Youl Mawene admits he is still “on a high” after returning from his first pilgrimage to Africa in search of his roots.
The trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo was his way of honouring his late father who grew up in a tiny village out in the bush.
But it was also a journey of discovery for the former Preston defender - and at the same time a momentary trip down memory lane to his football roots with North End when he came within a whisker of reaching the Premier League.
Ahead of the visit Youl approached his old club for support and was able to take PNE football strips over there to kit out two junior teams.
The result, he revealed, was a new Congo branch of PNE supporters who will not only be following the team’s results every week, but also sending their blessings for a successful season.
“At the village, it’s all about Preston now,” he smiled.
The trip, said Youl, was one he felt he had a duty to make. “As a person I was very fortunate, I was a part of a good team when I came to Preston and we got some momentum. We were unfortunate not to make the Premier League and that’s something that’s always been a pain for me. But I looked back and thought it would be an absolute honour and a privilege if I could go to Congo and give some of the good fortune I had at Preston.
“I got in touch with PNE and explained that I thought it would be great to get the support from the club. It would be totally charitable and there would be nothing to gain - and the club has been superb. It is a charitable type of gesture that is about giving.
“Football is like a religion over there. The club gave me some kits and with it we’ve managed to dress the under-11 team from M’Belo and - in another town, Sia Balabala - an under-14 team, in Preston kits. The club has been really generous and the people of Preston have always been really generous towards me through all their love and appreciation.”
Youl was born and raised in Cannes, France, but his roots are in Africa. His father Norbert was born in M’Belo in 1944. Through a Catholic organisation he got an education and was one of five outstanding students given the chance to be a part of an exchange programme in France. He stayed on in France and built a career and life there, becoming a French teacher.
Sadly, Norbert passed away in 2010, but not before he gave back to the community he grew up a part of. During his time in France he managed to raise money through his work and school and he was able to provide four wells for villagers in Congo.
“He set up a project to have a well because there a lot of children picking up diseases from stale water,” explained Youl. “He managed to raise money with his school and he managed to get four wells. Over there he is well looked upon for everything he has done.
“The ultimate goal for my dad was to eradicate some of the illnesses related to dirty water. Three wells are still going really strong. My dad did what he had to do and what he could do.”
Youl was the first of the Mawene generation born in Europe to travel to the village where his dad grew up.
“It was unbelievable, there was a lot of recognition and blessing. If you make a good action it is a blessing.
“Once I’d given the clothes everyone from small to tall were coming to me and saying what I’d done was unbelievable and that this year I would receive a lot of blessing and everything I try will work.
“They blessed the club and, if that’s something you believe in, I think it’s really strong and it’s really powerful to be involved in something like that. I was going back to my roots - it was like a pilgrimage - I now understand a lot more.”
Youl said the trip had really opened his eyes to how both his family lived and how villagers still live.
“At times I was disheartened, when you walk into the village it is almost like walking into a different time period.
“You travel within the bush, through the villages and the sandy pits. I can drive an hour in England and I am in Manchester. To do that same journey in Africa I would have to stay over at around Bolton, before finishing the journey because there is no infrastructure.
“If you drop a tomato, it will grow. The land is that rich. But the environment at the same time is very aggressive. It is so warm and humid that bacteria and viruses can spread quickly.
“They worry about surviving today and this week, so that changes your perspective in life and you start to live that way. You start to live for today.”
Youl is hoping other family members follow his lead and make the extra step to visit the village. He is thinking of returning with his children. “I went with my uncle because he was the son of the chief of the village originally. But hopefully my kids will follow on one day.
“I’m still on a high from the trip - it was really powerful and a total adventure. It was brilliant, I have no regrets, it is something that I will keep with me forever.
“It was important for me to go because my dad would have wanted me to, at some stage, do that if I could help there. It was a really humbling experience.
“You’re going to have people over there looking for Preston’s results and they will be sending their blessing to the club for all of the stuff that they have given.
“Hopefully that will work and Preston will have another successful season. At the village, it’s all about Preston now.”