Maybe it’s true that the problems of Nigerian girls can be solved only by large armies, billions of dollars and drones. But that’s a pretty easy, frictionless way to think, and what’s encouraging about Ki-Ke Rafiu, Georgetown’s Nigerian-born women’s basketball player, is that she chooses the friction of trying to do something herself. As Rafiu sees things, it’s amazing what a ball, a concrete floor and some rubber soles can do. She can find two of those three basic elements back home in Kaduna, Nigeria, but the soles are hard to come by, and that’s where Rafiu sees her chance.
Rafiu was 14 when she found her own chance on a concrete court behind a police station in Kaduna, a northwestern town plagued by Muslim-Christian violence. One day she saw a boy bouncing a basketball and asked what he was doing. He told her it was a form of exercise, so she followed him, and that led to daily mile-long walks to the court, which in turn took her to a charity youth camp established by Nigerian pro basketball player Ejike Ugboaja.
That got her spotted by an American talent scout, Mike Flynn, who runs a prominent AAU program in Philadelphia, and Flynn persuaded her skeptical parents — her mother is a retired teacher, and her father works in a printing press — to let her immigrate to the United States to play high school ball. Which was how a Muslim teenage girl, whose given first name is Omowumi, which she told the Philadelphia Inquirer means “desired child,” found herself enrolled at Neumann and Goretti High School in Philadelphia, where she averaged 15 rebounds per game to win a fistful of college scholarship offers, including one from Georgetown.
Now a 6-foot-2 junior forward for the Hoyas, Rafiu goes back to her family in Kaduna every summer — she’s there right now — and plays on her home court with kids dressed the way she once was, in whatever scattered gear they can find. One girl in particular haunts her, a kid with sneakers so tattered they were falling off her feet. At the end of her freshman year in 2012, Rafiu looked in her dormitory closet and saw that she had 10 pairs of hardly worn sneakers. So she gathered them up. Then she went to her teammates and asked for their castoffs, too, along with any shirts or jerseys they didn’t want. She packed them up and took them to Nigeria, where she handed them out.
“Without my home court in Nigeria, I would not be where I am today,” Rafiu wrote by e-mail from Kaduna. “The court and the people mean a lot to me. When I see younger girls playing on the same court, it reminds me of the days when it was difficult for me to buy basketball gear, and some of these girls are going through this situation. This is the reason why I started this community service of giving back to my home court.”
You might ask what good an armful of sneakers for a few questing, hungering girls can do against Nigeria’s overwhelming problems. The problems include a brand of Boko Haram terrorism in northern Nigeria that burns schools and kidnaps girls into sex slavery. “It could happen to anyone,” Rafiu wrote. There is also massive unemployment, with an illiteracy rate of 80 percent in some areas.
Actually, sneakers may be the whole ballgame for Nigerian youth, according to Margee Ensign, president of the American University of Nigeria. “Like young people everywhere, they need meaning,” she says. The university is a U.S.-style campus that was established by the former vice president of Nigeria to foster economic development and raise future leaders with problem-solving skills. But it’s uphill work. The school is in Yola, the capital of Adamawa, a hot spot currently in a state of emergency because of Boko Haram attacks. In addition to religious and ethnic conflict, there are large swathes with no power or water. Secondary school teachers there haven’t been paid in 18 months.
But Rafiu is on exactly the right track, according to Ensign. “I think it’s huge,” she said. “You and I know what sports apparel does to people — it makes them feel better about themselves. And it is hard to get here. I admire her for doing that. I got a request just this morning for shoes; shoes are the hardest — that’s what everyone is asking for.”
Though Ensign doesn’t know Rafiu, she has been thinking along the same lines. A year ago she and her university colleagues, including her daughter Katherine, who is a teacher, launched a “Peace through Sports” initiative on the campus. It scoops up vulnerable kids in the area, disenchanteds who don’t have schools or work to go to, and puts them on playing fields in new gear, using local community leaders from every ethnicity as recruiters. They started with 32 soccer teams for boys and 14 volleyball teams for girls. It has since grown to 52 soccer teams and 18 volleyball teams, with 1,152 kids enrolled.
The program is a risky proposition: Hosting a thousand disaffected, impoverished, unemployed young men on a campus with a private security force and strict curfew because of the constant fear of a terrorist strike could be asking for trouble. Yet Ensign insists it’s worth the risk. “At the end of last year, people said, ‘Aren’t you worried about all these boys on campus, because they could be attracted to extremist groups?’ My response is, that’s why we’re doing it.” She’s trying to attract them to something else. Say, entrepreneurial concepts.
There are a lot of blazers at the NFL, NBA, FIBA, FIFA and the International Olympic Committee who like to talk about the virtues of diplomacy through sport and how it can help in conflicted or impoverished places. But generally what they contribute are massive profits for themselves, gross deficits for cities, and even on occasion human rights violations. What Ke-Ki Rafiu understands is the value of taking a small personal bite out of a big problem, how to genuinely affect the most intractable problem in one of the toughest places on earth. After graduation, her plan is to go to work for a nongovernmental agency, one “that empowers less privileged girls,” she wrote.
“It was rough for most of us that grew up in Nigeria, and we want to make our lives and family’s lives better,” she wrote. “It is really simple: We see basketball as a platform that will make us the great person we all want to be.”
After Rafiu hands the shoes and the shirts out, she gathers the kids around and sits them down to talk. She tells them what a basketball scholarship at an American university is like and exactly what it takes to get one. “Success always comes when preparation meets opportunity,” she tells them. She makes them believe it’s possible. “It all starts within,” she urges them. But the shoes on their feet don’t hurt.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.