This is a story about a modern family, so it’s only fitting that it winds up on ABC. The Mwano brothers — five boys as similar as they are different — wanted to thank their single mother for working double shifts, for disciplining them when they came home past curfew, for putting them first time and time again. They wanted to make a grand gesture of their love. They did so by performing for her on Dancing with the Stars.
But the story of the Mwano family does not begin in a studio in Los Angeles next to the slim figure of Brooke Burke. It begins amidst the avocado trees and mango groves of the Congo. Before there was cha-cha music, there was gunfire. Before the moment their love for their mother was captured in front of an audience of millions, there were years of silent, anonymous mourning over the murder of their father. Love is the glue that binds those two worlds: living in fear in Africa and basking in fame in America. And of course there was dance.
Thank you, Justin Timberlake
In the beginning, dance didn’t thrill Bernedette Uwimana Mwano. For a long time, she was against the whole idea. It was her oldest son, Deo, who convinced her that it was OK to dance.
Deo Mwano was 10 years old when he arrived in the United States of America. Boy bands, like the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync, dominated the radio airwaves, and Mwano said he found their rhythm and melody infectious. Mwano said even in his earliest years dance and music were always a part of life. He said Congolese music has a great reputation in Africa and was the source of soukous, which is characterized by syncopated rhythms and intricate contrasting guitar melodies.
New to America, Mwano was only a casual listener until a group of break dancers arrived at the Wilson School in Manchester to put on a performance. Mwano was hooked.
Over the next two years he practiced, but he didn’t fully develop his skills and his love until he joined Youth with a Mission in the summer of 2002. Youth with a Mission, or YWAM as it is also known, is a Christian organization that promotes a relationship with God, according to its website, www.youthwithamission.com.
“We would go to some really bad neighborhoods and put on dance shows and give talks,” Mwano said. “Until then I had never really reflected on stuff before.”
It was the first time Mwano opened up about his past, and those who heard his story found it inspiring.
Deo tells his story
Deo Mwano was born on Sept. 9, 1990, in Mbanza-Ngungu, an educated community, full of college professors, in the Democratic Republic of Congo near the Angolan border. At the time, still under the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko, the country was called Zaire. That name, like everything else, was about to change.
Deo was his parents’ second child, although he never met his older brother, who died from disease before Deo was born. His parents were Bernedette Uwimana, herself only 17 at the time, and Beauxduin Mwano. His mother had fled the violence in neighboring Burundi and found safe haven in the Congolese capital city of Kinshasa. Around that same time, Beauxduin was finishing military school, and when he went to visit a relative in Kisangani, he met his future wife.
Deo Mwano was born into a middle-class home with a grass yard and rows of mango and avocado trees.
“You’ve never had an avocado until you’ve had a Congolese avocado,” Mwano said.
His mother went to trade school and learned to be a seamstress. This was uncommon for an African woman and is an example of what kind of man her husband was, Mwano said. Most men wanted their wives to stay home. Beauxduin encouraged his wife’s independence. Years later, while sitting at her kitchen table, Bernedette reflected that her husband had been preparing her for life without him, as if he knew he wouldn’t always be there.
He worked for the Armed Forces based in Mbanza-Ngungu. He was often deployed to other regions of the Congo where conflicts were breaking out.
“Deo’s father was a very intelligent guy,” Bernedette Mwano said. “He made Deo strong. He’d often say, ‘You need to be a man.’”
“Growing up my relationship with my father was very different,” Mwano said. “He was devoted to the military and spent a lot of time away. As a result, he often treated me like a student. At a young age he instilled in me discipline and responsibility.”
With a father so often absent, Mwano developed a deep bond with his mother. As most of her family remained in Burundi, she had no one to turn to except her young boys. She would often confide in her children, especially Deo.
“My father’s voice still echoes in my head, ‘Take care of your mother,’” Mwano said. “When I look back on it now, I had an incredible amount of responsibility at a very young age.”
In 1996, his family left this life behind when his father received a career promotion. He was to become the personal adviser to General Mahele Bakoungo Lioko, a well known and influential military figure who had a contentious on-and-off relationship with Mobutu. When Mwano’s father began work, the general’s relationship with Mobutu was on.
Mwano’s father was truly a man of the people and although his new job was a promotion he chose to move his family to Masina, which was one of the poorest neighborhoods in the capital, Kinshasa. Many members of Mwano’s family, including his father’s twin brother and sister, lived in Masina. The Mwano family was growing as well. Besides Deo, there was Vinny, and Destin was born in the year of their move.
Life is about to change
Shoddy living conditions weren’t the only thing the Mwanos found in Kinshasa. They also heard rumors that Mobutu was sick with prostate cancer and that a rebellion led by businessman Laurent-Désiré Kabila, along with mercenaries from neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, was gaining traction.
“At the time it was difficult to separate rumor from reality,” Mwano said. “A lot of rebellions started up and then died down quickly. If someone was kicked out of the government, he’d try to start his own.”
But Kabila would prove to be no ordinary someone. He began in the far east of the Congo, in the Kivu region, near Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. At this time, the genocide in Rwanda had just ended and many Hutu militias had fled into the Congo (then Zaire) following the ascension of a Tutsi-led government. They joined with Congolese Hutus to begin attacking Tutsis living in the Congo. Kabila was able to harness this energy for his own power. He began moving westward toward Kinshasa.
“We would hear stories about the rebels’ progress directly from my father,” Mwano said. “We also watched the news but we didn’t feel anything yet.”
While Kinshasa was still in Mobutu’s control, those closest to him knew he was losing momentum. Government officials began fleeing, their pockets lined with whatever they could grab. Mwano, who was only seven at the time, remembers vividly his parents having a conversation about leaving. His father was adamant: his connection to the Congolese people was too strong. He would not leave them behind in a time of need.
In fact, he doubled his efforts to help everyone. As uncertainty gripped the country, he bought sacks of rice and beans not only for his family but often for the entire neighborhood. Locals and foreigners alike would congregate at the Mwano family home asking for favors and handouts. Mwano would awaken for school and see his father already meeting with people in need. He wondered when he slept.
With rising food prices and rolling blackouts now common in Kinshasa, Kabila and his rebels marched onward.
“You could see concern in people’s eyes,” Mwano said. “We were like, ‘Wow, this is actually coming to us now.’”
Mobuto had ruled the Congo since 1965 when he received the blessing of the United States as he was anti-communist and was believed to be a good ally. Over the years, he was cited for many human rights violations. Yet, though he had remained the figurehead of power, there was not strong unity beneath him within the government. As Kabila approached, head officials gathered to try and decide a course of action but there was great dissension. Most officials wanted to clear bank accounts and save themselves; others wanted to negotiate. No final decision was ever made. In May 1997, Mobutu fled the country. He would be dead from prostate cancer the following September.
Change of regime
After Mobutu left, the Mwanos didn’t see their father for more than a week. They were concerned, for good reason. One morning they woke to word that General Mahele was assassinated. The next day Kabila’s rebels arrived in Masina. Mwano said they were a mix of Rwandan, Burundian and northern Congolese. They were met with a hero’s welcome. Mwano said people lined the streets and clapped.
“Masina was a very poor section of the city,” Mwano said. “People didn’t have anything. They felt Mobutu had failed them. The rebels took the presidential office later that day and that night stuff started changing.”
Fearing for their own safety, the Mwanos hid at their uncle’s house. Kabila quickly went to work clearing out Mobutu’s supporters. Congolese began turning on each other. People used the occasion to settle old scores.
After a few days, there was a knock on their uncle’s door. The Mwano children hid under the bed. But it was a friend of their father’s at the door. Their father was home and he was alive. Bernedette and the children quickly left their uncle’s house and headed home to reunite with their father. But when they stepped outside, they entered another world.
“The air was misty,” Mwano said. “It was like a movie, gun shots were going off, smoke was in the air and it was the worst smell in the world. I was only seven years old but you never forget the smell of burning human flesh.”
Mwano said there were about 150 people lining the main boulevard. They were former members of Mobutu’s military and police forces — men who carried guns during the old regime. Mwano said people chanted as they put tires over those people, dumped kerosene on them and lit them on fire.
“Those images have stuck with me for such a long time,” Mwano said. “I couldn’t believe people would behave like that.”
When they made it home, their father was waiting for them. He stayed there for the next several weeks, lying low. His friends who had also served in the military would come over and mock Kabila’s rebels — they wore rain boots.
As is often the case, Kabila failed to deliver on his promises to the Rwandans, Ugandans and Burundians. In anticipation of a drawn-out war, he hired mercenaries from Angola and Zimbabwe and made a public announcement that it was time Congo came together — this included soldiers from Mobutu’s military. Kabila opened huge camps, where soldiers were re-trained and re-ranked. Beauxduin Mwano believed in this and went back to work. Eventually he was sent to the Kivu region near the Ugandan border. His family never saw him again.
In the beginning, the family talked frequently and were even supposed to reunite. They packed up their belongings and were set to move, when Deo’s father called and said the situation was getting too dangerous and they shouldn’t come. But they had nowhere else to stay either. They were no longer welcomed at their uncle’s home. Eventually, they moved in with their father’s secretary’s wife.
When the phone calls stopped, Bernedette began knocking on doors, trying to find out what had happened to her husband. She was met with silence. Mwano said rumors circulated. There was one rumor that 13 military officials had been arrested and brought back to Kinshasa to be put on trial. An additional rumor said his father was one of them.
Finally, the rumors were validated by a high-ranking official who spoke to Bernedette under the condition that their talk never took place. The official told her that Beauxduin had been charged with treason and had been executed. Before he was killed, the official said, his last words were, “God, I pray you protect my family, my wife and my four children.” He was then shot in the head and later his body was chopped up and dumped in the ocean, according to Mwano.
“We were too scared to hold a wake or a funeral,” Mwano said. “To this day I still yearn to know what happened. I feel like he [his father] passed his life to me.”
Coming to terms
The more the leaders of Youth with a Mission put him at the mike, the more Mwano found his voice. He gave his life testimony at churches, homeless shelters and other venues up and down the East Coast from Pittsburgh to New Hampshire. Along the way he picked up dance moves from the different cities he visited.
It was during this pivotal summer in 2002 that Mwano did something most people could never do: he forgave the people who harmed his family.
“One night everyone was talking about forgiveness and I don’t know why but I finally realized I was carrying around all of this pain,” Mwano said. “Before that I didn’t think I had a problem. But whenever we couldn’t make rent or something went wrong with one of my brothers, I would blame my father’s killers or my father’s family who turned their backs on us.”
Again, Mwano turned to his mother for inspiration. She instilled in her sons the importance of never holding a grudge. After they were settled in America, their uncle called the house. Mwano was furious at his mother for taking the call. After their uncle’s betrayal he couldn’t understand why she would talk with him.
“He’s our family,” she said.
“My mom was a living example,” Mwano said. “I can’t explain to you the healing process. But I forgive everyone. To the point that if I saw them today, the people who killed my father, I wouldn’t have any problem with them. When I made that decision it was like a piece of my heart had been replaced. It allowed me to go on.”
Mwano knew he didn’t want to just move forward, he wanted to dance ahead. Over those summers with YWAM, he grew a lot as a dancer and was eager to implement what he learned back home. He had his chance while a student at St. Joseph’s Regional Junior High School. Each year the school put on a talent show at the Palace Theatre. Mwano recruited students, choreographed a routine and lit up the stage. The following year, he took the show even more seriously and worked with his dance crew from September to May.
“Dance is a personal place,” said Cathy Bernard, director of Dancing Corner in Nashua, who hired Mwano to teach dance classes. “It is somewhere you can go when you are angry or sad. You can channel these emotions into something positive that you can share with others.”
When he performed Mwano felt, for the first time in a long time, alive. It was a lease on life his family owed to the international community.
“America saved my life,” Bernedette said. “It saved my children’s lives.”
Life: Part Two
After word of their father’s murder, the family knew they needed to get out of the Congo. The atrocities that were occurring, especially to Rwandans and Burundians, had caught the eye of the international community and there were people trying to get families out. Bernedette Uwimana wrote letter after letter. Eventually, one was answered by a Catholic Church in Belgium, which would take in her four boys and resettle her somewhere else in Africa. Although the family didn’t want to separate, the reply was a godsend. And then they got a better offer.
A week before the boys were to be shipped off to Europe, the American government stepped in. Since Bernedette was originally from Burundi, her boys were half Burundian as well, which made them all eligible for relocation together. However, there was great risk to this escape plan: the Mwanos were not being persecuted because they were Burundian; they were persecuted because of their ties to the former regime. So their exit was more of a loophole. At any moment the government could have stepped in and squashed their plans. Plus, the Rwandans and Burundians who were also waiting for relocation doubted whether the family really was Burundian at all, which created a lot of resentment. Only after Deo told a story in his mother’s native tongue did people start believing the truth.
The Mwanos moved to a secret refugee camp in Kinshasa that used to be the corporate campus of an international company. They spent the next three months being interviewed, undergoing medical tests and waiting. Finally, they were accepted and transported to another refugee camp in Benin, a small west African country next to Nigeria.
“When the plane took off and we left the Congo behind,” Mwano said, springing from his chair, his eyes animated, “I don’t know how to explain it. We received our lives.”
The family would spend the next year in Benin. They lived in another refugee camp but one Mwano described as well built with bricks and a roof over their heads. During that time the family relied 100 percent on the international community, which would allocate beans and rice for the families.
“We had to wait for the UN to give us food twice a month,” Bernedette said. “We had five people in our family so we got five helpings of rice and five cups of beans.”
The Mwano family was amongst the first group of 250 Congolese refugees to be resettled in the United States.
“It was ridiculous, man,” Mwano said of seeing his family’s name on the resettlement list. “It was the most surreal moment of my life.”
The refugees landed in JFK airport in New York in February 2000. Mwano said it was his first encounter with snow. Of the Congolese, the Mwano family was the only one who would continue on to New Hampshire. They separated from their countrymen and boarded a small plane to Manchester.
“It was a miracle,” Mwano said. “Now I’ve been in the U.S. for 11 years. One year more than I lived in Africa. And sometimes I ask myself: ‘Did that happen?’”
Boys to men
Upon their arrival in America, the boys retained vivid memories of war.
“When we first came to America we used to hold hands when walking to school,” Vinny Mwano said. “It took a while for us to realize we were safe.”
The toll the war had taken on their family was prominent. There was always an empty chair at the dinner table.
“From the moment my father was killed, I never again had the role of a brother,” Mwano said. “I became the father and I had to take care of my mom and my brothers.”
His younger brother, Gedeon, never saw his father, as he left for the Kivu region before he was born. Mwano said he raised Gedeon to the fullest. This meant changing diapers, preparing meals, helping with homework, putting him to bed, waking him up, you name it, Mwano did it. He had no choice. His mother laid down the foundation early.
“When my mom would go to work she’d tell me, ‘Feed your brothers, clean the dishes, clean the house,’” Mwano said. “I knew she was working hard to support us and we needed to do our part.”
This responsibility has formed a seemingly indestructible bond between the brothers. This was on full display one rainy Friday afternoon. Vinny had returned for the weekend from Lynchburg College, where he is studying international relations. It was only a quick stop as he was popping up to Maine to visit his girlfriend. In an attempt to impress her, he wore a collared shirt and a tie. Bad move. His brothers mercilessly ripped on him. The booming laughter filled the small living room of their family home in Manchester. Bernedette watched it all from the kitchen.
“It is amazing to see how far his mother has come,” said Anne McQuade, an ELL teacher at Henry J. McLaughlin Jr. Middle School and an adjunct faculty member at the University of New Hampshire. “She worked so hard as a seamstress to make ends meet and get her boys on the right track. I’ve worked with a lot of families who have come here and are so frustrated and so sad and they get involved in bad things. That is not the case with the Mwanos.”
That isn’t to say it was easy.
A mother’s war
Bernedette speaks five languages. Unfortunately for her, English was not one of them when she arrived in Manchester.
“I didn’t speak the language,” Bernedette said. “I didn’t know anybody. I had lost my husband. I thought I might die.”
At only 26, she was a widow, a refugee and the mother of four boys. She was many things, not least of which was lonely.
“I wanted to be loved,” she said. “I was so young and I thought I couldn’t stay single forever. My children supported me finding a new man.”
She found one, fell in love and readied to marry. But he was not the man she thought. After she gave birth to his child, he quickly fled. Now she had five boys, the youngest named Tavio Folly Nostron.
“It was very painful,” Bernedette said. “I wanted to cry but I couldn’t let my children see.”
Instead, she turned inward to her relationship with God. Having been through what she had, it would have been understandable if Bernedette had doubted God’s existence. But she never did. Her love only grew deeper and it was this faith that she passed on to her children. Deo Mwano said his morals are his guiding compass.
But while faith may feed the soul, stomachs remain hungry. So Bernedette worked as a teacher’s assistant, at a nursing home, at a hotel, at a special needs day care. But there were always more bills. She couldn’t get ahead. Her husband, even though he was dead, was still there to help — using the sewing skills she had learned in school, she began doing projects on the side. This extra money, combined with the fact that she never treated herself to even the simplest luxury, allowed her kids to excel.
“I don’t live my life for love,” Bernedette said. “I have to be strong for my family. I want my boys to grow up, finish school and help people.”
Changing the culture
Deo Mwano didn’t just go to school; he helped to transform his community, according to Diane Raymond, dean of admission at New England College in Henniker, where Mwano received his B.A.
“He is a young, vibrant person who came on campus and truly dazzled,” Raymond said, her true affection for Mwano evident in her voice. “He has a deep appreciation for life. I wish this generation of students knew the gifts they have. Deo does. He is an excellent role model not only for his brothers but the community.”
Raymond remembers a specific time when she worked to get a grant. Raymond said all she had to do was get the money, and Mwano did the rest. With the grant money, Mwano organized a program where New England College students went to Hillside Middle School in Manchester to work with ESL students. Raymond said Mwano knew all the kids by face and knew first-hand what they were going through.
“He truly transformed his college experience,” Raymond said.
With such a huge role in other people’s lives, it is no surprise that Mwano would influence his brothers as well. When they saw their big brother dance, the young Mwano men also took an interest.
“They are much better than I was at their age,” Mwano said. “If I entered a battle [dance competition] I would want to go in with them.”
“It’s a different type of expression,” Vinny said. “It is a universal thing and you can dance everywhere.”
“I like the movement — the beat and rhythm,” Gedeon said. “I like to dance how I feel.”
“It’s fun to dance,” said Tavio, who joked that it stinks being the youngest brother because he always gets picked on, although he joined in during the bashing of Vinny. “We dance in the house all the time.”
But this familial love of dance was not always appreciated by mama Mwano.
“She didn’t accept dance for a long time,” Mwano said. “She thought it was a waste of time. She didn’t think there was anything productive you could do with it.”
This began to change after Mwano placed second in a local dance competition — although it didn’t start off well. He returned home past curfew — he said it was about 10:20 p.m. — and his mom was furious. But the next morning she overheard his brothers congratulating him on getting second place and almost winning the $200 prize. She liked the idea of prize money.
During his junior year of high school, Mwano began being paid as a dance teacher, and his ability to earn money and maintain high grades sealed his mother’s approval. Earning his own money was nothing new. Mwano said he has worked since he was 12 in a variety of jobs at places including a cleaning company, Men’s Wearhouse and dance studios. (Today, Mwano teaches at N-Step Dance Center in Manchester and Creative Dance Workshop in Bow.)
“I never played sports,” Mwano said. “I worked to help take the burden off my mom’s back. But it was fine because I felt I could express myself through dance.”
The staff of YWAM weren’t the only ones to be moved by the Mwanos’ story. A family friend felt their tale was so important he produced a video biography, which he sent to Hollywood in hopes of hooking the family up with a reality television show, like Extreme Home Makeover or something on TLC. Mwano said it was fun to make the video but the family never thought twice about it — until a producer from Dancing with the Stars called in the fall of 2010 saying she would like to have the five boys dance on the show, as a surprise to their mother.
“I was like, ‘What?’” Mwano said.
That call came at the beginning of the week. By the weekend a crew had already come to New Hampshire and was filming the family. The Mwanos were excited about the possibility not because of any hidden desire for fame but because they knew how many people around the world had experiences similar to theirs. This appearance, which aired on Oct. 19, 2010, would give exposure to all of them.
But they wanted to keep the fact that the brothers were going to dance a secret from their mother. This was easier to do than one might think because of the chaos that ensues once cameras enter your life. Mwano said there were two crews filming and so one would go off with their mother and they would stay behind, telling her they needed to film scenes from school, etc. During this time, they met with choreographer Kym Johnson, who had an idea for the dance the brothers would perform. But Mwano had his own ideas.
Deo’s dancing represents his personality. When he hits the dance floor, he may freestyle, which means he is listening to the music and letting it shape his performance. These movements are raw and imperfect and represent Deo’s more spontaneous side. He has an unbridled energy like Michael Jackson’s, but the smooth turn of his hips and arms are reminiscent of Usher. Many of his choreographed dances are also in the hip-hop style; however, the movements are more polished and refined.
These are the sorts of dances that he would include his brothers in, but the Mwanos are not trying to be the next Jackson Five. They typically perform for themselves in the comfort of their living room, and these makeshift dance parties include solo moves and joint performances. However, their ability to perform a cha-cha with female partners — which was the style of the routine the brothers ultimately performed — on a national television show indicates just how quickly they can adapt to whatever is thrown at them.
Mwano and Johnson collaborated and put together a routine in a matter of days. Mwano went back to college and his brothers rehearsed for the week before they flew to Los Angeles.
Prior to the show, the brothers completed a rehearsal on the main stage, along with the other stars of the season and John Legend, whose performance was taped for a later show. A performance by Jason Derulo and Shakira was shown on the Mwanos’ big night.
“I was amazed none of my brothers were star-struck,” Mwano said. “But it was crazy because that rehearsal was the first time we heard the live band. It was awesome.”
“A lot of the show is pre-filmed but we were live,” Mwano said, again standing, the energy pulsating through his legs, just as it did when he talked about leaving the Congo. “We were standing backstage and they were playing our video and we could hear our voices. The adrenaline was pumping. It felt like we were taking the field for the Super Bowl.”
Yet, listen to the brothers talk about the experience and you’re led to believe they were performing at a local dance studio and not on one of the biggest stages on television.
“It was definitely exciting,” Vinny said. “I wasn’t really worried about dancing.”
While the brothers were calm, the excitement was palpable back in Cathy Bernard’s studio, as the dance students who had learned from Deo Mwano watched their teacher on television.
“We all felt very proud,” Bernard said of the Dancing with the Stars performance. “He was the buzz of the studio for several weeks. Many of my girls have dreams of dancing on the largest stages. They saw someone they know doing it. They were in awe.”
Deo hopes that ability to inspire is an integral part of his future. He is 21 years old, recently married and lives with his wife, Lakisha, in Manchester. Vinny, 18, is studying at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Va. Destin, whose favorite sports are football and basketball, is 15 years old and is a student at Manchester Memorial High School. Gedeon actually doesn’t dance that much any more; the 13-year-old, who will be turning 14 on Nov. 22, prefers studying architecture and design. He is a student at Southside Middle School. Tavio Folly Nostron, who is only 10, enjoys gym class at Jewett Elementary School. He said he loves basketball and while he doesn’t know a great deal about Congolese culture his favorite part of America is Christmas.
Deo is earning an MBA and starting his own public speaking company. He wants to travel and let people know that life goes on. It is a message his family not only speaks but lives.
“I think about the war often,” Vinny said. “It was a dramatic, unreal scene. But we haven’t let it define who we are. We survived what we’ve been through and we think there is a purpose for that. We think we’re destined to do great things.”
They already have. And more is surely to come. Stay tuned.