Mutombo's message: It's OK to dream

Editor's note: This article ran in September of 2003.

    "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."
    -- Theodore Roosevelt

SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA -- In the novel "The Power of One," by Bryce Courtenay, Peekay, a young white boy raised by natives, joins forces with the Zulus to do the unthinkable in 1940s South Africa -- teach blacks how to read and write.

Courtenay's novel was not only a stinging indictment of South Africa's repressive apartheid regime. It also was a stirring call to all South Africans, white and black, to stand up and fight for the human rights of all people.

The power of one individual to overcome incredible odds and make a difference ultimately can lead to the empowerment of thousands or even millions.

Apartheid is no longer the scourge of South Africa. But its painful remnants still haunt the land and people in places like Soweto, a township of more than four million blacks just outside of Johannesburg.

Rampant crime, vicious rapes, epidemic HIV rates and devastating poverty have kept the people of Soweto from being truly free. While the government no longer holds the people back, very few escape the horrors of living here.

But there are people who are doing what they can with what they have where they are. One is Jacqueline (Mama Jackey) Maarohanye, who with an assist from NBA star Dikembe Mutombo on Thursday turned what looked to be a routine opening of an NBA Reading and Learning Center at the Ithuteng Trust here in Soweto into a defining example of how the power of one can make dramatic changes in the lives of those in their hour of need.

10 a.m. Africa 100 Camp, Johannesburg: The kids already are into full drills by the time we arrive. The thick, pungent smell of sweat in the gym almost blows the doors off. The facilities don't have air conditioning, and another warm day has the camp participants drenched just 30 minutes into the workout.

It doesn't take long for most of us to bolt the gym and head to the three outside courts. It's much hotter out here, but a few whiffs of the gym is enough to convince us that a sunburn is much better than permanent olfactory damage.

Each station on the court is lead by an NBA coach and is designed to teach important fundamentals. I wander over to a court where the Rockets' Dennis Lindsey and Mutombo are showing players how to do a drop step.

Mutombo has taken an early liking to a 15-year-old 7-footer from Nigeria named Kenechukwu Obi. Obi was discovered in the hinterlands of Nigeria six months ago. He was a member of the Ibo tribe, and he had never played organized basketball.

Obi is tentative with the ball and struggles to get the motion right on the drop step. Lindsey starts to instruct, but within seconds, Mutombo is there showing him how to lead his move with his elbows.

Obi is star struck.

"Mutombo is my hero," he says. "He is the greatest. Not only does he play hard, but he loves his people. He is not from Nigeria, but we know what he does for all Africans. My dream is coming true today."

Everyone at the camp loves Mutombo. Wherever he goes, his reception rivals that of Michael Jordan in the States. Girls swoon. Young boys cheer and bounce up and down. Adults smile like proud parents welcoming home the return of a successful child.

The devotion is well earned. In the U.S., Mutombo is known for his tough defense and signature finger wag when blocking an opponent. Here, he is much more than that. Mutombo has given back to Africa his whole career. From the millions of dollars he's invested to build a hospital in the Congo, to the numerous donations he makes to African charities and young people who want to get an education in the United States, Mutombo represents the gold standard of players who give back to their community.

"He is the model we hope all will follow," Anicet Lavodrama, Manager of International Relations and Development for FIBA, says. "Dikembe has helped thousands in Africa live a better life. One life helping thousands. When that happens, it is something to celebrate."

Mutombo says the NBA Africa 100 camp is a dream come true for him.

"Nobody ever thought that one day kids in Africa would dream about playing in the NBA," Mutombo said. "Maybe they dream of coming to America and getting an education and stay in America and having a wonderful job. To see that dream transformed into coming into the NBA -- dreaming of being the next Dikembe Mutombo; being a role model; being a leader in the community; being someone who can come back and inspire our people -- this is has been my dream."

12:30 p.m. On the road to Soweto: This is Mutombo's second visit to Soweto in as many days. On Wednesday he visited the Ipelegeng Community Center in Soweto and read to young children.

A caravan of buses take the players, coaches and media out to the events.

Mutombo's face grows more tense as he watches out the window. Sandton Square in Johannesburg, where the NBA delegation is staying, is a beautiful part of a city with golden rolling hills, clean streets, ultra-modern facilities and a virtually all white population.

As the journey continues, however, the views from the bus melt from the beautiful to the horrific. Twenty miles into the trip, the shanty towns begin appearing. A sea of dilapidated houses made out of corrugated tin and cardboard boxes give the hillsides the appearance of refuse dump. Trash litters the road. The people of Soweto are like scattered leaves on the sidewalk, their faces hard, their bodies thin, their clothes tattered. The souls here are forged in the fires of adversity.

We pass one small town that lies in the shadow of a now-defunct nuclear power plant. Mutombo shakes his head when he sees the plant.

"They closed that plant because it was poisoning the people," Mutombo says. "The cancer rates were terrible. The sad part is, the people that suffered never benefited from the plant. Sometimes the power line ran directly over the villages. But the people never got any power. All of the lines ran into Johannesburg to keep the lights on in the white homes."

Nor did they get paved streets, running water or much else. Spread between the tin homes are cookie cutter, 500-square-foot brick structures standing side by side. When Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, he set aside a huge amount of money to begin building decent homes in Soweto. Thousands of homes have been built since then. Somehow they are never enough to empty the shanty towns. As people move out, refugees from all over South Africa swarm into the abandoned shelters.

Mutombo is no stranger to poverty. Over the past decade he has traveled to the poorest reaches of Africa trying to find ways to help. Still, the scene in Soweto moves him.

"Soweto was the center of the struggle to free South Africa," Mutombo said. "The people have paid a terrible price for freedom. There is much pain and suffering that remains here."

Within the next hour, Mutombo's words will be proven true.

1:30 p.m. Ithuteng Trust, Soweto: The caravan of buses pulls onto a dirt road lined with hundreds of small children, dressed in navy blue school uniforms, chanting and cheering as the convoy arrives.

In this heart of darkness, we've come upon Ithuteng Trust, an oasis in the belly of the violence and sorrow that envelops much of Soweto.

Started by Mama Jackey in 1990, the Ithuteng Trust is a youth empowerment program that works to assist "at-risk youth" with life skills and education. Almost 2,500 students are enrolled here. Jackey claims to know each of them by name.

The students follow the buses into the gate of the compound and stand in straight lines to welcome each visitor as they get off the bus. In a matter of minutes, NBA coaches, players and the media are shaking hands and hugging thousands of students who sing a traditional welcome song to their unlikely guests.

Mutombo and the rest of the NBA players are here to open the NBA's first Reading and Learning Center outside of North America. The Reading and Learning Centers are part of the NBA's Read to Achieve program and are meant to give poverty stricken kids access to reading materials and computers. Today, the NBA, in conjunction with Dell computers, is donating eight computers and hundreds of books to the new center.

No one, however, was quite ready for the welcome. The group was led to a courtyard, where more students sat on the ground, wearing all white, still singing their greeting to the visitors. Mutombo and fellow NBA players Olumide Oyedeji, Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje, DeSagana Diop, Mamadou N'diaye and Michael Curry wait in another room.

Children then roll out a thick red carpet across the dirt and line up along each side. They erupt as Mutombo and the others make their way through the red carpet to a tent just outside the courtyard. The children stand and put on a 30-minute show filled with dancing, gymnastics, poetry and a play.

The tent is full, so I take a seat among the children who are watching their classmates perform. The kids are smart, extremely literate, well behaved, polite and in complete amazement that the NBA, or anyone else for that matter, would come here.

"Important people never come here," one 12-year-old boy explains. "In fact, no one ever comes here. People have forgotten about most of us. How did you remember we are here?"

The look on thousands of other faces said the same thing. The children are curious about America, the NBA and my shoes. I'm wearing a pair of black Nike cross trainers and they seem to have struck a chord. Maybe it's because many of the children, despite being dressed in sharp gray slacks, blue blazers, white shirts and ties, don't have any shoes at all.

Shortly, all of our attention is drawn to the play being acted out in the dusty courtyard. There are two characters in this scene, a young girl and an older gentleman. They are arguing. In a flash of rage, he grabs her hair, throws her to the ground and begins a stark and violent portrayal of an assault. The man's character beats the young girl in the face. As she screams for help, he depicts the act of undressing and raping her. Her mother runs to help, but the man leaps up and beats the mother to death. As the child weeps over the death of her mother, many of the children circle around her and begin singing a funeral song.

The crowd is silent. The play continues. Tears roll down the crevices of one child's face and pool in a scar just above her lip. I ask her what is going on. She looks down and whispers. "We are showing you what has happened to us. All of us. This is why we are here."

Several other children echo the first. They speak of horrific rapes, of HIV infections, of abandonment and despair.

These children, the same smiling faces so happy and innocent just moments ago, now look older, wearier. These were not "at-risk" kids. These children already had suffered unimaginable horrors.

Helen Wong, the NBA's International Public Relations Manager, said all of the children of Ithuteng Trust have been sexually abused or molested. A large percentage of them have contracted HIV from the abuse. Many were abandoned. Left in the street to die.

Mama Jackey is trying to save as many as she can. "I know from personal experience what rejection is," Jackey explained. "I was abandoned as a child. My own mother didn't want anything to do with me. When I comfort 'my kids,' the ones who are rebellious, the ones that society is quick to discard, the ones dealing with the most horrific abuse at home, I tell them all I know what it feels to be unwanted. It's the most painful thing in the world, but the question is, Are you going to let that define you for the rest of your life?"

What Jackey is doing appears to be working. Jackey's methods are controversial, but the kids swear by them. She takes new students and locks them in a real prison the first night. The experience, she claims, helps children understand that crime doesn't pay. She makes them exercise, takes them to hospitals to see rape victims, then whisks them off to drug rehab centers. Finally, she rounds out their "orientation" with a visit to the orphanages to help kids see what happens when girls get pregnant too early. Essentially, she's scaring them straight.

Once in the program, the students learn English, French, math, computers as well as traditional African forms of art, singing and dancing. Most importantly, they begin the long process of healing their wounded souls.

It's hard to argue with the results. The school boasts a 100 percent pass rate every year. Many of the children go on to be productive citizens in the community. The children I saw all appeared happy and well adjusted. Ithuteng Trust is a called a "miracle school," by some here.

Mackey is more modest when discussing her achievements. "Today is the greatest day we've ever had for the school," she said. "We still struggle for recognition. This visit will do so much to help us. Perhaps it will inspire others to do the same."

After the ceremony, the children escort Mutombo and the others to a new rose garden. With shovel in hand, Mutombo begins digging holes and planting rose bushes -- one for every parent who has left a child here orphaned.

The scene brings tears to the eyes of most in the crowd. Even the eyes of some of the NBA's most hardened scouts tear up at the event.

Mutombo is not done. In a surprise gesture, he hands Mama Jackey a check for $100,000. Jackey literally jumps into Mutombo's arms.

Why does he do it?

"I love my continent," Mutombo says. "I'm proud to be from Africa. I love the heritage of my ancestors. ... We are wonderful people. We come from a great culture. We want people to discover our homeland. I'm glad this is happening."

4:30 p.m. Leaving Soweto: After the ceremony, the children flood into the parking lot to say goodbye.

T-Wolves scout Zarko Durisic walks over to a new basketball court (built especially for this visit by the children) and begins teaching the kids how to shoot.

"Keep playing basketball," the native of Montenegro implores. "It is good for you."

Other scouts and coaches are stripping bare to give whatever they have to the children. One gives up his shirt. Another gives up a hat. Another gives his shoes, size 14, to a 10-year-old child.

The crowd of children around the bus is so thick, it takes awhile before everyone can finally get to the bus and leave.

Before going, Bob Lanier, the NBA's Community Ambassador on the trip, promises, with tears streaming down his face, that the NBA will back here.

Other scouts and coaches are talking about sending boxes full of jerseys, shorts and socks to the children here once they return home. Each of them, in their own way, seems moved to do more to help the children here.

"It makes all of our problems seem pretty insignificant," Pistons scout Tony Ronzone says. "You read about things like this, see them on TV, but images and words can't describe what we saw and felt here today. You see this and basketball suddenly doesn't matter anymore."

Mutombo would disagree. Basketball doesn't define him. But it has given him the opportunity to help his people. If there is any lesson from the NBA Africa 100 Camp, Mutombo says it's this one.

"Dikembe Mutombo is not just a basketball player. I want the kids to see this powerful message. If you want to dream about being Dikembe Mutombo, it has to be about more than just basketball. They cannot forget where they came from. If they want to dream about me, dream about what I'm doing on a daily basis. Dream about being a person who can look behind them and see people suffering and say, 'I will turn my shoulder and look after them and see what I can do.' I think if the kids can get that message, it will be a bright day in Africa soon."

Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN.com.