Written by Monica Camozzi
Photos by Simone Angarano
When Maxime Mbanda speaks in schools, he does so on the strength of one thing that children immediately recognise, beyond words: example. A bit plays the standing of the sportsman, of the national champion in the discipline he practices every day, rugby. But so does the value, matured, understood and internalised.
‘My father is the fifth of ten brothers, the only one to have left Congo following his dreams and graduating in medicine,’ says Maxime. ‘He has taken two specialisations and is trying for his sixth degree.
However, the most difficult task on the field -not rugby, but life- had to be done by his mother, who fetched him from his high school days when ill-advised acquaintances had led him down the wrong path.“If it hadn’t been for her picking me up by the ears and taking me back to the playing field, I would have been lost on a road that I found fun, but was actually dangerous.
‘If someone doesn’t help you understand, in the teenage years it is very easy to fall into these traps’.
Do you mean that sport has saved you from treacherous paths?
When you are very young, especially in the transition from middle to high school, you meet people you find charismatic because your personality is not yet defined and in order to be accepted by the so-called herd you do certain things, without even realising they are wrong. Sport has allowed me to break away from that distorted enjoyment and measure myself against myself. When I found myself wearing the blue jersey in front of 80,000 people, I realised that my mother’s efforts had made sense.
What is the lesson you have learnt?
You learn a code of ethics, internalise it as a sort of habit and carry it off the field. Seeing two-meter-tall bullies accepting the referee’s decision without a murmur, even if they disagree, teaches you that it is a question of values, of a code of behaviour. Off the field, the parallel may be not talking back to the teacher at school.
Through sport you learn one fundamental thing, respect.
What do you say to children in schools?
I remember when I was a student and adults came to talk to us, I thought they were boring. I take advantage of my young age to try to have a dialogue with the youngsters: it plays a lot on being a national sportsman, they listen more. Unfortunately, I have noticed that fewer and fewer people take sport seriously among the youngsters, and that’s something I regret. Precisely because of that wealth of experience and humanity that sport gives you.
How is Italian rugby doing?
Italy is a footballphile country, you know. But we are growing. Italy is quite neophyte in this discipline and the victory in November against Australia was historic. It takes time to close the gap with other nations.
And how did you get there, to rugby?
Always thanks to mum and her passion for sport. I tried football, but I was in denial. Then basketball, swimming, until at primary school two classmates, seeing my size, suggested I try rugby. And it was love at first sight.
What is in your book?
The book (Outside the Scrum) was not my idea, so young I didn’t think I would have so much to tell! I was given the opportunity to write it and I thought of my son Leone, who was just over a year old: I would have left him a sort of open letter, full of advice and able to create a father-son relationship, since generational relationships are often not easy. For now, I leave him this testimony, so he can read who his father is, who his grandparents are, the meeting with his mother. I did not hide, I quoted episodes from my adolescence….
‘I hope that the one with my son will be a sincere and complicit relationship’.
Have you ever been to Congo?
I have only been there three times, the last time when I was 11, until recently the country was still torn apart by an undeclared civil war that everyone knows about. I hope to go back soon. I remember my father, the hours spent in Western Union points to send money to the family.
You received an honour from President Mattarella…Knight of the Republic, for your efforts during the Coronavirus emergency. Are you proud of that?
I was at home, I said to myself that I could help: typing the keywords help, the elderly, Parma on Google immediately brought up Croce Gialla and I started to collaborate with them to bring people in need medicines, food. After a few days, they asked me if I felt ready to transport those who were unable to go to hospital. The spirit of collaboration was strong, it was a wonderful experience.
“Yes, I felt honoured thinking of my parents and shared the emotion of this recognition with all the volunteers”.
What do you think of nudity in photography?
I think art is very eclectic. What may look like a simple nude is often much more.