Throughout my life, I've earned many nicknames -- Mobi (thanks, ESPN), Mojo, Momo, Mobo -- but, in all honesty, I just prefer Mo. My full name is Mobolaji Akiode, and I was born in the U.S but spent part of my childhood in Nigeria. My family moved us to New Jersey permanently when I was 9 years old, and I've lived there ever since -- well, until 2009.
I started playing basketball at 13 years old for Columbia High School, before playing four years at Fordham University (Go Rams!). In 2004, I joined the Nigerian women's basketball team and I represented the country in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens (Go D'Tigress!). (Don't ask where the name comes from, we don't have Tigers in Nigeria.)
After three amazing years as a globetrotting professional athlete, I dusted off the old résumé and applied to ESPN as an accountant in 2007. Two short years later, I left the corporate world to start a nonprofit to benefit young girls in Africa. Check out the ESPN-produced documentary on Hope 4 Girls Africa.
My life has had many amazing twists and turns. One minute I was traveling the world trying to learn other languages (usually seeking out the bad words first), the next I was in Bristol, Conn., crunching numbers as an accountant. By minute three, I had quit that promising new career and run back to my first love -- basketball -- now armed with a new passion -- Africa.
By the way, let me publicly apologize for judging all the athletes who have tried (miserably) to end their sports careers on the first try. It's easy as fans to judge and expect athletes to go out on top, but how many really do? As fans, we wonder why would anyone put himself or herself in the position to be remembered as the overweight, lost-a-step, once-great athlete, now overshadowed by a younger and cooler version of himself. But it's not always easy to give up a career -- and a passion -- that has shaped one's entire life. I'm not condoning any back and forth or un-retirements; I'm just saying I understand.
But this isn't about an athletic comeback -- well, not fully. But like many former athletes, I couldn't stay away from the sport I loved so much. As it turns out, my comeback took me on a life-changing journey. That journey would start in Nigeria.
My best basketball years were playing for Nigeria. I was able to reunite with a country that I had left as a child and could no longer relate to. I got to travel to countries across Africa that included Gabon, Mali, Senegal, Benin Republic and Ivory Coast. But it's hard coming from a privileged country such as America, with a relatively comfortable life (not without its problems), and to take such a departure to experience Africa and all its wonders.
Despite pockets of wealth in these countries, the average person is deprived of what we in America consider basic necessities. I have seen for myself the poverty, corruption, lack of gender equality and untapped potential that exists. While there, I also noticed that many of Africa's athletes are from impoverished areas. I guess that is where my moment of clarity came from.
Even after I returned to America (and all the privileges that life brought), I couldn't let go of my experiences in Africa. There, I could imagine the most amazing opportunities for Africa's youth through sports. There are so many ways athletics can be used to uplift, give hope and inspire, and from what I had seen more could be done, especially when it came to the female gender.
The lack of support for female athletes mostly can be attributed to cultural biases. Family, community and religion still reinforce stereotypical behavior of gender roles. Traditionally, boys are more encouraged to play sports than girls. On top of that, thanks to few (or no) female administrators, coaches and leaders advocating for girls' sports, the ladies usually get left behind. And sadly, there has been no Title IX-type movement there.
As a result, I created Hope 4 Girls to try to better the lives of underprivileged girls. The game of basketball was great to me, and I want to share with others the opportunities it gave me. Of course, I'm not the first athlete to try to inspire others. I want Hope 4 Girls to have the same impact as many other conscientious athletes' charities that tackle poor education, address social inequalities or inspire youth.
Trying to run H4G hasn't been easy. If you think getting support for girls' sports is difficult in America, you can't even imagine the bigger obstacles in trying it in Nigeria. But as the great Muhammad Ali would say, "Impossible is nothing!" Follow me as I share sports stories out of Africa, talk about my struggles to keep my organization alive and learn to adjust to my new life. Let me formally welcome you to Nigeria.