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.
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.