On April 21, 2018 Papy Bongibo was sworn in as President of the Congolese Association of Maine (COCOMaine). The inauguration took place at the University of Southern Maine and was attended by a large crowd of enthusiastic supporters. The term of service is two years, with the opportunity for re-election to a second term. Mr. Bongibo has a clear mandate to lead – he received over 500 votes from a Congolese community that numbers approximately 2000 in Maine. Inducted into office with him were Vice-Presidents Thierry Kitoko and Clément Yombe, Secretary General Francine Ngabu, and Treasurers François Agwala and Patrick Mulonda.
Mr. Bongibo is determined to be a strong and organized leader and he demonstrated his capacity by hitting the ground with a fully formed Cabinet of seventeen men and women. These ministers will shoulder leadership responsibilities in seven different categories: Social Integration, Public Relations, Communications, Logistics, Family, Statistics, Culture and Arts, Sports and Leisure, and Youth and Education. Each minister has charge of a project and is supported by an advisory team.
“I knew we required a strong team, so everyone’s needs can be addressed,” Bongibo stressed during an interview at the Immigrant Welcome Center on April 29 that was also attended by Vice-President Thierry Kitoko. “No one person can meet the needs of the entire Congolese community. We have many problems to try and solve – funding for higher education for youth, integration with the local Maine community, jobs for elders, pathways to employment for educated Congolese who arrive without American credentials, financial support for those in need.”
Mr. Bongibo and his Vice-Presidents Kitoko and Yombe are creating four different community liaison groups – one group of elders, one of adults, one representing families, and one representing youth. The community groups will keep leadership in touch with the needs of the subgroups they represent.
At the center of Mr. Bongibo’s vision is the need to unite the African community in Maine. Uniting the community has been a goal of his since his arrival in Maine from Atlanta, Georgia in late 2009. “I always thought that if we stay in our separate corners – Congolese, Burundians, Rwandans, Sudanese – we won’t accomplish anything.” He is very gratified that the President of the Rwandan Community attended the inauguration ceremony of COCOMaine. He notes that it requires a concerted effort on the part of African Mainers to move beyond the animosities engendered by civil wars and other divisions back home. He believes it is time to move beyond such divisiveness and sees this as vital to the integration of Africans in Maine.
Kitoko and Bongibo have worked together to unite Mainer Africans for years through numerous pathways, including through the non-profit New England African Art and Entertainment Community Association (NEAACA). The idea has been to bring artists from Africa and Europe who perform shows that attract Africans from many countries, thereby providing occasions for mixing. “There used to be big problems between Congolese and Rwandans in Maine,” he says.
Bongibo and Kitoko agree that shared cultural events have played an important role in bringing people together. Further, Maine has become a concert destination for Africans from other New England states. “People used to say, ‘Why are you in Maine? There’s nothing there for you.’ Now we are the New England state that does African entertainment on a big scale.”
“I love Maine,” Bongibo says. “ I like the peace and quiet. I never want to move again. It’s true that the weather was better back in Atlanta, where I first lived, but we are Mainers now, and we’ve even gotten used to the cold!”
Kitoko agrees. He notes that Maine is a safe and welcoming place and that it provides a good home for his wife and child. He speaks very warmly of his friendship with Bongibo. Having put down roots in Maine before Kitoko arrived, the new president served as an unofficial mentor to him and his family. “God put him in my way to help me and my family out,” he notes.
The Congolese leadership has a shared vision for the future. “We can help build the city of Portland, build businesses, move the city forward,” Kitoko and Bongibo agree. “The stronger the Congolese and African communities are, the more we can help Maine.”
They stress the importance of helping to fund higher education for the children of their communities, among other goals that require funds, and will seek help from grants as well as other sources of revenue, such as the annual membership fee. He notes that giving to organizations is not part of African culture, though people frequently donate generously to fund the weddings and funerals of others. To set an example, at the inauguration every member of the cabinet paid the $60.00 annual dues required for membership. Bongibo points out that this amounts to $5.00 each month, a sum most people spend on trifles each week.
Bongibo and Kitoko ended their interview with a plug for Amjambo Africa! “Please read Amjambo Africa! This is our newspaper. We are proud to have Amjambo Africa!’s support and we hope everyone will support the paper. This newspaper gives us a way to let locals know we consider Maine our home. We want to be accepted as part of the Maine community. We love being here.”