Thunder forward Nick Collison, along with NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo and Bucks forward Luc Mbah a Moute is in Kenya representing the NBA as part of a UNICEF field trip. Collison has filed this travelogue for NBA.com.
Entry 1: Making my way to Kenya
I previously attended Basketball without Borders in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2008, so this marks my second trip to Africa. I had a great experience and wanted to return, so when I was approached by the NBA to come to Kenya as part of a UNICEF field trip followed by another BWB in Johannesburg, I jumped at the opportunity.
Friday morning I left New York on a flight to Johannesburg then on to Nairobi. The total travel time was over 20 hours. After relaxing Saturday we had a day to spend in Nairobi. A small group of us toured Kibera which is one of the largest slums in the world, located in the middle of Nairobi. Walking through Kibera was a powerful experience. The living conditions are awful. Children are playing barefoot in the dirt roads among the sewage and garbage. Like many other parts of Africa, HIV and AIDS is a major problem. Families have taken in orphans into their already overcrowded homes. I visited a similar neighborhood in South Africa in 2008. Both times I came away feeling sad for the people, but also inspired by them. Despite their struggles, life goes on. I met people who are working to help others through churches and small health clinics. The children were playing with smiles on their faces. It is a great experience to see how other people in different parts of the world live. It gives perspective and appreciation for what is important in life.
The journey continues today as I am on a plane to Kakuma. I am part of a UNICEF team going to visit a refugee camp that is the home of over 100,000 refugees displaced by conflict or famine. I will fill you in on what comes next…
Entry 2: Visiting Kakuma
We landed on a dirt runway in 110 degree heat in the refugee camp of Kakuma which is in sits on Terkana, a region in Northwest Kenya. The camp was built 20 years ago and hosts refugees from 13 countries in Africa who have been displaced due to conflict or famine. Nearly half of the refugees are from war-torn Somalia and around 30 percent are from Sudan, which split into North and South Sudan in 2010. We arrived with a group of 15 people including Milwaukee Bucks player Luc Mbah a Moute of Cameroon, NBA Global Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Caryl Stern, the CEO of the UNICEF US Fund. When we disembarked from the plane, I noticed around 100 people standing by the fence. They were applying to get into the camp which has the capacity to take care of 100,000 refugees. We saw a truck that had transported around 50 to 80 people, all carrying everything they owned on their backs before they began the application process which includes health checks and interviews. Unfortunately, the camp has already surpassed the 100,000 mark and they are working hard to find ways to fit in the hundreds of people that show up to the camp each day to apply to get in. We started to drive through the camp which is filled with people walking everywhere; men and women carrying large jugs of water that they collected from the river or well to bring back to their homes which are made of either straw, mud blocks, or tin.
We stopped in one section of the camp and were briefed by a United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) representative, who coordinates operations for the camp, to learn about their work with the refugee population. It was fascinating learning about the violent situations the people have come from and to hear about their long journeys to safety in Kakuma. Some of the people have lived there for 15 to 20 years and many children have lived their entire lives in the camp. Malnutrition, chronic disease, and a lack of water in the desert climate are some of the major issues that the camp deals with on a daily basis. Each refugee is provided with water, food rations of 2100 calories a day, and free health care. In severe cases where they are unable to treat a person they can send up to six people a month to a hospital in Nairobi. They also provide education for the children, but it is difficult with limited resources and class sizes that average 114 and can reach as high as 180 students in a small classroom. We saw a living space where new refugees stay until they are able to create more permanent housing. A group or family of three to five people live in a space roughly 8×8 feet and sleep on blankets on the floor. We talked to a 15-year-old girl named Mary who told us about her journey from South Sudan. She was very friendly and was happy to be at Kakuma. Overall, this was an eye-opening experience.
And I am thankful to the both the NBA and UNICEF for bringing me here to meet the wonderful people who are helping refugees from across the continent find a more peaceful life. I always knew UNICEF did such great work, but being able to see first hand how they impact and save children’s lives was an incredible experience. I encourage you all to take just a moment out of your day and learn how you can make difference and a child’s life by visiting Unicefusa.org. I promise it will be some of the most important and rewarding time you spend today.
Entry 3: An emotional rollercoaster
On Monday night I had a couple beers with two guys with the UNHCR. They were basketball fans and told me that during the NBA playoffs they would get up at 3:00 every morning to watch NBA games on the TV in the dining hall. They wanted to talk about basketball and I wanted to ask them about their experiences living in Kakuma and working with refugees every day. One of the guys is actually from Mason City, Iowa, which is 45 minutes away from where I grew up. I’m pretty sure we played against each other in 8th grade. The world is a small place. I really admire them for the work they do day in and day out. Each day they wake up, eat in the same dining hall and spend their time doing what they can to try to provide basic needs for people. They see some pretty heartbreaking stuff and they don’t get discouraged. One of the guys had been living and working there for 7 years. I also admire them for introducing me to the African beer Tusker, which is delicious, but I digress.
One thing I have taken away from this trip is the realization that there is a huge network of people like these guys at UNHCR, and the staff at UNICEF, all around the world who want to make the world better and are actually doing something about it. We all feel terrible about children dying because of preventable diseases and malnutrition, but these people are committing their lives to help children survive and go on to live better and more productive lives. They are true heroes.
I woke up Tuesday morning after sleeping at the UNHCR guesthouse. The guest house is a compound with different dorm-like apartments where the staff live and visitors like us stay. The beds all have mosquito nets, which I appreciated, because running sprints in training camp next month would be considerably more difficult if I was recovering from malaria. Malaria is common in this area. The UNHCR guys told me it’s a rite of passage for people who work in the field to get it. Most of them have gotten it at some point, including Dikembe Mutombo, who had to miss about two weeks of training camp in 1997 because he was infected. I am taking malaron, which is a drug that should stop me from getting it, but I still appreciate the net.
After breakfast we headed out in our caravan to visit Makutano Health Facility, which UNICEF works with. When we arrived we got a briefing from the head of the facility about what they do. People walk there from communities as far away as 42 kms away for treatment and vaccinations. In the Terkana region, where polio has been dormant for 30 years, they recently experienced an outbreak and children need vaccinations to be protected. With support from UNICEF, groups of doctors have started a vaccination initiative where twice a week they travel to the village of Nakale to meet families from the neighboring communities halfway. We were able to accompany them while they administered polio vaccines to the children. The people in this village are nomadic herders who move around depending on the availability of water and food. They live in huts made of branches and twigs. Some of the people have come all the way from South Sudan on the other side of the mountain. To see these families walking through the desert and realizing how far they have come for two drops of a vaccine is mind-blowing. They come so far, sitting, waiting for such a simple vaccine, which costs about 70 cents. I had the opportunity to vaccinate some of the children myself. It was an incredible experience giving the drops to the children, knowing that their mother wouldn’t have to worry about her child ever contracting polio. It would take a much better writer than myself to somehow put into words what this experience was like.
After saying good-bye to the families, we walked back to the trucks and headed to Lodwar. The ride was rough – we spent two hours on a road with so many giant potholes that we were constantly getting thrown around and having to slow down to drive on the side of the road to avoid flattening a tire.
Our next stop was the Saint Monica Girls boarding school in Lodwar town. The school is attended by girls who escaped abuse, forced child labor, or being sold into marriage. The girls were around 10 to 14 years old. They are currently out of class on vacation but they can’t leave the school without fear of being kidnapped if they leave the premises. We met the girls in their classroom and after a brief introduction we broke into groups and had five girls show us around. They showed us where they sleep, eat, and we walked with them about 500 yards to where they pump water. These girls are very lucky to have been able find this school. They were so polite and smart. Knowing the type of situations they came from it was really a joy to hear how well they were doing at the school.
Our day wasn’t over yet. We then went to the Nadirkonyen Center for Street & Exploited Children. These kids had also been removed from situations where they have been abused or neglected. The kids had a dance prepared; there was singing, and a very touching poem about their struggle. It was a really fun end to a long day. After the program we took all the kids to their basketball court and tried to teach them some skills and played around. After hearing story after story about the awful things that have happened to most of them, it was so much fun to see them running wild and having fun. The past two days have felt like two weeks with everything I’ve done out here. The emotional rollercoaster I’ve been on is like nothing I have ever experienced.
When we were with the doctors administering the vaccines in Nakale, Caryl Stern, the CEO of the UNICEF US fund, said to me, “It’s hard for us to even comprehend how far these people come for this – if I have to wait even an hour at the doctors office I’m upset. But as a parent you know that if you were given the opportunity to walk 20 or 30 miles to save your child from dying from polio, you wouldn’t hesitate to walk all day.” She is absolutely right. The point she made is exactly why this experience has been so beneficial to me. Growing up in the United States I had always heard about the suffering in Africa. I knew children were dying from malnutrition and preventable disease, but it was always just vague information about people in a far away place. This trip, however, has given me the opportunity to see these people eye to eye. I see that this is real. I saw a thankful mother who was relieved her child would be safe from polio. As a father, I saw someone who I could relate to.
I am now heading to Johannesburg, South Africa for the NBA and FIBA’s Basketball without Borders camp. There I will also get the opportunity to participate in a Habitat for Humanity house build, lead a clinic for South African Special Olympics athletes and spend time with kids in Alexandra Township where we will open four new basketball courts for the community.