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Mathew T George
Mathew T George

RIO 2016

Tight grip on life

48PopoleMiseng Popole Misenga beat India's Avtar Singh to advance to the second round of men's 90kg judo. Misenga finished ninth overall | Getty Images

Meet the Congolese refugee who knocked India out of judo

Somewhere, a hen has laid an egg and is announcing it to the world. And then, there is the creak of railway tracks, followed by the hum of an electric suburban train accelerating. Otherwise, it is a quiet weekend morning in Brás de Pina, and things are already looking up for the night.

Barbecues are being lit in the main plaza, filling the air with wood smoke. There is the sizzle of fat dripping off the grill on to the coals. The popular local bar is already open. Bang opposite the bar, there is a dark hole of a shop that sells “black magic stuff”. There is graffiti on walls. Truck tyres laid flat on the pavement and filled with soil serve as flower beds. At the bakery, ladies are choosing from the selection of breads or pao—one of the many words that link India and Brazil, via the Portuguese. Another one is chavi. Yes, key.

This neighbourhood is in the north zone of Rio de Janeiro, almost hemmed in by favelas, Rio’s infamous urban slums. One of the closer ones is Manguinhos. But the most famous one, Cidade de Deus (City of God), is in the western zone. Barack Obama went visiting there. And, then there is the namesake, Oscar-winning movie.

Old-timers say the now gentrified Bras de Pina, too, used to be rough. At the heart of the neighbourhood is a Catholic church, the Paroquia Santa Cecilia on 74, Rua Gurupatuba. The priest is from India—Padre Thomas Kizhakkethayil, 61, from Kudamaloor in Kerala’s Kottayam district. He has been there for almost three decades now. The neighbourhood was in the news for sending two people to the Olympics—judokas Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika, both refugee Olympic athletes and originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

India’s sole entry in judo at Rio 2016 was Avtar Singh in the 90kg event. The 24-year-old from Gurdaspur faced Misenga in the first round at Carioca Arena 2. When Misenga initially struggled to break Avtar’s hold, it seemed like game over for him. But, he freed himself, and with eight seconds on the clock, hurled Avtar on to the mat. That shoulder-throw threw India out of judo and pushed Misenga into the final 16.

Mabika was not as fortunate. In her first bout, she was thrown out of the women’s 70kg division by Israeli Linda Bolder. Misenga eventually finished ninth after losing his next bout with world number one Gwak Dong-han of South Korea. But, the Congolese held his own for four minutes.

He was nine when rebels killed his mother in his hometown of Kisangani. Frightened and alone, Misenga fled home and hid in the jungle for eight days. Then, he fled Kisangani and lived on the streets of Kinshasa. Life changed when an orphanage took him in and introduced him to judo.

“When you are a child, you need to have a family to give you instructions about what to do, and I didn’t have one,” he told the media in Rio. “Judo helped me by giving me calmness, discipline, direction… everything. It is a part of my life.” He has not met his family in 18 years.

But, life had more chokeholds in store for him. As a member of the DRC’s national team, Misenga said he suffered terribly under abusive coaches. Losing a match meant no food for days, he said, and sometimes even being locked up in a closet. The secretary-general of the DRC's judo federation has denied these charges.

Misenga jumped ship when the DRC participated in the judo world championships in Brazil in August 2013. Misenga’s version: Once the team arrived in Rio, the coaches disappeared with the athletes' passports, food coupons and uniforms. He fought his first bout in a borrowed robe and promptly lost it. The coaches returned after three days of bar-hopping. By then he had had enough. He fled the team hotel, stopped every dark-skinned passerby and asked where the Africans lived in Rio. Nobody understood him, a Francophone in a Lusophone country. Eventually, someone pointed him to Bras de Pina, home to refugees from Angola, Congo and other parts of Africa.

Speaking to THE WEEK through an interpreter, local resident Piedro Santos, 45, said that he has seen Misenga do odd jobs in Brás de Pina. According to one report, one of the jobs he did was to load grocery trucks for about Rs600 a day. He then married Fabiana, a resident of Complexo de Penha, a neighbouring favela. A local resident said they have four children—toddler son Heliasin and three other children from Fabiana’s earlier relationship. Putting food on the table for six and powering a sports career has been tough for Misenga. Mostly, it is Fabiana who pays the bills, he said. After his inclusion in the refugee team, the IOC, too, supports him.

The early breaks that Misenga got were from Caritas, the Catholic charity, and Instituto Reação, a judo school jointly run by Geraldo Bernardes and Flávio Canto, bronze medallist in the 81kg event in Athens 2004 and three-time champion at the Pan American Games. Ace coach Bernardes, 73, is considered to be the godfather of judo in Brazil. While Caritas helped with Misenga’s material needs, Instituto Reação trained him and supported his judo career.

The institute runs five schools in Rio, all in favelas. Speaking to THE WEEK, Canto said: “Instituto Reação was set up to make social change through sport. We work in violent neighbourhoods, among children with very few opportunities. The one thing I know well is judo. And, Bernardes was my coach. Together, we give what we have. Popole and Yolande were ideal candidates. And, of course, everyone knows about Rafaela Silva now.” Silva, who hails from Cidade de Deus, won Brazil’s first gold in Rio 2016, in the women’s 57kg category.

Bernardes said it was tough to train Misenga initially. “[Because of his previous training] he did not know the difference between training and competition,” Bernardes said. “It was a brutal fight always. Slowly, it has changed.” Canto and Bernardes are least worried about Misenga’s second round exit. That he was up there with the best is sufficient for them.

“He left the arena with a medal in his chest. And I gained a golden medal, a social golden medal in my chest… Brazil is giving an example, in this Games, on how to receive people who have suffered a lot and are facing inequalities,” Bernardes told UNHCR.

Misenga’s win against Avtar meant a lot to the refugee community in Bras de Pina. Most of them watched the bout on a makeshift screen put up by Caritas. And, a Caritas staff member said that the moment Misenga won, they ululated and danced. Some cheer in a life which is otherwise colourless.

For Canto, his life has more meaning now. Last year, two of his students who were attending a street party were shot at by gangsters. One of them died. Their fault: They came from a neighbourhood ‘owned’ by a different gang. The boy who died was called Vinicius. The same name as the mascot for Rio 2016.

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