David Mayestro recounts in striking detail the moment he first stood on the Maine coast. He was at the SMCC campus to inquire about English courses and decided to take a stroll along the campus boardwalk.“I saw a film unravel in my mind right there,” he says, describing a scene of Congolese sapeurs strutting along the sandy beach, their vibrant dress a splash of color against the muted blue and evergreen backdrop.
A self-proclaimed artist who moved to Portland from Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo three years ago, David Mayestro is, as he tells us, “bana mboka.”
Bana mboka is a Lingala term for “children of the country,” and represents a sort of artistic and socially active renaissance among the Congolese youth. Mayestro says that the term bana mboka piggybacks on movements led by many throughout the Republic of Congo and DRC who profess to be “engagé,” which is grounded in the concept of political activism, artistic expression, and engagement.
What does it mean to be bana mboka in Portland? Here, David lives with two friends, Lyrical and Isaac, who also identify as artists and representatives of the movement. Their apartment is located in a bustling part of the East Bayside neighborhood bordering Munjoy Hill, just near Irish pub The Snug and the cemetery where famous American 19th- and 20th-century poets are buried.
As they take us through Bayside on a warm spring day, families shuffle through the neighborhood streets and complexes. A mother carries in one arm a brown paper bag brimful of food — basmati rice, flour, and snacks from the local African market. Her other hand grasps the hand of a boy, her son perhaps, maybe seven, who clutches the sleeve of his younger sister idling behind. Angolan, Congolese, and Burundian families pass from apartment to apartment, where rarely do neighbors knock on doors before making each other’s acquaintance.
Inside the home of the three men, a soccer match plays on the television — Barcelona vs. Italy — and the aroma of garlic and onion fills the room as the two hover over steaming pots in the kitchen. One is stirring a dish of smoked dried fish, cabbage, and rice, while the other tends to the fufu, or “African mashed potatoes,” as they call it to their American friends. Fufu is a staple African dish made from corn or cassava flour, served at nearly every meal and passed from nearly every Congolese mother to child.
When asked what David likes about the city, his response echoes one most Portlanders would give. “I like the film, dance, music…the culture,” he tells us. He reflects on how taken he was by the Portland coastline when he first arrived. He tells us about la clôture avec les clés, the former love locks fence on Commercial Street where he’d often go to watch the water come in and “think on things.” He laughs, adding: “Only when the weather is good, though.”
Though David and Lyrical knew one another before, it was here they met Isaac. Despite the close proximity of the three men’s neighborhoods back home in Brazzaville. David and Isaac met some time ago taking English classes. Isaac says their friendship was instantaneous.
“I said, ‘You’re a nice person, I’m a nice person, so let’s be friends!’”
MAKING A SCENE
The Congolese government, with its oppressive restrictions on speech and expression, has forced many young people to find alternative ways to communicate. “In Congo, you don’t have access to speak,” David says. “If you say something they don’t like, they will cut you and then, maybe they will kill you. In fact, they may let you speak, but then one day,” and he pauses to swiftly motion his hand across his throat, “you die. It’s like that.”
Denis Sassou Nguesso, current president of the Republic of Congo, has a reputation for corruption and abuses of power. He assumed power in 1997 after his rebel forces ousted the preceding president, Pascal Lissouba, as part of the civil war that devastated the country. (Lissouba was the first president to have been democratically elected.) Sassou Nguesso was also in power from 1979 to 1992 following the assassination of Marien Ngouabi. Low opposition participation in elections and constitutional referendums in recent years perpetuate his political dominance, and his reign has reportedly accompanied a massive accumulation of personal wealth.
David tells us that in Brazzaville, he’d often find ways to infuse messages into his dance. He began dancing early in high school, and participated in “dance battles” throughout Congo. It was through this that he met other engaged creatives and political affiliates of the political party he claims to belong to — RJP, or the young patriots of the republic. Film has always been his first passion, but financial constraints didn’t allow him to pursue this. In fact, it was a pawn shop here where he purchased his first camera, and the Portland Photo Market is where he continues to search for items to support his work. Now in Portland, he tells us he’s dedicated to becoming a successful filmmaker.
Lyrical tells us his hip hop is known throughout Brazzaville. Both he and David speak casually of their friendship with Martial Pa’nucci, the famous rap artist at the forefront of many of the protest movements back home. Pa’nucci has attained some international acclaim, and is well known for confronting the political regime (and now seeks asylum in Burkina Faso). Offstage, David and Lyrical describe him as having a quiet and humble demeanor, while onstage his lyrics resonate loudly and boldly as he raps about freedom and the corrupt regime. David reflects on first meeting Pa’nucci at one of his performances, and how inspired he was by the daring and truthful nature of his lyrics. They exchanged phone numbers immediately and have continued to stay in touch.
Isaac is the writer of the bunch. It’s not uncommon to catch him deep in thought. “I write when I’m thinking about how things have changed. (About) what is different now.” he says. He quotes 19th-century French author Guy De Maupassant and tells us how this writing has inspired his own form and style. “Writing is one of the ways I use to express ideas, to understand myself in the world, but in a way I'm not speaking.” He says he likes that with writing, you as the creator are hidden in a sense, “like with painting,” he says, “you can express a message without actually being there.” I'm always deep in thought. I like to live in my dreams more than reality sometimes. To live in one's dreams, we live at least where there's no hate, no war, no fighting…I don't fight my thoughts.”
Though the language of engagé and the themes of their work are charged with politics, the three men shy away from calling themselves political. “We want to make films that are about art and culture — we want them to be more than political.” They all see their art as a way to bring people together, here in Portland, back in Brazzaville and beyond, even.
“It’s more than just communicating with fellow compatriots,” they tell us, “it’s about communicating with anyone, everyone who will listen.” Isaac says it’s also a way out of the sociological bounds created by the government — “let's say chains, restrictions, barriers to expanding ourselves.”
“We use hip-hop, dance, music, and film as a way to express and let the world know that here too, you can pay attention.” He pauses for a moment, then continues, “it's very important to us too because it helps us in reaching people. Many of our compatriots back home have things to say about the government but can’t express them. So if we can be the bridge between the world and them, we will do our best,” Isaac says.
During our visit, David, Lyrical, and Isaac recount some of the challenges they face here without accusation or lamentation. For each, English is a third or fourth language, and all express frustration at times at their inability to communicate fully.
“We wish we could have English classes every day, not just a few days a week,” they say. This proves impossible. Classes fill up quickly as do their personal schedules as they navigate new systems here. All have at one point or another balanced working multiple jobs while sleeping on floors or couches, navigated pantries, agencies, and shelters while also pursuing their art, taking ELL courses, and enrolling in other courses both online and in person to pursue other personal and career goals. They often pool their resources for transportation, food, and living spaces, cramming together into small spaces to save on costs. When the conversation moves to past events and family and friends who are not with them they reflect quietly. David tells us he sometimes sends money home to help members of his family through the economic crisis back home. The newness of Maine and the absence of what was can at times feel overwhelming.
When asked about their connection to the local art scene and other local Portland artists, their response is one of authentic willingness and desire. But this is followed by puzzled reflections about the challenges of picking up the nuances of another culture, a system of codes which they say can be difficult to read. Despite this, they each express feeling a real connection to Portland people and place and express a solace in calling this home.
Here in Portland, the three have come together to form an artistic team. They remain committed to bana mboka and continue to create and engage, but their ideas have evolved from their Congolese origin and identification to include aspects of their new lives here.
As they tell us, power lies in the younger generations to affect real change, and they recognize in themselves a certain responsibility. “If we can be a stepping forward generation, that will guide the younger generation to the path of, maybe, sincerity. Or a non-corrupted world,” Isaac reflects. When they speak about these younger generations, their speech is inclusive and global.
“If we fail, they fail, and the others fail too, and so on and so on.”