September 23, 2012

Bill Nemitz: It takes a new American citizen to raise a village

Here is how it works in Maxwell Chikuta's native Democratic Republic of Congo:

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Maxwell Chikuta, originally from Congo, became a U.S. citizen Friday morning at a naturalization ceremony in South Portland.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Maxwell Chikuta, who volunteers as a member of the United Way speakers bureau, addresses a rally at the L.L. Bean Order Fulfillment Center in Freeport on Wednesday.

Gordon Chibroski

"In my village, when you come to live with us, we welcome you because you don't have anything," Maxwell, 43, explained last week. "Every Saturday, every community member will come and take you to the field, help you dig your field. The chief will collect seed for you that year so that you can plant your own field. Then, at harvest time, you will have food."

And until then?

"During that year, before harvest, the community will take care of you. But when harvest comes and you have your own meals, you have an obligation to also help elderly people who don't go to the field, who don't have children to help them. You contribute to them."

And after that?

"Don't expect my community to help you next year, like taking you every Saturday to your field," Maxwell said, raising an index finger. "No. We do that only for a year. Then you are part of the community."

Friday morning, in a crowded conference room at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services center in South Portland, Maxwell raised his hand alongside 14 other immigrants and proudly became an American citizen.

Maybe you saw Maxwell a few years back, standing in line at a Portland supermarket with a wad of food stamps in his hand.

Maybe you dismissed him as just another immigrant already trapped in the notorious "cycle of dependency" because he came here with no English, no education beyond the seventh grade and thus couldn't possibly carry his own weight as a productive, contributing member of American society.

Maybe you were wrong.

"It's really a sad story," Maxwell said. "But I tell people my story so at least maybe they know they are better off." 

IT BEGAN on May 13, 1978, a Saturday.

Maxwell, then only 10, lived with his father, stepmother and her two children outside Kolwezi, a city in the mineral-rich Katanga province of what was then the country of Zaire.

Following his parents' divorce two years earlier, his mother and two sisters had moved to another village -- Maxwell would never lay eyes on them again.

His older brother, meanwhile, had been dispatched to live with an uncle, leaving young Maxwell the odd child out in a new family where he performed all the menial labor while his step-siblings became the "kings and queens of the house."

Each Saturday, Maxwell would run to the village center to take down the flag outside his school, signifying the start of the weekend. But as he awoke on this particular morning, he heard what he thought were the village drums pounding off in the distance.

"We were trained in the village to hear the sound of the drums," Maxwell said. "There might be a lion, so they play the sound of the drum that says 'Stay away!' Or, 'We are being invaded -- come help us!' But that day, the interpretation of the drums didn't make sense to me."

Running toward the village, Maxwell heard one of his teachers calling from a window. "Maxwell, stop!" she hollered. "Go back home!"

"It was not the drums," Maxwell said. "Those were the sounds of the guns shooting. Thank God for that teacher sending me home."

The Battle of Kolwezi, between the French army and local rebels who had taken an estimated 3,000 Europeans hostage, lasted just under two weeks and left some 700 Africans dead. It also forever changed young Maxwell's life.

"That's the last time I saw my father," he said, pausing to compose himself. "He didn't make it."

(Continued on page 2)

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