CLAREMONT, Calif. — Denison’s Makorobondo “D” Salukombo has been away from his homeland for more than a decade, but hasn’t forgotten about his native land.
Homes that may or not be there anymore, childhood friends that may or not be alive, even if his village is still the same as when he left, 11 years ago. It is always there, the visions, the scenarios and his imagination projecting. Usually he can keep it in the back of his mind, but currently it occupies most of his thoughts.
Salukombo, who competes in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, is planning his first visit to The Democratic Republic of the Congo this summer, not sure what to expect, but confident he can change the future.
“I am trying to get educational supplies to take back there,” Solukombo said. “We have about 60 computers and 15,000 text books and printers and a bunch of athletic things too. We are going to ship it all back there and then start a technology learning center.”
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There is no obligation to do so other than moral, no reason other than Salukombo believes it is his destiny. He got out alive, now more than a decade later, he is going back to the tempest, certain he can help calm the storm.
His country wasn’t always this perilous. Salukombo was born into a middle-class family that valued education before anything else and had benefitted from learning.
Salukombo’s father worked a good job that allowed his wife to stay at home and raise their seven children.
Salukombo and his siblings enjoyed a relatively tranquil childhood until his 10th birthday. Then the Second Congo War began to devastate his country. Solukombo’s father had spent years helping people in his community, but now he and his five friends devised a plan to put aside money in case one of the men was killed by the rebels.
Eventually people in the government found out about the stash of cash they demanded the money, and when the six men refused they were jailed.
“They didn’t want to hear that so they took them all and put them in jail,” Salukombo said. “For two weeks we had no idea where he was. It was pretty scary.”
There was no trial, no charges, just locked away to die or be killed behind bars.
Fortunately one of the guards was one of the people Salukombo’s father had helped.
When most of the guards were at a funeral for the town’s mayor, the guard let them out and told them to leave the country.
“He came home for an hour put some stuff together and he was gone,” Salukombo said.
“That was the last time I saw him for a year.”
His father fled to Uganda and started working on bringing his family over the border. In the meantime, Salukombo’s mother was reduced to seeking handouts and making baked goods to try and get money to support her children.
“We never knew if we had something to eat,” Salukombo said. “If she came home and she had bags we knew we had something to eat. If she didn’t then we knew we would go to bed hungry. She would try to get food again the next day. Sometimes she had to decide should I buy food or should I pay school fees and she always paid the school fees.”
The soldiers drove by the house often, looking for the head of the household, certain he would return if his family was still there. It was terrifying for what remained of the Salukombo family.
A year after their father fled, they did the same. They walked six to eight hours around the mountains to the Ugandan/Congo border and then had a friend who worked at the border risk his life ferrying the family across.
“What he would do is take one or two kids across and then three hours later come and take a couple more,” Salukombo said. “It took a long time for the whole family to get across the border. My dad was on the other side waiting for us. It was very exciting to see him.”
The family refused to live in a refugee camp and spent three years waiting for their application to be accepted by the United Nations. They spent that time in a three-room apartment, going to school, while both parents worked to save money.
“Our place there was three rooms; mom and dad’s room, a room for my sisters and a room for me and my brothers,” Salukombo said. “Our bedroom was a sitting room so we kept the mattresses outside and then brought them in at night. If during the day it started to rain it didn’t matter where you are you had to run and grab your mattress and bring it in the house because if it gets wet you are sleeping on the floor.”
They got the call from Catholic Charities that they were being sent to Cleveland. Though some have made fun of the city dubbed, “The Mistake by the Lake,” Salukombo and his family thought it was paradise. He worked hard to adapt quickly to American life.
“When we came here I was really worried I would be behind because I thought the schools in Africa weren’t as good,” Salukombo said. “We didn’t have textbooks. We had one book and they kept it in the office and the teacher would go and take notes and then teach us. I never owned a textbook or touched a computer. My first email I was 16 years old that was the best thing ever.”
After school he played on the soccer team. One day he was running on the track with his team and he was lapping members of the cross country team.
The coach screamed ‘We need you to run for us,’” Salukombo said. “He introduced me to running.”
That same coach called longtime Denison cross country coach, Phil Torrens, who immediately was impressed with Salukombo.
“His faith is his strongest attribute,” Torrens said, who is also the assistant track coach.
“He never has a bad day. I have never met anyone who is as appreciative as he is. I don’t care what it is, he appreciates everything you do for him.”
Now he wants to return that kindness. On his 21st birthday, an alcoholic milestone for most college coeds, Salukombo ran 21 miles instead of drinking 21 shots, raising $1,000 he sent to his native land.
Last year he ran from Denison to his home in Lakewood, Ohio, covering the 120 miles in three days, raising $9,000 for his efforts.
But sending money overseas was less than satisfying for Salukombo.
“You can send some stuff over there but you don’t know if it is getting to the people,” Salukombo said. “You need some people who know. You can’t just dump it there because in the long term it doesn’t do anything. My goal is to go and help as many people as possible. I want to make it easier for the people there.”
The trip is not without trepidation. The country is still not stable and rebels tend to have long memories. Will Salukombo have to atone for his father’s escape?
“My village is one of the safest places,” Salukombo said. “When something happens everyone comes to my village. It’s not 100 percent and it’s very unsecure, but it is something I can’t worry about.”
His plan is to spend nearly two years there, working on improving the infrastructure and training for the 2016 Summer Olympics, representing his country. He hopes to have others train with him. Soccer is the prominent sport and running is seen as a necessity, not an activity.
“I want to get other people to run there with me,” he said. “My goal is to get 10 to 20 guys and run. They run from bullets, not for fun. Maybe you never know, I can get people to run like I do.”
Most importantly though, he just wants to improve the situation. Hopefully Salukombo can replace those visions he had of his country with more pleasant images.
“I feel like people don’t care about them,” Salukombo said. “Someone has to care about them. Maybe if I care someone else will care too.”