In the zone: Giants of Africa uses basketball as peacebuilding tool for youth – Dal News

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They might not show up on an official map of peacekeeping zones, yet a network of basketball camps that has grown across the continent of Africa over the past 17 years serves something of a similar purpose.

Operated by Giants of Africa (GOA), a not-for-profit group, the camps — spanning the continent from Somalia in the east to Nigeria and Morocco in the west — are built on the belief that sport can have a powerful positive impact on young people.

Nigerian-born Masai Ujiri, currently president of the Toronto Raptors Basketball Club, developed the idea for GOA when he was a talent scout for various NBA teams in the early 2000s. Aware that not every player he came across was cut out for professional play, Ujiri began devising plans for a series of basketball camps that would benefit young players by teaching them life skills, too.

“It’s so important as sports affects the social development of youth, especially on the continent of Africa, where opportunities are not that many,” said Ujiri during a fireside chat online last week as part of the Dal-based Dallaire Institute for Children, Peace and Security’s Knowledge for Prevention (K4P) conference — a week-long symposium exploring ideas for preventing the recruitment of children into conflict.

“If we can take sports to encourage them, I think this will create a lot of peace in a lot of these zones.”

To dream big

Working with a friend, Ujiri set to work on creating GOA. The friend took over the talent side, while Ujiri began to focus more on how he could use the game as a tool to get the young players to “dream big.”

That’s just what the camp did for Kenyan teen Myrah Oloo, a youth leader and alum of the GOA program (2019), who told attendees of the K4P chat this week that she hopes to one day become president of her home country or work as a diplomat for the African Union.

Oloo said GOA helped her understand how to make mistakes with confidence and reignited her passion to become an advocate for Africa, which she does now as a student in the UK. What most excited her though was how her peers and coaches influenced her.  

“I don’t think people understand. African youth have this energy, they have this entrepreneurial mind that is mind-blowing, really,” she said. “I think being in that atmosphere sharpened me as a person. I definitely wasn’t the same as when I went and came out of it — it was a really changing experience.”

Ideas over age

Oloo noted that 60 per cent of Africa’s population are under the age of 25, yet the median age of political leaders on the continent skews far older — a disconnect that needs fixing.

Asked by Shelly Whitman, executive director of the Dallaire Institute, what message would like to put forward to other leaders right now about prioritizing the protection of children, Oloo resonded:

“Simply put, age is not what makes the world go around. It’s ideas. And to protect the youth and to protect the children is to protect the ideas and to protect the future.”

In addition to the fireside chat with Ujiri and Oloo, Monday’s K4P session included remarks from retired Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire (Dallaire Institute’s founder), the Honourable Harjit Singh Sajjan, Canada’s national defence minister, and Virginia Gamba, United Nations Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict.

You can view the fireside chat and other remarks from the opening session as well as all the week’s other sessions online now.