In the summer of 2019, Gode Katembo was finishing up the semester with a hectic exam season.
The Congolese-born international student was completing his diploma program in business studies at what is now called Red River College Polytechnic. The end of the school year is always a time of celebration after the completion of a long year ushered in by the glorious summer weather.
For Katembo, however, the summer of 2019 was a time to turn a dream into a reality.
That dream was for a platform for Canadian immigrants and students from Africa to come together not only in fellowship but to address an issue that is too little talked about: the loneliness that afflicts many African international students. He says he understands the difficulties of adjusting to life in a new country away from friends and family.
“Most international students come here with no community,” Katembo says. “Many international students develop mental health issues such as depression and a feeling of disconnect. These things contributed to me thinking that we needed to unify and connect African communities together.”
“Many international students develop mental health issues such as depression and a feeling of disconnect. These things contributed to me thinking that we needed to unify and connect African communities together,” said Katembo.
He says he understands that there are many things that differentiate students from each other such as religion, culture, music, status, and languages. However, there was one thing he felt most would have in common: their love for the game of soccer.
“We decided that… let’s see what we can do to connect the recent newcomers with the diasporan Africans who have been here longer,” Katembo says. “That is how this initiative, the Manitoba African Cup of Nations (MACN), came about.”
Coming together in unity
The dream came to fruition in July 2019 with four teams representing Congo, Eritrea, Ghana and Senegal.
Three years later, despite COVID-19 and all its attendant disruptions, Katembo’s dream now embraces an impressive 12 teams, including Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Zambia, Nigeria, Kenya, Congo Brazzaville, South Sudan and Egypt.
Along the way, a team of organizers have assisted Katembo, including Samuel Kitonyo as technical director, Ghanaian-born Seidu Mohammed as director of operations, and Nigerian-born Ibby Adahunse as vice-president of marketing and sponsorships.
“The ability to see people from all parts of Africa is one of my greatest joys and our achievements,” says Katembo.
Despite COVID-19 measures coming into effect soon after the creation of MACN, Katembo and his small team managed to stay in touch with all their registered members in those uncertain days. He credits that with helping to address the loneliness and disconnectedness that prompted him to envision the soccer initiative in the first place.
As the pandemic eased in 2021 and lockdowns were gradually lifted, MACN picked up the pace and built up more networking opportunities.
Currently, MACN counts prominent Manitoba politicians such as Winnipeg deputy mayor Markus Chambers, mayoral candidate Scott Gillingham as well as MLA for Union Station and former star basketballer Uzoma Asagwara as some of its biggest supporters.
Katembo himself now attends Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) as a student-athlete, specializing in international development and theology. He has gone on to win the 2015 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Award, recognizing his drive and philanthropic activities which stemmed from MACN awarding scholarships to four African student athletes studying in Alberta.
The future is bright
This year’s edition of the MACN is currently taking place at Shaughnessy Park, with the turnout of teams and supporters even more impressive than in the past two years.
A key off-shoot of the MACN is a program called Free-to-Play.
“The idea behind it is that we can encourage kids and younger people who are not really affiliated to any national team in MACN to still play and develop their skills,” says Olumide Fasina, the organization’s director of development. “Hopefully, we think they can go on to even become internationals and also to play for major league sides, a team in the MLS such as the Vancouver Whitecaps. We want this organization to be as big as possible.”
“The idea behind it is that we can encourage kids and younger people who are not really affiliated to any national team in MACN to still play and develop their skills.”– Olumide Fasina
Katembo is passionate about the possibilities and the extent to which the MACN can grow.
“Our ultimate goal is to become Canada-wide, but for now we are starting here in Manitoba,” Katembo says. “Once we get the recipe right, we like to share it around,” he said with a wide grin.
So far, that recipe is working.
This story was written for the Winnipeg Free Press Reader Bridge as part of a partnership with the Winnipeg Free Press