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Jeannot Ndayishimiye, center, celebrates after scoring a goal for Burundi in the final minutes of Saturday's match. Photo Ari Snider/Maine Public

 

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.

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."

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.

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."

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.

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. - Ari Snider, Maine Public

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