The “Lost Boys of Sudan” basketball spirit continues to provide a source of hope for boys and girls faced with harsh conditions associated with the dry weather in Turkana County.
A mention of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” evokes emotions of sad tales of hardship and suffering endured by an estimated 20,000 boys from the Dinka and Nuer communities from Southern Sudan during the second Sudanese Civil War.
They fled, finding their way into Ethiopia and, later, into Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee camp, mostly on foot. The treacherous journey was characterized by sickness, starvation and attacks by wild animals.
Through United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) sports programmes, the Lutheran World Federation is targeting the young population of refugees to tackle idleness and cement peaceful coexistence.
Thus, basketball and other sporting activities were rolled out.
Currently, there are 634 sports teams, categorized in age-groups such as Under-10, Under-12, Under-14, Under-16 and open age with football drawing 90 percent of the youths.
On our trip to Turkana last month, we found over 300 basketball players on the only basketball court at Kakuma 1 Camp, all who have dreams of following in the footsteps of the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”
Joseph Yohannes Kuong, the Kakuma Bulls basketball team captain, offers a brief history of the development of basketball at the camp: “Kakuma Bulls was initially called Zone Five after it was started by the “Lost Boys of Sudan” and since then, the court we are still using has produced more than 60 professional basketball players, most based in the United States,” Kuong explains.
He lists Luol Ajou Deng, a South Sudanese-British former professional basketball player as among those who are inspiring many upcoming players. Playing as small forward, “Ironman” Deng was a two-time NBA All-Star and who was also named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 2012, having started his pro career at the age of 19, spending 10 years with the Chicago Bulls.
Mayo Makuei Chai, who after learning basketball game at the Kakuma Refugee Camp, rose through the ranks to become a professional basketball coach in Australia.
Back at Kakuma, Kuong multi-tasks as he is coach, captain and player of the team, a huge task on his shoulders keeping in mind that he must concentrate on how to improve himself to greater levels. He said that his aim is to play for South Sudan national team if required support is provided as he looks forward to be a star in the game.
Incidentally, Deng, who has since retire from the NBA, is the President of the South Sudan Basketball Federation.
“We lack a qualified coach. All we do is train by ourselves. My teammates just settled on me as their coach and captain because of my skills,” Kuong added.
“When the coach is available and when we are guaranteed of necessary support, there will be healthy competition among us to be selected to represent Kakuma Bulls in tournaments.”
UNHCR and the Lutheran World Federation have played a big role in supporting them with balls, but due to the growing number of boys and girls having interest in the sport, there is need for more balls, shoes and additional courts.
‘O’ level education
Stephens said that despite the challenges many players have been given a chance to be sponsored by various schools across Kenya.
Bob Simon, who is the assistant captain of Kakuma Bulls, said it is through basketball he was able to complete his ‘O’ level education at Manor House High School in Kitale, Trans Nzoia.
“Before I sat for my KCSE in 2016, I can boldly say that my talent in basketball secured me a chance at Manor House High School.
“I was able to represent my school at local events and inter-schools’ competitions, playing against strong oppositions such as St Anthony Kitale, St. Joseph’s Boys High school and Kitale Technical among others,” Bob said.
He still has faith that a little exposure will see him secure a chance to pursue tertiary education in future.
The vibrant boys’ team led to establishment of Kakuma Bulls Girls team that has also exposed girls to top schools in the country.
Like 24-year-old Nuru Chol who started playing basketball 13 years ago. Her consistency in the game saw her earn a scholarship with basketball giants in western Kenya, Tigoi Girls High School in Vihiga County.
“With the team I was able to play in the East Africa Secondary Schools Games in Tanzania. I wish to join any regional basketball club for women to capitalise on my talent both nationally and internationally,” said Chol, who is the captain for the girls’ team.
Boys rule the court
She noted that the main challenge for girls at the Kakuma Refugee Camp is that there are more than 70 girls with passion for the game, but they can’t be allowed to crowd onto the only court that is mainly used by the boys.
The girls complain that boys generally rule the court and this is killing talents of many girls who take up to three days before laying their hands on the ball.
“Supporting our talent in basketball will not only mould us into superstars, but will act as an avenue where girls are so much engaged to never engage in early pregnancies, drugs and alcohol abuse besides other immoral behaviors,” she explained.
The girls called on the Kenya Basketball Federation to also visit them and offer necessary support in terms of training facilities.
Lolem Welpan, 22, said that when playing basketball on the court it is difficult to differentiate them basing on the nationalities.
She said that there are South Sudanese, Kenyans, Somalis, Burundians, Congolese and Rwandese.
“The sport is promoting peace among us and is the best avenue to appreciate each other’s culture.” She said.
According to senior youth development officer at the Lutheran World Federation, Tom Aduwa, the youth in Kakuma are positive.
“Despite many challenges at the camp, youths in Kakuma are very proactive, hardworking and talented.
“They do not shy from taking up opportunities that come their way and their networking skills are also high.
“With proper support and networking, especially with the national sports bodies, Kakuma youth will surprise the country, and the world,” said Aduwa.