Congo-born Danny Mwanga, a graduate of Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon, was recruited by Oregon State University as one of the top-rated soccer forwards in the United States in 2008. (The game known as "football" worldwide is known as "soccer" in the United States.) For Danny, scoring soccer goals was the easy part; verifying his transcripts from schools in his war-torn homeland proved much more difficult.
Producing an authentic secondary school transcript from his school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was a requirement for playing on the Oregon State University team, as mandated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). At first that seemed like an impossible task. But, with the guidance of a U.S. Department of State official, Mwanga overcame the hurdles and joined the team. How did the State Department get involved? It is a story of hard work, persistence -- and soccer.
"Soccer is all my life," Mwanga told America.gov. "I don't think I [could] be where I am right now without it."
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo and most of Africa, soccer is part of everyday life. Mwanga has been playing soccer since he was young; by the age of 6, he was playing against older players. It was then he learned an important lesson.
"My uncle [and coach] was always pushing me and giving me support, telling me to keep my head up and go as hard as I could and also to never back down." For Danny, that advice became motivation and mantra, both on and off the field.
THE PERSONAL COST OF WAR
In 1997, Danny's childhood changed dramatically as the Democratic Republic of the Congo erupted in civil war. In the chaos caused by a power struggle between long-time strongman Mobutu Sese Seko and rebel leader Laurent Kabila, thousands died or were displaced. Danny lost his father during the war, and his mother had to leave him and his sisters behind with their grandmother.
Despite the hardships, soccer brought him and other kids comfort, Mwanga said. "We were all worried about what was going on at that time. Soccer was the only thing that was bringing a smile to everyone's face, bringing us all together."
In 2006, Mwanga was reunited with his mother in the northwestern U.S. state of Oregon. Life in the United States was not an easy transition. "Compared to my home country, the culture, the language ... it was really hard for me to express myself," Mwanga said. "It was pretty much like I was starting everything over."
One thing that did not change was soccer. Mwanga began playing for the Westside Metros, a youth soccer team in Beaverton, Oregon, to improve his skills and get used to the American style of the game. His team won two consecutive state championships.
Mwanga's stellar record at Jefferson High School and his 2007 performance with the all-star Adidas Elite Soccer Program helped him become one of the graduating forwards most recruited by U.S. universities, including Oregon State University, whose men's soccer team was coached by Dana Taylor.
Taylor recruited Mwanga for the team. "It was one of the best signings in the history of our program. He's fast, strong, amazingly skilled and [has] a vision for the game that most players don't have," Taylor said.
AN EXERCISE IN DIPLOMACY
Oregon State signed Mwanga in 2008, but he was ineligible to play in intercollegiate competition because his academic transcripts from the Democratic Republic of the Congo could not be verified. Then Associate Head Coach Paul Meehan tackled the problem, contacting the U.S. State Department after searching the Internet for resources.
His inquiry reached a State Department official who handles Central African affairs. That official sized up the problem and, working with Meehan, other State Department colleagues and the Embassy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Washington, helped verify Mwanga's transcript in time to meet NCAA deadlines.
Thanks to their efforts, Mwanga was eligible for play in September 2008, and at the end of the 2008 season he was named freshman soccer player of the year in the Pacific 10 Conference, a "rare achievement in one of the hardest conferences in the country," according to Taylor.
Today, Mwanga juggles the demands of his life as a student-athlete and hopes for a professional sports career. In the meantime, he is grateful for the opportunity to pursue his education and to play soccer at the collegiate level.
"I thank God every day for giving me such a gift, and I know that it has the ability to take me even further," Mwanga told America.gov.