Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Land of opportunity and snowmen

The Kashama family fled the Congo for a strange, new place, where football and winters became a way of life

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The move occurred in the middle of a Canadian winter.

His parents decided it was time to leave the Democratic Republic of the Congo for a new start and a brighter future. Political corruption and a constant worry of the declining national spirit found on the streets of Kinshasa wasn't what his father and mother had in mind for the family, so they packed everyone up, said goodbye to familiar routine, and crossed the Atlantic.

Fernand Kashama came to Montreal in 1991.

He hasn't been back to the Congo.

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Looking back, the winter actually held some importance to Fernand.

"I didn't know what was going on," the defensive end with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers said from his home in Toronto last month. "It was the first time I saw snow, though -- I remember that. I loved the snow back then."

It's completely understandable that a six-year-old kid from the Congo would be so fascinated with snow. Put yourself in his shoes: Previous experience with the white stuff came through obscure mentions in books or through conversation; having it under your feet or in your hands was a whole new sensation.

Leaving the Congo for Canada was a big deal, too, but trading social unrest back home for snowball fights with your brothers doesn't really register when laughing through cold hands and diving behind a tree to avoid icy attacks.

At the time, six-year-old Fernand didn't understand the difference.

It came to him as he got older.

"Things weren't stable in Kinshasa, so it was always a thing where we were looking for a better life somewhere else," he said. "That's why we came (to Canada). My parents (Ferdinand Kashama and Mary Kaleta) only cared about giving us a better opportunity at life."

Now 26 and having lived here for 20 years, what does Fernand think of the snow and cold as an adult?

There's a slight pause on the other end of the phone.

"I'll never get used to it. It's not a natural feeling."

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Montreal was a perfect fit for the new start.

It was a shrewd move to land in Quebec. Ngala (or the more familiar Lingala) is spoken in the Kashama household, Fernand said, but French is the official language in the Congo. Everyone in the family knew the language already, so it made for an easier transition into the new surroundings.

Fernand speaks highly of his father. He labels him "an educated, disciplined man" and back then, when the family tried to adjust to the new country, he was a man who did what was necessary to keep everyone healthy. Being able to communicate opened the door for odd jobs, which were never in short supply. On top of those, he squeezed in university classes between shifts, working on a degree so he could put things in a better position financially.

 

"It wasn't much but we tried our best," Ferdinand said through a thick accent, apologizing for his choppy English. "We had to get away from Kinshasa, It was time. It was too dangerous for us there. Canada had opportunity for my children. That was the important thing."

His father was always doing something, Fernand said, and in comparison, life was relatively simple for the seven kids (four boys, three girls). They'd go to school, play as time permitted and once they were finished, they came home to a hot meal on the table and a warm bed to sleep in.

"We always had each other to lean on, but I don't think it was easy for our parents," Fernand said. "It's one thing for me to talk about some of the challenges I faced coming to a new country as a kid. How they kept it all together the way they did is incredible."

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Flash forward to 1996.

Seeking a change of scenery and a chance to be closer to extended family, the Kashamas moved to Brampton, Ont. There, Ferdinand continued his education and earned a degree in education (he currently works as a high school teacher, he said), while the children -- specifically the boys -- found their own way.

Fernand took his football cues from older brothers Hakeem and Alain. Hakeem found the game in Montreal and parlayed his strong play into a scholarship at the University of Connecticut, while Alain was a high school star in Brampton and landed a scholarship at Michigan.

Both went on to pursue careers in the NFL and CFL, with varying degrees of success.

Fernand soon followed this path, thriving under coach Dario Pretto at Notre Dame High School as a receiver before accepting an offer from Western Michigan. Seeing him as more of a pass rusher, Broncos coaches shifted his talents to the defensive line and the move evolved into opportunities in the CFL. He was drafted by the Calgary Stampeders in 2008 and eventually signed with the Bombers in 2010.

His brothers set the football bar high.

Lucky for him, he said.

"Football helped me get through school," he admitted. "You know how it is, when you're a kid and you have too much free time, that's when you start getting into trouble. They laid the blueprint for me, I just had to work hard and follow suit."

Younger brother Bronly, the fourth Kashama football talent, just finished his sophomore season at Eastern Michigan.

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Four sons, four football scholarships, and four college educations.

Not a bad deal for a transplanted African family, one might say, and Ferdinand agrees with the quick evaluation. He laughed when asked if football was what he had in mind for his sons when he left the Congo.

"They have worked very hard and I'm very proud," the 61-year-old said.

Fernand bounced the kind words back to his father.

"He's the reason it all came together," the Bomber added. "He's the reason my brothers and I all played football. Hard work... that was from him. Coming from a third-world country to Canada and having to adjust quickly, it couldn't have been easy for him.

"It just couldn't."

 

adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2012 C1

History

Updated on Wednesday, January 18, 2012 at 9:16 AM CST: Adds colour photos

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