning (Wabeladio Payi 2012), the key was discovered by Wabeladio after he had a dream in which he heard the voice “look for the angel’s foot.” He woke up, looked at a konde grid, and saw the elementary key.

49Students must learn to repeat the key several times, in different positions, but of course without lifting the pen or pencil from the paper. At first they are only drawing lines, but eventually the drawing contains a figure that looks very much like a human figure, a person with opened arms. Wabeladio called this figure Nkua Tulendo: Wabeladio himself drew a specimen in my notebook the day I met him in 2009. An other one is part of the description of how to go from the ornamental key to the composition of Nkua Tulendo, as it is described in Kimbangula 1 (Wabeladio Payi 2012).

50The last specimen of Nkua Tulendo came upon us like an apparition. When Wabeladio and I were walking in the Lower Congo in 2011, we found, in a tiny village, a house with many Mandombe ornaments. Someone in that household had obviously taken Mandombe and Kimbangula very seriously and had made a point about inscribing it in the built environment. Unfortunately, there was nobody at home. When looking at the image, notice, by the way, not only the Nkua Tulendo (in image and in Mandombe syllables, above the image) but also the vertical meander pattern on the wall, very typical of Mandombe decoration (such pattern is, after all, a succession of pakundungus and peleketes).

51Nkua Tulendo is interpreted in many different ways. Some interviewees told me it represents an angel (mbasi, in Kikongo) bringing the alphabet to humans, or at least to Africans. One of Wabeladio’s closest collaborators at the Simon Kimbangu University told me that Nkua Tulendo means in Kikongo “the Liberating Angel.” Other people interpreted it in less mystical ways, simply as a human figure that emerges out of lines.

52I did not realize at first the cosmological implications, or at least connotations, of Nkua Tulendo and of the nature of the image Wabeladio was giving such value to. Wabeladio explained orally, and in his writings too, that Nkua Tulendo means, in Kikongo, “he who has power (tulendo)” (Wabeladio 2012), which is a much closer translation of the Kikongo words than free glosses such as “Liberating Angel.” But it has been only recently, by conducting further fieldwork among strongly messianic religious groups in Mbanza Kongo, Angola, that I have realized the salience of beliefs around Nkua Tulendo.

53For many Bakongo, Nkua Tulendo is a very powerful spiritual being that will appear in not too distant a future to guide the Bakongo towards the reconstruction of the Kingdom. Thus, for many of those belonging to the Bundu-dia-Kongo, Nkua Tulendo is Ne Mwana Semi, the prophetic and political leader of their movement, a very radical pro-Kongo agent, arguing in his inspired writings and in the media that the kingdom of Kongo shall be reconstructed. For many Kimbanguists, however, Nkua Tulendo is their current leader, Simon Kimbangu Kiangiani, who lives in N’Kamba. For other Kimbanguists, known as the “dissident” ones, Nkua Tulendo is not Simon Kimbangu, but rather his cousin and arch-ennemy, Paul Kisolokele, who, at the moment of this writing (March 2018), lives in Luanda. For mainstream Christians, finally, Nkua Tulendo is an eschatological figure referring to the second coming of Jesus at the end of times.

54Thus, notions about Nkua Tulendo are not necessarily linked to aspirations for independence and a new political order. Some people have a very mystical understanding of Nkua Tulendo, seeing him as a divinely-inspired guide who will bring brotherhood to all of humanity, not just the Bakongo. Whether political or eschatological, Nkua Tulendo is unquestionably rooted in the depths of the highly messianic Kongo culture. Wabeladio surely knew what kind of imagery he was revitalizing, what direction he was giving to people’s religious imagination, when he claimed that Mandombe contains the Nkua Tulendo in its very graphemes. Nkua Tulendo is not a word one pronounces flippantly in the deep rural areas of the Bakongo at either side of the border, and Wabeladio, as a Mukongo and as interlocutor of Bundu-dia-Kongoists, surely knew this better than anyone else. He was not only anchoring art in geometry, but linking the two to prophetic hopes which are embedded in the history of the Kongo people. Because of the centrality of Nkua Tulendo in the learning of Kimbangula, one would be justified in referring to Mandombe not only as a Messianic script, as we referred above, but also as a Messianic form of art.

The principles of art

55Does the learning of Kimbangula mean that any Mandombe learner who follows the entire six-month course (the three months for the alphabet and the three months for the art) becomes, ipso facto, an artist? The answer, for Wabeladio, was a clear “no.” He always insisted that Kimbangula offers the basic elements of art, but not art itself. Artistic composition is based on repetition, symmetry, order, rotation, but it is also the product of something else, a quality artists have, but which he himself did not possess. Already in early written texts he called this something else, “creative imagination” (Wabeladio Payi 1985:1). His collaborator Ndeka Dialungana, who teaches Kimbangula but who, like Wabeladio, admits that he is not an artist, added a very useful comment in an interview in 2012. He told me that the difference between someone who has studied Kimbangula and a fully-fledged artist is a matter of degree. The Mandombe artist is someone who has the ability to take the principles of composition into frontiers beyond the areas imagined by most students. The principles are always the same. The zones of application are different.

56Wabeladio was happy about the fact that many artists in Kinshasa were showing interest in Mandombe, but also worried that some people were using it in an illegitimate way, to pretend they were artists. In 2011, a young man in the street of Kinshasa showed us his so called Mandombe art, without realizing, at first, that the man he was talking to was Wabeladio Payi himself. The young man had drawn a colored Nkua Tulendo which was, to put it simply, quite grotesque. Wabeladio explained to me that people like that young man were not artists but “adventurers” (his words); they copy Mandombe art without knowing the technique, without having taken the pains to learn the principles of composition and to practice, practice, and practice. Nkua Tulendo had to emerge from your lines, traced with mathematical precision and principles, and without lifting your hand from the canvas. If you simply copied the outcome of someone else’s inner effort, your own outcome would reveal your lack of discipline.

57Unlike “adventurous” street artists, true Mandombe artists have studied and internalized the principles of Mandombe, and learned how to apply them to image making and the ‘engendering’ of evermore shapes and patterns. One of the things they have to learn, together with drawing the Nkua Tulendo, is to construct the Nzila Kongo, “the Kongo Road”), as Wabeladio baptized the line that emerges out of a repetitive decorative pattern.

  • 6 Kimbangula, the handbook Wabeladio wrote for teachers, was planned in three volumes. By the time W (...)

58But they also have to learn to “decompose”, i.e., once they have a complex figure, to be able to reconstruct what the initial key was by decomposing the image obtained. “Composition is induction, decomposition is deduction”, Ndeka Dialungana told me. The volume 1 of Kimbangula (Wabeladio Payi 2012) offers instructions on how to compose and then geometrically decompose many graphic forms.6

59Rubain Watulunda, a well-known painter in Kinshasa whom I interviewed several times, showed me some of his “non-interpreted skeleton schemes” (also called “scientific schemes”). These are enormous patterns he has devised by using keys taken from existing syllables or from other lines extracted from the Konde grid.

60This is not art, for these schemes are not yet “interpreted”. They are the raw material. At an ulterior stage, Watundula will interpret the scheme, extracting forms out of it, and coloring them as he sees fit, much like any student of Mandombe must learn to extract Nkua Tulendo from putting together the very simple “key” Wabeladio discovered after a dream, only on a larger scale. Sometimes, incidentally, the artist making the non-interpreted scheme and the artist interpreting it are two different people, though it is the second one who will sign the final work.

61According to Wabeladio, Mandombe shows the principles of creation tout court, not only of “artistic” creation. Science can also be reduced to basic principles, and even diving creation, with similarities to Mandombe, some Kimbanguists have told me; although Wabeladio himself was prudent enough never to stretch this theological point too far. But he did insist that everything boils down to pairs:

Man-woman, front-back, left-right, inside-outside; sun-moon; Chinese people call it yin and yang; Europeans call it alpha and omega; we call it pakundungu and pelekete” (Wabeladio, personnel communication, 2009).


62If “writing is a strange thing” as Lévi-Strauss famously wrote in his writing lesion (1955), then Mandombe could be seen as writing par excellence. Its invention, in which agency and revelation are inextricably mixed, evokes the birth of many forms of writing, including the emergence of pseudo-writings in a host of prophetic movements. The connection between writing and art in Mandombe (and in Kongo art in general) makes us reflect on the origins of the Greek concept of graphein (Harris 1986); the phonological aspect of Mandombe leads us to think of the relationship and differences between alphabets and syllabaries; Mandombe has deep historical roots while developing an entirely new invention. Like other writing systems, it forces us to reflect on the connections between mimesis and authenticity, and between the emergence of writing systems as mechanisms to contest hegemony and as claims to a status of “civilization” by marginalized people. Its explicit “mirror principle” would immediately speak to authors, from Lévi-Strauss (1955) to Déléage (2017), interested in the mirroring of ideas involved in the emergence of writing systems. In short, all the topics one finds in the scientific literature on the emergence of writing systems are present in Mandombe. Yet, I would argue that while it would be easy to compare Mandombe with other writing systems and use it to elaborate a theory of writing’s emergence, it would still be very difficult to compare Mandombe to any other writing system we know. Perhaps because it was not originally meant to be a writing system, perhaps because it was born out of a peculiarly original but probably troubled mind, the fact remains that the rotational/symmetric geometry of the phonographic system set Mandombe apart from other writing systems. But this feature is also its Achilles’ heel. Mandombe is difficult to learn and even for advanced practitioners it is extremely cumbersome to use. It has no practical advantage over Roman writing, and people tend to forget it rapidly. They learn it mainly for identitary reasons, because it is a Kongo writing system sent by God. Wabeladio was aware of this, and he was in fact working towards a simplified form of Mandombe when he died. From time to time, he had inspirations from God who helped him work towards the simplified form, but the problem with revelation is the same as the problem with invention: while both are seemingly “sudden” acts, psychologists of creativity, as well as religious scholars of revelation, know that they are very slow processes, often accompanied by long periods of incubation and with meanders and hesitations. Wabeladio probably died too young to make his invention more effective from a learning point of view, but there is hope that the process will be taken up by someone else. In any case, his life and invention are a unique testimony to how individual creativity, revelation, and sedimentation of historical Kongo consciousness are combined in the emergence of a genuinely African writing system.

Appendix. Correlation table signs in parantheses/Mandombes' symbols

Appendix. Correlation table signs in parantheses/Mandombes' symbols
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BARTHES ROLAND, 1994 [1973].
Variations sur l’écriture, in Œuvres complètes, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, t. II, p. 1535-1574.

BLAKE WILLIAM, 1982 [1809].
“Exhibition and Catalogue of 1809”, in David V. Erdman & Harold Bloom (éd.), The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, Berkeley & Los Angeles, University of California Press.

Lettres mortes. Essai d’anthropologie inversée, Paris, Fayard.

DÜRER ALBRECHT, 1987 [1606].
Des proportions des lettres, trad. du latin par Suzanne Estève d’après l’édition de Arnhem Janson, Paris, École Estienne.

FRYE NORTHROP, 1969 [1947].
Fearful Symmetry. A Study of William Blake, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

GERDES PAULUS, 2007 [1996].
Lunda Geometry. Mirror Curves, Designs, Knots, Polyominoes, Patterns, Symmetries, Morrisville, NC,

GILL ÉRIC, 2011 [1931].
Un essai sur la typographie, trad. de l’anglais par Boris Donné & Patricia Menay, Paris, Ypsilon.

The Origin of Writing, Londres, Duckworth.

Du spirituel dans l’art, et dans la peinture en particulier, trad. du russe par Bernadette du Crest, Paris, Denoël.

Dicionário de provérbios kikongo traduzidos e explicados em português, francês e inglês, Luanda, Nzila, disponible en ligne : [dernier accès, juillet 2018].

Tristes tropiques, Paris, Plon.

Kongo Graphic Writing and other Narratives of the Sign, Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

“Prophecy”, in International Encyclopedia of Anthropology, Willey Online Library.

Mother of Writing. The Origin and Development of a Hmong Messianic Script, Chicago & Londres, The University of Chicago Press.

“Méthode de découverte du style imbriqué de construction par composition”, Kinshasa, mémoire non publié, Association nationale des inventeurs du Zaïre.

—, 2007.
Histoire de la révélation de l’écriture mandombe, Kinshasa, Éditions du CENA.

—, 2011.
Cours de l’écriture négro-africaine mandombe, Kinshasa, Université Simon Kimbangu.

—, 2012.
Kimbangula 1, Kinshasa, Université Simon Kimbangu.

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1 Strictly speaking it was at first a syllabary, not an alphabet, but the tendency of Wabeladio and his team at the Centre d’écriture négro-africaine (CENA) of Kinshasa over the last 10 years has been to work towards the complete phonographic independence of each visual element, so that there is a strict correspondence between sound and index and one can read letters instead of syllables.

2 To see the graphic forms of this symboles, the reader is invited to check the table at the end of the article. All the symboles in bold and in parantheses are referenced in this appendix.

3 There is a small geometrical problem here. Pierre Déléage (personnel communication) has reminded me that although 45 is half a 90º angle, the projection of the “false element” leaning backward or forward on its 45 degrees would not create half a false element. In order to shorten the image of the false element to its half, you would have to make it rotate 65º not 45º. This is however irrelevant, especially in handwritten Mandombe, in which the exact length of the piluka is a moot point. Wabeladio probably spoke of 45º for reasons of simplicity.

4 Scription is the muscular act of hand writing. See Barthes (1973), for a reflection on this concept and on the physicality of writing.

5 As I hope to show in future writings on Wabeladio’s aesthetic ideas, there is a parallelism between Wabeladio’s notion of the interiority of art and that of Kandinski’s (Kandinski 1910). In both authors the dichotomy between the external and the internal is mediated by the figure of the messianic hidden in the artwork.

6 Kimbangula, the handbook Wabeladio wrote for teachers, was planned in three volumes. By the time Wabeladio passed away only one was in print. Volume 2 was ready, but not printed yet. Volume 1 teaches how to compose and decompose the Nkua Tulendo as well as many decorative patterns with Nzila Kongo in them.

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Table des illustrations

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Titre Appendix. Correlation table signs in parantheses/Mandombes' symbols
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Ramon Sarró, « Between writing and art », Terrain [En ligne], 70 | octobre 2018, mis en ligne le 06 novembre 2018, consulté le 27 février 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Ramon Sarró

Université d’Oxford, School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography

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