Luc Samuel Kuanzambi
Luc Samuel Kuanzambi in Aisle 11, the ethnic food section of the Hannaford store on Forest Avenue in Portland, where he helped incorporate traditional Central African products into the inventory. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)
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It’s easy to see why Luc Samuel Kuanzambi says his workplace at Hannaford became his family. During a 30-minute walk around the Forest Avenue store, he was happily greeted by employee after employee.

But Kuanzambi doesn’t describe himself as popular. He prefers “humble.”

Kuanzambi (who has also gone by Matumona, an extension of his father’s family name) and his family have been in Portland for five years after immigrating from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He said he still feels new but has adjusted to living in Portland. 

Luc Samuel Kuanzambi
Kuanzambi outside the Hannaford at 295 Forest Ave. in Portland. He worked as a cultural ambassador for the store from 2019-2021. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)

In 2019, Kuanzambi joined Hannaford as a cultural ambassador, allowing him to support his family while paying it forward with community impact. Helping immigrants navigate their new home, as others once did for him and his family, became his inspiration, he said, transforming the lives of others for the better.

With his background in speaking English in the Congo and his new position, he was able to help guide Central African immigrants through a new setting – and help them navigate the store despite a language barrier.

Being thrown into a new place and not knowing the language can be isolating, Kuanzambi said. “Someone that looks like you and welcomes you into this new environment is a bridge cast over the ocean,” he said.

People have always been Kuanzambi’s specialty.

The 41-year-old has a bachelor’s degree in theology, and in his professional career has worked as a consulting translator on South African government projects, as an interpreter for the Carter Center’s 2011 elections observation mission in the Congo, and as a public relations manager for a branch of Vodafone Group, the British-based multinational telecommunications company.

But he had to leave it all behind in pursuit of a life-saving liver transplant for his daughter, Ticvah.

The Kuanzambi family – Luc, his wife Paulette, 6-year-old son Lael, and newborn Ticvah – packed all they could into four suitcases and left everything else behind. Thanks to fundraising in their community and generosity from people mostly unknown to them, Kuanzambi said, they were able to secure a medical visa to come to the United States and seek care for Ticvah, who was born with a liver deformity.

Their journey led to Omaha, Nebraska, where they stayed for five months while doctors there cared for her, but were ultimately unable to provide the transplant Ticvah needed. From there, the family traveled to Boston thanks to a one-way ticket paid for by a friend, and shortly after, to Maine.

“My previous life was wiped out,” Kuanzambi said. “I went from being in diplomatic circles and flying high to becoming a shadow of myself.”

With his family homeless and his daughter increasingly ill, Kuanzambi arrived in Maine with the hope that they could find a place to care for Ticvah.

“Maine was the place that changed it all for us,” Kuanzambi said. Maine Medical Center eventually helped facilitate Ticvah’s surgery at Mass General Hospital in Boston, while the community in Maine helped find the family a place to stay.

They were able to settle in Portland, and Kuanzambi would soon find his passion for people again, through his newfound opportunity at Hannaford.

“I owe it to this community that today my family and I have a semblance of normalcy,” he said.

Kuanzambi became a liaison between Hannaford and the immigrant community, provided cultural context for the store, and eventually helped advise the company on bringing in more ethnic foods. Now, Hannaford can essentially be a “one-stop-shop,” he said, for all the food that Central African immigrants might need to feel at home – ingredients such as powdered milk, palm oil, plantains, and more – to create traditional dishes.

He said he remains ever grateful for the sense of purpose the cultural ambassador role gave him, and for the ability to return the favor to immigrants newly arriving in Portland, as he did five years ago.

He’s no longer in the cultural ambassador position, but with Hannaford’s support, he was able to establish his own company where he can continue to influence people in the form of a community-oriented communications agency. He’s also pursuing a master’s degree in data science at the Roux Institute.

But no matter what he does, Kuanzambi said, he continues to seek fulfillment through his impact on the lives around him.

“That’s what I want,” he said. “I want not just to be remembered, but to be one of those people that really give the best of your humanity and extend the best human experience around you.”

Making Portland Work is an occasional series about people who do their jobs, day in and day out, in good times and bad. They’re the unsung heroes we see and depend on every day. Do you know someone we should include? Let us know at [email protected].

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