A Basketball Trip to Africa Was the Best Summer of My Life
Photo by Jamal Burger
Jamal Burger, a Toronto-based photographer known as Jayscale, travelled Africa during the summer as part of Raptors president Masai Ujiri's Giants of Africa program, an annual event that aims to create opportunities and enrich the lives of youth through basketball. Jamal visited six African countries over the month-long journey and wrote about his experience for VICE Sports.
I was at the elevator by 6 AM to go have breakfast before our bus left for the day. On the way down, we stopped to let in none other than Masai Ujiri. I'm pretty shy so I'm thinking, "Just my luck, I have no idea what to say."
He asked if I'm excited, I told him of course, and then drew a blank. So I asked about his shoes because that's all I could think of. It was not the way I wanted my trip to start.
We'd soon eat and shortly thereafter our crew arrived at camp in Rwanda. In the gym, a new way of life presented itself immediately. You could see the kids warming up, and heard beautiful voices singing in unison from the distance. As you got closer, the footsteps and drum hits blended perfectly with the rest of the sounds. That's when it hit me: I'm in Africa.
With every country visit, there is time dedicated for community outreach initiatives that instill a set of ideals, teach the importance of work ethic, and provide a means to facilitate sport. On the afternoon of Day 2, Masai was set to unveil the new court built in the community of Rafiki with the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, and they both acknowledged the continuous efforts being made to improve the country. Change was the topic of conversation, and it was happening in front of us.
Basketball was described as an art that brings us together, something music and the president of Rwanda also did on this day. At the top of their lungs, the young Rwandan campers were screaming, "I AM A GIANT!" and "I AM A DREAMER!" It was an incredible thing to witness. The chants were led by Joe Tuomo and Godwin Owinje, former teammates of Allen Iverson’s back at Georgetown University. Godwin, a native of Nigeria and one of the GOA founders, had the players leaving the practice stations drenched in sweat, and also provided them living proof that their dreams were attainable.
The days I spent in Rwanda produced a variety of emotions, and demonstrated the passion and goodwill that Masai and the GOA leaders have for the youth of Africa. This was just the beginning, though, as the experience in Rwanda set the tone for the rest of the trip.
A beautiful land and tropical place. Across the board in Africa, the welcome was always warm. Walking in open-minded, coaches didn't know what to expect because as GOA expands, new countries become a part of the program. Such was the case with Uganda.
It was visible from the start that the GOA participants had a lot of improvement to make when it came to basketball skills and understanding the sport's fundamentals. While the skills weren't all there, it was clear to the naked eye that they were dedicated and full of effort.
Patrick Engelbrecht, the Raptors' director of scouting, chanted over and over again. When he did, everyone knew to hit the floor and get into the correct defensive stance. Patrick was amazing at inspiring these kids. He knew how to get the most out of them, and they were absorbing all the feedback and instruction he provided.
The hard work from the first day would spill into the next day of camp, and the improvement that the campers were making was visible. The nearly 7-foot-tall kid who was missing layups was now catching lobs and throwing down dunks to complete alley oops just a day later.
Kampala is unmatched in beauty. The tropical basketball court it housed within the larger-than-life palm trees was tranquil—it felt like paradise, and didn't seem real. As camp came to a close, we collaborated to make a picture I'll never forget.
"On the count of three, toss the ball up!"
That was me yelling from countless yards away. A few tries later, we had it.
We gathered before we left for the next destination, let our voices unify the message, and went away with a bigger dream than the one we came in with. At some point in every country, I would step away and think, "This is change."
Coach Abel, a Cameroon native and Raptors scout, currently resides in Kenya. Having a camp in his home country, with high-level instruction, puts a smile on his face. It's hard for anyone, really, to not light up when seeing the unbridled enthusiasm on the faces of these kids. He wishes a GOA camp was around when he was younger, but loves the fact that he's able to give back now. Watching Abel is witnessing happiness in its purest form. I really admired his empathy, which helped me better understand the emotions the kids were experiencing.
Amidst the election, Kenya was being portrayed as an unsafe place to be, but we experienced the opposite. It was clean, safe, and the guides showed us some beautiful places throughout the city. There was peace, and everyone we encountered was great. Their selflessness was clear by the way they welcomed us into their country with open arms. The idea of staying there indefinitely crossed my mind more than once.
At our first stop, we were welcomed to the local court. Kenya is primarily known as a powerhouse in soccer and running, but the country also has a love for basketball. The passion they have for the sport was evident in their efforts, and especially in their eyes. As an observer, you'd see the kids and coaches becoming friends, and Masai on the sidelines getting to know our future leaders. Along my walk, I heard Raptors assistant coach Patrick Mutombo say, "Man, doesn't that kid look like Jamal Crawford?!" And before a response was even allowed, he followed up by saying, "We are all the same people."
I took that in, stopped for a second, and looked around. We really are. We're all in this together.
From start to finish, you'd hear these genuine remarks made by successful men and fathers, who sacrificed their offseason and family time to make change. As a young adult, each day was extraordinary for me to be surrounded by real belief in change. One of those people making the sacrifice was NBA veteran Luol Deng.
He showed up as a huge surprise to campers, and immediately got right into storytelling. Deng explained to them how much it meant to him as a kid to see Manute Bol extend his stay to teach him and others about the game. In Egypt, Great Britain, and in college, Deng said he was always told he would never get to the next level. He used it as fuel to catapult himself to the NBA as a coveted talent, and preached to the Kenyan kids that anything is possible with hard work. Dream big, as Masai would say. Meeting Deng, a player who has made multiple All-Star teams, was a big moment for the kids.
Fast, upfront, and straightforward was the impression I got landing in Lagos, Nigeria. I quickly learned the honour and pride the locals had for their homeland. Godwin and Masai, childhood best friends, were back home. I was getting into the swing of things, and by the fourth city stop on this journey I felt comfortable with the idea of being a part of the GOA family, which was such an incredible feeling. The food was definitely different. I tried okra, samo, and a variety of spicy foods, and ended up loving it because it reminded me of the recipes rooted in my Jamaican culture.
Upon arrival at the gym, I saw the campers warming up in the dark and was immediately interested in finding out why. In Nigeria, all power sources are controlled by the generator business and they cost a lot of money to maintain. If it weren't for the camp, it's easy to believe the gym would not have been open for the kids to play. The Nigerian campers were good, as I would find out later, so just imagine if they had a gym to train in every day...
The lights eventually came on, signalling the start of camp. The aggression was evident immediately; the campers here meant business. They attacked hard and tried to dunk everything. It ended up costing them a couple runs up and down the court. They'd get super excited and miss dunks, so they were sent on extra runs to teach them not to get ahead of themselves.
The coaches emphasized the importance of maintaining composure, something the players became better at as the camp went on. By the last day of it all, it really felt like a brotherhood in the gym. Nobody wanted to say bye, and a humble Masai closed the camp with a strong message.
He reminded the campers that there is a commonplace between him and them and that they were all cut from the same cloth. The change amongst Africans, he said, starts at home first.
This is where the power of the sport hit me. I've heard time and time again that sport was universal, but this was the first time I had really felt it. The language barrier here was the strongest out of the six countries I visited. We drove out to Orphanage de Bingerville when we arrived and found out right away that everyone was friendly—the kids shared smiles you'd never forget, but I quickly learned that my method of communication here would be rooted in the energy I projected. When I smiled, I received the brightest glare back, and when I signalled "catch" the kids would come down with the ball to put their arsenal on display.
Although dialogue was minimal, we gravitated toward each other fairly quickly. That made leaving the orphanage that day the hardest goodbye for me. We just connected differently through an unspoken bond. I got over it by telling myself I'd see them next year. After an experience like this, you can't help but want to go back.
I was super excited when we walked into Day 1 of camp in Abidjan. The gym was a playground, with multiple levels, two courts, and different places to shoot from. Here, the campers were always thinking one step ahead and bringing a flare to the game. Finger rolls, behind the back passes—you could tell they had spent a fair amount of time watching NBA highlights.
On the second day, I saw a familiar face walking off into the distance who I remembered being a subtle onlooker at camp the day prior. Today he was walking away from the gym, and all I could do was wonder why. I put myself in his shoes and remembered being 13 with all these dreams and aspirations. I recalled my love for the ball I carried with me everywhere I went. My mind ran a mile in that half-minute. "Can I help? What can I do to be a friend?" I thought of opportunity and access to play, so for me I wanted to see if I could make his day a little bit better. So instead of going straight to camp, I let Wilson, GOA's creative director, know that I'd be in the gym in a split-second. Running over, I knew we wouldn't be able to have a conversation, yet I was so excited about making his acquaintance. By the time I caught up, he was halfway across the field.
"Comment tu t'appelles?"
"Je m'appelle Jamal."
There was silence, but we were both looking at each other with big smiles. I asked him to pass me the ball, which got the conversation flowing. I put a couple sequences together and asked him to show me what he could do. His skills were limited so I quickly shifted my focus to teaching him a trick or two. Abu was a really quick learner, and I was an ecstatic teacher.
Everyone was an ecstatic teacher in Africa.
When I got back, the campers were split into groups for a team exercise. This is how it worked—each group of 12 was assigned an NBA team and given five minutes to come up with the best chant for bragging rights (this happened at every stop). It was always interesting because each country came with its own personality and in some cases chanted in different languages, like the Giants of Abidjan who recited theirs in French.
As the photographer, I would step into the huddle and become a part of it. The feeling was always surreal. Being in the middle of something so pure and energetic gave me goosebumps, and I'd get hit with this indescribable emotion. The energy and camaraderie could really get to me sometimes—an overflowing sense of gratitude is the best way to describe it. The dreams were real and I believed in them all.
This was our last stop. A beautiful place right next to the ocean. The camp there, in Dakar, took place outdoors, so the rain was a concern at first. The power of nature prevailed and the sun shined throughout the week. This camp definitely had the tallest campers. I stand 6'2" and I felt small next to them.
This was the first time in GOA history that there was a camp for the top 50 females as well. We were graced with some amazing basketball players to lead the way as coaches, such as Lindsey Harding (a former first overall WNBA draft pick) and Nicki Gross (an assistant coach in the NBA G League).
With this camp in particular, chants between the boys and girls became real competition. The guys thought they had it from the get-go until the girls showed them up. The chants were something a person two football fields away could hear. The power and excitement added an amazing new dynamic to the GOA camp.
The last day crept up on me fast. We started our day with a beach workout led by Lindsay and local coach, Ibrahim. From the beach, we walked back to the court. Along the walk, we chanted again, with the boys going against the girls. Masai took part, and it was a bittersweet feeling for me along the way—it was special but also marked the end.
It was the best summer I've ever had. It was fun and taught me life lessons from start to finish. To the leaders contributing to the development of people in Africa through basketball, the efforts are sincerely admired. As a photographer, I pay attention and hope to see things along the way. I was fortunate in that regard, as I saw plenty and learned even more.
What I saw in 25 days was peace and change. Real change. I saw dreams come true. I experienced family, and all of us as one.