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Burundians and Rwandans find friends - and friendly competition - at community soccer match

Two boys in red soccer jerseys run down a field, one of them holding a Burundian flag.
Ari Snider
Maine Public
Jeannot Ndayishimiye, center, celebrates after scoring a goal for Burundi in the final minutes of Saturday's match.

Barely fifteen minutes into a recent soccer match between the Burundian and Rwandan communities in Portland, Evrard Ngabirano already had a lot of celebrate.

"We got a second goal on our side, the Burundian team," Ngabirano said with a big smile.

While the event was billed as a friendly matchup, the game itself was competitive.

"You know any competition you always want to win," said Burundi assistant coach Thierry Ndabahagamye. "So nobody wants to lose."

The two teams last met over the summer, and Ndabahagamye said Burundi came out on top.

Soccer players watch as one player goes in for a penalty kick.
Ari Snider
A player on the Rwandan team prepares for a penalty kick as members of both teams look on. While the atmosphere was friendly, the game itself was hotly contested.

Over the Rwandan side of the field, however, team captain Leopold Ndaysabye remembered things differently.

"No no no they never [beat] us," Ndaysabye insisted. "Maybe it’s gonna be today but they never, never [beat] us."

For Sandrine Muhinkwenyere, who came to watch the game, it's not about the final score.

"The ultimate goal is not to win or something, but it’s to be together, have [a] good time together," Muhinkwenyere said. "It just warms up our hearts to see our community together."

A man and a woman hold up a red, white, and green Burundian flag, while their son stands in the center
Ari Snider
Evrard Ngabirano, left, and Sandrine Muhinkwenyere, right, try to get their three-year-old son Soan to pose for a photo with a Burundian flag. Muhinkwenyere said it was heartwarming to see the Burundian and Rwandan communities come together and play.

While the winner of the last game was still a disputed subject, Ndaysabye said there’s no questioning the kinship between the two communities.

"Oh we do have the same culture actually, it’s just the same culture," Ndaysabye said. "And even the language, it’s, I would say the same, different accent."

Thierry Mugabe, president of the Burundian Community Association of Maine and one of the organizers of today’s match, agreed.

"We are brothers from back home in Africa," Mugabe said.

A man wearing a mask and gloves prepares a rapid COVID-19 test on the sidelines of the soccer game.
Ari Snider
Thierry Mugabe, president of the Burundian Community Association of Maine, prepares a rapid COVID-19 test on the sidelines of the match. Mugabe helped organize the game, and said it was a good opportunity to encourage vaccination and testing.

Mugabe works in public health, and said the soccer game was also an opportunity for COVID-19 outreach. He was offering rapid tests right there on the sidelines, and had planned a postgame reception to highlight the importance of vaccines.

"Especially COVID-19 vaccines," he said. "So that we can protect ourselves but also protect our community members as well as Mainers."

Soccer players dressed in red are greeted by their coach, dressed in a black shirt.
Ari Snider
Burundi coach Albert Rwabira greets his players as they come off the field at half-time.

As Burundi headed into the second half leading four to nothing, Odilon Irambona, who spent most of the game racing up and down the sidelines waving a Burundian flag, was all smiles.

"This feels like back home," he said. "Because this is what we grew up watching, this is what we grew up doing."

Between players and spectators, there were about hundred people at the field that day. Irambona said it’s a rare occasion to get so many people from the community together.

"Most people work two, even three jobs, so it’s hard to see each other every day," he said.   

Two men embrace on a soccer field, while another man looks on.
Ari Snider
Burundi assistant coach Thierry Ndabahagamye, in red, greets members of the Rwandan community after the match. Ndabahagamye, a filmmaker who has focused on destigmatizing mental health challenges among immigrant communities, said games like this one are important for lifting everyone's spirits.

Given the stress and pressures that many community members face while building a life in Maine, Burundi assistant coach Thierry Ndabahagamye said games like this one are important for everyone’s mental health.

"So to have a day like this, we’re out, and [talking], it’s very good," he said.

Rwanda did come back to score three goals in the second half, but Burundi added four to come away with an 8-3 victory.

Buoyed by a decisive win, team Burundi launched into an impromptu rendition of their country’s national anthem. It was a spontaneous moment of national pride before they joined the Rwandans for a postgame celebration.

A boy holds a baby in one arm, while embracing another man with his other arm.
Ari Snider
Jeannot Ndayishimiye, in red, holds his baby nephew while embracing Rwandan team captain Leopold Ndaysabye after the game. While Burundians speak Kirundi and Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda, Ndaysabye said the languages are so similar that the main difference is the accent.