Twenty-one years ago, when he was 29, Georges Budagu Makoko fled genocide in Central Africa for the second time. He arrived in Portland alone, with no family or friends to welcome him, just a few fellow Banyamulenge asylum seekers from his native Democratic Republic of Congo. “I spoke six languages but not English,” Makoko says. “It was clear that I would have to start over.”
Makoko, who already had a degree in business administration, supported himself with factory work while he took English classes. Once he acquired some fluency, he landed a job as an affordable-housing property manager, where he encountered a growing number of African refugees. “They came here with families, so it was even harder for them to navigate the system than it had been for me,” he says. “It became clear that they needed information in their own language — they couldn’t even read their emails. I asked, ‘How can I help these people?’ and I came up with this idea of a newspaper.”
Makoko’s idea, Amjambo Africa!, is now celebrating its fifth anniversary. The staff and contributors who produce the free monthly journal include natives of Burundi, the Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Rwanda, Somalia, and South Korea, all living throughout the state (there’s no brick-and-mortar newsroom). Several others are American born, including the editor and Makoko’s fellow cofounder, Kit Harrison. The team writes, in seven languages, for dual audiences: newcomers in need of information about Maine life and eager for news from home and locals who want to know more about their new neighbors. “Amjambo” is a Swahili greeting that translates to “word” in Kinyarwanda and Kirundi.
Makoko credits Harrison, a writer, former public-school world-language teacher, and daughter of an international journalist, with providing the skills and connections that brought his vision to fruition. The two met about seven years ago, in Rockland, where Makoko was delivering a talk about his memoir, Ladder to the Moon: A Journey from the Congo to America, and Harrison invited him to spend a day with her students. He told her about his “crazy idea” of starting a newspaper, and she wanted to be part of it. “I didn’t know a lot about Africa,” she admits, “but when I was growing up, my father was stationed in India, Japan, and elsewhere around Asia, so I was used to being in different cultures. I knew that humanity is humanity. I wanted Mainers to know who these people are, why they’re here, and the good they can bring to our state.”
Harrison introduced Makoko to her Camden neighbor, Reade Brower, then the owner of 28 Maine daily and weekly newspapers (he recently sold most of his holdings to the nonprofit National Trust for Local News). Brower offered guidance and advised Makoko to find corporate sponsors. To Makoko’s surprise, several companies agreed to support the venture, and the first issue of Amjambo Africa! was published in April 2018. It was 16 pages, with volunteer-written articles on subjects like African customs and social interactions, as well as a directory of food and housing services. Makoko had stayed up into the wee hours translating some of the English-language articles into French, Kinyarwanda, and Swahili.
Today, a small paid staff and several freelance writers and translators produce a 32-page tabloid, with 13,000 copies printed per month, plus a digital edition, podcasts, videos, and a website. Somali, Portuguese, and Spanish have been added to the language mix. Topics are diverse and, often, enterprising. Amjambo was the first Maine newspaper to report on Covid’s disproportionate impact on communities of color. Recent issues included a four-part series on fraud and scams, such as phishing and shady rental practices, and updates on the conflicts in the Congo and Sudan penned by overseas correspondents.
Maine’s population of African-born residents has risen from about 1,000 just two decades ago to roughly 10,000 today, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Recently, Makoko devoted his monthly column to describing the atrocities that force asylum seekers to find new homes, citing his own family’s experience in the Congo, where an estimated six million people have died since 1996. It’s a recurring theme that Makoko and Harrison agree is necessary because of persistent misperceptions about refugees’ reasons for settling in Maine. “There’s an assumption that refugees are uneducated, that they are coming here for the resources,” Makoko says. “But these are doctors, pharmacists, journalists, people with master’s degrees and PhDs. If it were not for conflicts, they would not choose to come here.”
The journal’s hard news is balanced out with success stories, such as recent profiles of Rwandese singer Clarisse Karasira and Sudanese DJ Richard “Juma” Ogweta (aka DJ Onax). Both new Mainers spoke of transitions facilitated by their connections with supportive locals, which is the story of Amjambo itself. The newspaper was an unrealized dream until Makoko met Harrison. Now, he believes, “It was meant to be.”
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