This is a story that will be familiar to anyone who’s been close to Denison over the past eight years, about a beloved and remarkable man who has touched many lives here, who now walks onto the world stage this month as he begins his Olympic journey.
In a recent feature published by National Public Radio, 2012 Denison graduate Makorobondo “Dee” Salukombo said in the most matter-of-fact way “If it’s hard, it’s worth doing.”
It’s a simple maxim with roots planted firmly in the ethos of The American Dream. Growing up in the Congo, in the midst of civil war, dreams were all Salukombo had. At the age of 12, Dee and his family fled the Congo as refugees to Uganda. His father, Fanchon, was imprisoned and extorted for what little money they had. If not for a lone prison guard who aided in Fanchon’s escape, this could have been where the story ended for the Salukombo family.
Instead, Fanchon made his way to Uganda, reuniting with his family. After three years in Uganda, the family applied to leave the country with their hopes set on the United States. The United Nations and Catholic Charities of Cleveland placed the family in the suburb of Lakewood, Ohio.
“If it’s hard, it’s worth doing.”
Nobody can make impossible things look easier than Dee Salukombo. He arrived in Cleveland as a high school student and quickly found that his love of athletics, mostly soccer and running, could act as a conduit to his truest gift, engaging and inspiring people.
In no time at all, Dee was a Clevelander. He cheered LeBron James and the Cavaliers. He played high school sports. He started thinking about college.
The lanky kid with an easy smile could have taken an ordinary path with his college choice. Division I programs were offering athletic scholarships. Big schools were calling him. Dee’s guidance counselor urged him to explore some of the smaller, private schools, sensing that someone with his personality and drive could thrive in a liberal arts environment.
After a visit to Denison, a bond was formed between Dee and veteran cross country coach Phil Torrens. In the fall of 2008, he arrived in Granville as a first-year member of the Class of 2012. In four years at Denison, Salukombo majored in chemistry and became a six-time All-American in cross country and track and field. In 2012, he was awarded $10,000 through the Davis Projects for Peace initiative which funds undergraduate projects that promote and build peace across the globe. That stipend laid the groundwork for founding his ongoing passion, Project Kirotshe.
Right after graduation, Dee started-in by filling an enormous shipping container with donated school supplies, computers and athletic equipment with its final destination set for Kirotshe, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. For the first time since he was 12, Dee was returning to his homeland to build a learning center and start a running team, all while keeping his eyes on the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Eight years after he first set foot on Denison’s campus, Salukombo's Project Kirotshe is going strong and achieving its goal of improving educational opportunities for young people in one of the world’s most underdeveloped countries.
Salukombo represented The Democratic Republic of the Congo in the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games, and August 21 he competed in the marathon. He was one of four members of the Congolese Olympic team, one of whom was fellow Project Kirotshe athlete, 19-year old Beatrice Kamuchanga.
It was especially exciting for Denisonians watching the Summer Olympics this year, knowing Dee was there, changing the world as always, one easy smile at a time.