Semopa Bavon (circa 1885-March 1, 1933) is remembered as the black apostle of the Giri River region. For 25 years he served as the chief Catholic catechist west of Nouvelle-Anvers (now Mankanza) where he evangelized, taught, and organized for the church which suffered from a lack of European workers.
Semopa Bavon was born at Nioki, a village on the Fumi River about 50 km (30 mi) west of Lake Mai Ndombe (formerly Lake Léopold II). Because Semopa lost his parents, he was numbered among those individuals the Europeans considered as “abandoned” children or “orphans.” Thus shortly before 1900, an agent of a commercial house of Nioki took him to the colonial school at Nouvelle-Anvers. There Semopa was expected to undertake military service and to learn useful trades. Being extremely intelligent and of excellent character, he was removed from the school by Father E. de Boeck after three years of outstanding accomplishments. Although Semopa at first worked with Father de Boeck, he was later sent as a catechist monitor to Bogbonga, east of the Congo River. At that time Semopa was not yet 20 years old.
Not long afterwards, Semopa was transferred west of the Congo to the Giri River Valley, where the influence of the Protestant missions was strong. These missions were established at Bolenge (a few kilometers southeast of modern Mbandaka, on the banks of the Ikelemba River), Lulonga (at the confluence of the Lulonga and Congo Rivers), and Bonsambo (a few kilometers north of Nouvelle-Anvers).
The Catholic missionaries at Nouvelle-Anvers needed an intelligent and energetic man to counteract Protestant influence and to serve as an overseer for the African catechists. For this task, in about 1913, the father superior of Nouvelle-Anvers sent Semopa to Bomana (located southwest of Nouvelle-Anvers), the chief town on the lower Giri. Semopa was expected, first, to install catechists along the Giri River, from Musa and Bomboma to its mouth, and second on the Lower Ubangi to Irebu. While keeping in contact with the mission at Nouvelle-Anvers, Semopa traveled continuously throughout his extensive region to encourage and guide the catechists, and note the progress accomplished. In a few years, he was able to gain back from the Protestants the allegiance of a good portion of the population of the lower Giri territory. By 1922, Catholics were in control of practically four-fifths of the villages in the area.
Before 1910, in the early years of European penetration, colonial practices had favored and intensified the slave trade, which was carried on by the first chiefs imposed by the Congo Free State. With the help of the Belgian administration, Semopa worked to free a great number of these captives whom he taught and baptized.
Because of his education, Semopa maintained close relations with the Portuguese traders, and with the administrative authorities at Bomana. At Bomana itself, he served as a State “clerk” in charge of the station’s African troops and the catechumens. He was also called upon to settle palavers (disputes) between the different ethnic groups at the station.
A sociable man, Semopa was able to blend gentleness and firmness, and gained the respect and affection of Africans and Europeans alike. Eventually, all the village chiefs along the Giri became his blood brothers. So prestigious did he become that when going to Nouvelle-Anvers during important festivals, he was always accompanied, like a great chief, by more than a hundred boats manned by catechists and Christians from throughout the Ngiri region. On his arrival at Nouvelle-Anvers, he was received with pomp by his Eminence E. de Boeck, the missionaries, and the Christian congregation of the mother-mission.
Although he devoted his life to spreading the Christian faith, Semopa Bavon nonetheless derived considerable material advantages from his position. He received many gifts from Africans as well as from European merchants, State agents, and missionaries. In 1925 he owned, among other things, a 12 caliber hunting rifle, a rare possession for an African. By the time he died, in 1933, he had accumulated 30,000 francs.
In 1931, at the request of the Reverend Fathers Charles Varhenyen and Dieudonné Brisebois, Semopa left Bomana with 140 catechumens and ex-slaves to found a non-traditional “Christian village” at Libanda just outside Bomana. From there, he continued organizing the central catechu,menate of Giri which had been started in 1928 at Bomana.
Not long after moving to Libanda, Semopa died on March 1,1933.
Semopa Bavon was survived by his wife Moba Georgine-a woman from Uele who was a former student of the colonial school at Nouvelle-Anvers-as well as by their five children.
Mumbanza mwa Bawele na Nyabakombi Ensobato
This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (In 20 Volumes). Volume Two: Sierra Leone-Zaire. Ed. L. H. Ofosu-Appiah. New York: Reference Publications Inc., 1979. All rights reserved.