(photo via commercialappeal.com)
It's been quite a journey for recent Memphis East High School graduate Ntirenganyi Karamba, who went from a war-torn home in central Africa to now preparing for college in Tennessee.
"I will put my energy and attention to get better and do what I am supposed to do. I'm going to be the first in my family to go to college in this country, and it's going to be a big benefit for me and my family,” said Karamba, who just graduated from Memphis East and received the Courage Award at last week's Commercial Appeal Sports Awards.
As the Mustangs' kicker, Karamba converted 33 extra points and three field goals last season, and also helped East to the Class 4A state championship in 2016.
Unlike most of his teammates, Karamba didn’t pick up a football until he was a sophomore in high school. Soccer is the preferred sport in his home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he immigrated from with his mother and three brothers.
He was born during the Second Congo War, which resulted from the neighboring Rwandan genocide. Rebel forces ravaged the country, taking five million lives, including Karamba’s father, a French teacher, while his mother was still pregnant with him.
Karamba was a first-hand witness to the brutality of war and hate. His family was lucky, as they escaped to a refugee camp in Uganda to begin the process of getting to America, which took eight years. For some, it takes up to 20. Karamba reflected on the hardships of living in a refugee camp.
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"Getting food, getting water, everything is difficult. There is a big disease which kills people every single day, malaria," he said. "The government tries to provide medication, but it's not enough. We take medication for malaria but we still have water that is not clean."
When he and his family were finally cleared to come to America, Karamba was eager to immerse himself in a new culture – Southern culture, that is. He'd also soon be introduced to high school football.
East football coach Marcus Wimberly said Karamba had a rough start.
"When he first came out, he was a little ... erratic. But he's worked hard and really improved, a lot of the time by himself. He definitely won some games for us last season with his extra points," Wimberly said.
Much of Karamba’s improvement came with help from University of Memphis kicker Trey Thomas, who connected with Karamba at Christ Methodist Church.
"I'm blessed to work with him. He's always cheerful ... always has a positive attitude," Thomas said. "It's not like, 'Oh, I'm no good. I hate this. I'm giving up.' Which — I'm not going to lie — I kind of have that attitude if I'm just shanking field goals left and right."
This fall, Karamba plans to attend Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, to study biology and try out for the football team. A two-time class president, football state champion and high school graduate, Karamba has achieved plenty, and takes nothing for granted.
"I never realized that one day I would be in America. I never realized that one day I would graduate from high school," he said. "Sometimes, God has put me in certain troubles or certain situations, but it's not punishing me. It's to show me how my future can look."