Nigerian basketball stars show education value

SALLY JENKINS
Last updated 05:00 22/05/2014

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Everybody is tweeting #BringBackOurGirls. Salma Hayek on the red carpet in Cannes, the First Lady, and students at Cambridge University are all practicing hashtag activism on behalf of 276 Nigerian girls they've never met, kidnapped by the radical Islamists Boko Haram. Who are OurGirls? I don't know them either — but I know who they could be, and so does Chiney Ogwumike, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants who became the Number 1 pick in the WNBA Draft on the very same night the girls were taken.

Ogwumike saw the news on Twitter shortly after she was chosen by the Connecticut Sun. Both the draft and the kidnappings made headlines in Nigeria, where Ogwumike and her sister Nneka are sports celebrities. "Is this real?" Chiney asked her mother Ify, incredulous and horrified by the bulletin that said an entire school of 16- to 18-year-olds had been abducted. "It's legitimate," her mother replied.

Ify Ogwumike immigrated from Nigeria to England 30 years ago seeking the kind of western education the Boko Haram don't want women to have. She's now a school superintendent in Cypress, Texas. Husband Peter, a technology consultant, still travels regularly to Nigeria for work, and Chiney spent eight weeks there last summer as part of a work-study program for her International Relations major at Stanford University.

"Along with water, shelter and food, education is a fundamental right," Chiney says in a phone interview. She then puts her finger squarely on the root of what has outraged perfect strangers into calling Nigerian girls "ours." She adds, "They were put in jeopardy because of that. This is a group of young women targeted for trying to further themselves, and that's why it's reached an international crisis."

I don't know about the power or usefulness of hashtag activism. But I do know about the power of college scholarships, and the imprints they've made on so many Nigerian young women I've watched swamp NCAA and WNBA basketball in this country with their ambition. Based on them, the Boko Haram better run.

Take a close look at American rosters and you'll be stunned at the number of players with Nigerian roots, and the energy with which they are taking over the game. All of these women are either Nigerian, or the children of Nigerian immigrants who came to the US so their daughters could be educated: Duke's three-time All-American center Elizabeth Williams; former Tennessee All-Americans Nicky Anosike and Glory Johnson; Virginia's Sarah Imovbioh; Tulane's Adesuwa Ebomwonyi; Harvard's Temi Fagbenle; Pittsburgh's Loliya Briggs; Virginia Tech's Uju Ugoka; California's Afure Jemerigbe; UCLA's Atonye Nyngifa; Mississippi's Tia Faleru; Arizona State's Promise and Peace Amukamara.

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Then there is Georgetown's Ki-Ke Rafiu. She attended a Government Secondary School not unlike the one the girls were taken from in Chibok, Nigeria, a month ago. She goes back to Nigeria each summer, carrying with her all the cast-off sneakers she can collect from American collegians to pass out to girls on Nigerian playgrounds.

Nigerian women have discovered basketball as a means to education, which in job-scarce Nigeria is the only reliable form of mobility, according to Ogwumike. With education also comes the ability to self-fashion, what scholar Stephen Greenblatt defines as "the power to impose a shape upon oneself." As opposed to being forcibly moulded by others.

According to Chiney Ogwumike, when Ify put the first of her four daughters into youth basketball, her Nigerian friends were appalled. "Girls shouldn't do that," they told her. "They should cook, and be in school to study."

Then Nneka and Chiney got scholarships to play at Stanford, and took the Cardinal to three NCAA Final Fours in four years, and became national icons in Nigeria. First Nneka was drafted No.1 by the Los Angeles Sparks in 2012; and then Chiney, making them only the second set of siblings to be top draft choices in a major sports league, along with Peyton and Eli Manning.

"We took flak as a family for putting us into sports," Chiney says. "Now those same parents have daughters running track and playing ball, and there are developmental leagues. Nigerians cherish education and they figured out, hey, this is a way to get an education paid for, and to go to a place they couldn't ever go before."

The Ogwumikes are merely the latest and most impactful stars. Before them was Anosike, who offers perhaps the most dramatic testimony of how hard-fought and self-altering education can be for a Nigerian woman. Anosike is the sixth of eight children, and her mother Ngozi came to the U.S. from Nigeria with a sixth-grade education. Divorced, she raised the children alone while working multiple jobs and putting herself through high school, all while living in a cramped Staten Island housing project. When Nicky was recruited by Tennessee, she refused to let legendary coach Pat Summitt visit their apartment, because she was so self-conscious of the roaches and the mice.

Ngozi studied at night until she not only finished high school, but also nursing school. At Tennessee, Anosike emulated her mother by taking on a triple major in sociology-criminal justice, political science, and legal studies, while captaining the team to consecutive national championships in 2007 and 2008. Despite the buckling workload, she made the honour roll every semester for four straight years, with a 3.74 grade-point average. When Anosike's teammates would complain about running sprints or three-hour practices, Anosike would snap, "You're not tired. My mother is tired."

Most Nigerians who leave for their education tend not to return, Chiney Ogwumike says. "There's a brain drain." Which is why she has decided to go back.

On what should have been the most triumphant night of her life, she read a tweet about 276 young women she doesn't even know, and was suddenly stricken with a sense of her privilege, and yet helplessness. "We've got to do something," she said.

The hashtag campaign, which began as an attempt to pressure the Nigerian government into rescuing the girls, is not enough for her, or sister Nneka. Over the past month they've committed to work with UNICEF on education and child protection programs in Nigeria, and organised a series of fundraisers for Nigerian girls around WNBA games.

"I want to use my platform," Chiney says. "I'm Nigerian, our family are prominent Nigerians, and we want people to know we care about the issue. We have an active role, going back, reaching out. We can't personally solve it. But if we can help apply pressure on the system . . . We want to be part of the activism movement. When you tweet, you aren't doing anything. But at least you are raising awareness. The more people know about it, the more pressure there is to act."

The Boko Haram are right: Western education for a girl is dangerous — to them. Hopefully even fatal.

-Washington Post/Bloomberg

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