Using basketball to break the cycle of poverty and disease in Rwanda

A young girl fires off a shot during a drill with nonprofit organization Shooting Touch, which uses basketball to promote health and wellness, in Nyamirama, Rwanda. Christopher Cardoza

KAYONZA, Rwanda -- I'm standing in a bustling marketplace in Kayonza with a fistful of Rwandan francs in my pocket and all I want to do is buy a sewing machine.

This causes quite a scene. There are very few -- OK, only two -- pale-skinned white women who, at nearly 6 feet tall, tower over the haggling African merchants in these frenetic streets.

I am one. Amy Latimer, the president of TD Garden in Boston and my trusted friend and fellow board member of the nonprofit organization Shooting Touch, is the other.

We are floundering because neither of us can speak Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda, or Swahili, the unofficial dialect.

It's laughable that I'm searching for a sewing machine. I can't stitch anything -- not even a button. But I need this sewing machine for Mama Lucy, a Rwandan woman who once made her living as a seamstress. Her machine broke four years ago, and her only source of income dried up. And like many in her tiny village of Rwinkwavu, Mama Lucy's primary concern is the next meal for her two daughters. She sells overripe vegetables and banana beer out of her tiny shop to get by.

Mama Lucy, who is HIV-positive, discovered Shooting Touch by accident. Her youngest daughter, Lucy, only 4 at the time, wandered down to the basketball court that we built in her village. Her mother scurried after her and discovered a hub of activity, with boys and girls ranging in age from 5 to 17 bumping heads as they dribbled, shot and rebounded a handful of worn basketballs. Yet that isn't really the mission of Shooting Touch. Our goal is to use basketball as a platform to teach health education and wellness to these kids in hopes of breaking an endless cycle of poverty and disease.

The mothers eventually became curious where their children were going each day, so a small group of them began to congregate at the court. "What about us?" they asked.

So Lisanne Comeau, a former basketball player from Queens College and a Shooting Touch visiting fellow, decided to start a new free athletic training session for the adult women. She walks up and down the dirt roads of Rwinkwavu recruiting members.

Mama Lucy's perspiration was usually the byproduct of toiling in the fields under a searing sun, so she was surprised to discover that she loves to sweat when she exercises, especially with other women her age, some of whom also are HIV-positive.

"Lisanne changed my life,'' she says.

I met Mama Lucy while visiting her two-room cement house, with a pair of wooden chairs and a small table as the only visible furniture. Mama Lucy's wall is adorned with a crucifix and a torn, faded poster of Chris Brown and Jay Z. Mama Lucy told me she used to keep to herself in Rwinkwavu. In her previous village, neighbors crossed the dirt road when they encountered her, terrified of a person infected with the HIV virus. Shooting Touch has given her new life, she says.

Mama Lucy's husband, Floriane, on the other hand, does not approve. This Shooting Touch, he tells her, is a waste of her time.

I figure if Mama Lucy's connection to our nonprofit nets her a new sewing machine, perhaps he would feel differently.

At the marketplace, Amy is on her own mission, searching for a shovel. She has just spent the day with Mama Kababa, a mother of eight who lives in a mud hut with a dirt floor and a single mat that doubles as the family's shared bed. Mama Kababa was destitute enough for the government to commission her a cow. Her sons built a small pen for the cow, but when the excrement piled up, her boys refused to help clean it, leaving Mama Kababa and Amy to scoop the cow dung with their hands.

As we wade through the goats and the beggars and the curious children who trail us, pinching our calves to see if that milky-white skin is actually real, we're offered fabric, rope and a hairbrush. But no shovel, no sewing machine.

We are disappointed, not about the material items, but about the waning opportunity to further empower these resilient African women.


NYAMIRAMA, Rwanda -- By my second day in Rwanda, I can easily identify the traits of malnourished children: stunted growth, distended stomachs and dull, vacant stares. Poverty and sickness are their constant companions, yet incredibly, they remain hopeful that tomorrow will be different.

It is a cheerfulness that defies the unspeakable horrors this country has endured.

Over the course of just 100 days in 1994, ethnic genocide claimed the lives of an estimated 800,000 people in Rwanda. Hutus, who made up about 85 percent of Rwanda's population, were instructed to murder Tutsis, to kill them slowly and to inflict the most unspeakable amount of suffering possible. Children were not spared. Families were ripped apart. In some cases, Hutu men were forced to kill their Tutsi wives or else wind up slaughtered in a ditch next to them; many choose the latter fate, rather than betray the people they loved.

The government has since decreed that all people of Rwanda must live peacefully together. It's now against the law to identify as either Hutu or Tutsi: Everyone must be called Rwandan. If you disobey, you are jailed. And yet, people relive the horror of the genocide every time they pass by the very neighbors who killed their family, even as the government urges them to reconcile.

Such is the uneasy alliance of this beautiful, damaged country.

The vulnerability of the African people is why Justin and Lindsey Kittredge started Shooting Touch. It's a daunting proposition to initiate a basketball program in a country that favors soccer, so to entice the community, Shooting Touch offers free health care to all who join. The cost is normally $4 a person per year, a king's ransom in Rwinkwavu, where income averages $20 a month.

Each year, the organization sends two fellows to Rwanda to implement change. This year, its fellows are Jake Mendys, a North Carolina grad who bleeds Tar Heels blue and grew up greeting Dean Smith at church every Sunday; and Chloe Rothman, who played ball at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts, then spent a year competing professionally in Israel.

We are at our court in Nyamirama, and Jake and Chloe have somehow managed to convince more than 400 fidgety kids from our program to gather at center court and sit quietly. We have just run them through a series of dribbling and passing drills and a brief half-court scrimmage. While the kids are athletic and enthusiastic, they also are serial hackers; they even foul their own teammates.

Jake picks a male player and asks him to stand. Chloe does the same with a female player. I marvel at Jake and Chloe as they encourage these two teenagers, in a mix of English and Swahili and French, to act out a date. The girl says kissing is OK, but the boy wants more. The girl says, "No!"

"When she says, 'No,''' Jake tells the boys, "that means no.''

"Let me hear it!" Chloe implores the girls, who range in age from 10 to 16.

"No!" they shout in unison.

The players listen intently to Jake and Chloe, who clearly have woven themselves into the fabric of the community. They have earned Rwanda street cred, just as Lisanne did before them.

It has been a battle, Lisanne tells me, to convince the men of Rwinkwavu to support the work of Shooting Touch. The organization is asking them, she explains, to alter a culture where women and girls are conditioned to be subservient. Playing basketball takes away from cooking, planting and lugging fresh water to and from the village (running water is nonexistent in their village). Many women believe wearing shorts or pants is a sin.

In Rukara, the men blamed women dribbling basketballs for the drought that shriveled their crops.

Once Mama Lucy came home late from practice without completing her chores and her husband banned her from the house. She slept outside in the dirt. Two months later, Mama Lucy was spotted doing planks in front of her home.

"That's when I knew we were making a difference,'' Lisanne says.

Despite the disapproval from the community's men, the program for adult women has become a word-of-mouth sensation. One day, a 61-year-old woman donning a turban and a full kitenge -- an outfit made of cloth, similar to a sarong -- showed up at the Nyamirama courts, grabbed a ball and started shooting. Her name is Kristina Leia. She approaches me during the role-playing session, and I notice she is barefoot. I offer her my Chuck Taylors, but they don't fit, so I give her my University of New Hampshire shorts, instead.

Sometimes, Kristina Leia tells me through an interpreter, the kids make fun of her, mimicking her awkward attempts at a basket. "I do not care!'' she declares.


NYAMIRAMA, Rwanda -- We are celebrating International Women's Day with WNBA star (and Shooting Touch ambassador) Chiney Ogwumike. We have returned to the Nyamirama courts to host a daylong hoops tournament, to conduct a free health screening in conjunction with Partners in Health (a Boston-based nonprofit) and to try to gain some traction -- and support -- with the local authorities.

Hundreds of people form a tight vise around the court. Players, parents, doctors, dignitaries and local police stand three deep, fixated on Chiney, the child of Nigerian parents, as she proudly speaks of her African heritage.

"You can do anything you put your mind to!" she yells to the young players, as the mayor of Nyamirama claps enthusiastically.

Yves, a bona fide Rwandan music celebrity, blares his music from large speakers positioned adjacent to the sideline as the players warm up.

Kristina Leia is there, wearing her kitenge. She smiles as she lifts it up to reveal my UNH shorts under her dress. She learns at the free screening that her blood pressure is 190/80; it's a miracle she hasn't had a heart attack.

Amy and I are about to make our African coaching debuts. As my Nyamirama team warms up, I survey my roster. Some women are wearing Crocs-style shoes or sandals. One is playing in low-heeled pumps. Many play in dresses and skirts.

My team is strong in spirit and short on skill. Amy's Rukara team boasts a ringer in Jeannette, who instinctively knows to release on a miss and streaks down the court calling for the ball. Jake, who lives in Rukara, claps gleefully. He has taught her well. Jeannette's teammate scores a basket for our team by mistake and my players celebrate wildly.

I try to explain the concept of staying between the player and the basket, but I cannot communicate this. All I know is "ikosa!" (foul) and "gutsinda!" (shoot). I try to move the players like chess pieces to illustrate my point. One women glances at me quizzically, then brightens. She slaps my hand and shouts, "High-five!"

Each woman has a story: the former sex worker who brings her young son on her back to practice; the woman who once played on the national team but can't be a regular part of the program because it enrages her husband; and teammates Francois and Clarissa, who had an argument over a cow and settled it with a series of shoves and pointy elbows in practice.

When the tournament ends, the women form a circle on the court around Chloe, their American kindred spirit. Mama Lucy is there, Mama Kababa too, and they jump and sing and chant and dance. Chloe's freckled, sunburned face is aglow with joy.

The sun is setting, but these women do not want to leave.

"When we are on the court together,'' Mama Lucy explains, "we are free."

Each player from the daylong tournament receives a hot meal, along with "superfans" selected from each community, who were invited to come to support their team.

We distribute the food from a room behind the court. We have the names of each superfan and 44 corresponding containers. I look out and see more than 100 kids standing in line. The little ones jostle for position, their hands outstretched. They aren't greedy, just hungry. We don't have enough food to feed all of them. They climb up and hang on the windows, tapping on the glass and pleading for rice or beans or a bruised banana.

Earlier in the day, as I unloaded the heavy trays of meals we would be serving, a young boy named Daniel stepped in to help. He shyly handed me a drawing of a basketball hoop he made the night before, with his name and the ESPN logo carefully colored in.

I discreetly slipped him a 5,000 Rwandan franc note, the equivalent of $6. Daniel's eyes widened; it's an extraordinary amount of money to him, but I'm touched by the boy's kindness.

By the end of the day, four additional boys have hastily diagrammed a rudimentary ESPN logo on a scrap of paper. As they present it to me, they wait expectantly. I empty my pockets of Rwandan notes.


RWINKWAVU, Rwanda -- On our last day in Rwanda, our chef Natalie drives in from Kigali with two special packages: a shovel and a Singer sewing machine, still in the box, about 30 years old. It costs $130.

We walk to Mama Lucy's house with some trepidation, lugging the heavy machine in the dark. We worry how Mama Lucy's husband, Floriane, will interpret this gift, but when we present it to his wife, he beams. The sewing machine represents potential income for the family.

Amy nearly trips over a stray dog as she walks to Mama Kababa's hut to present her with both a shovel and a rake. Mama Kababa is out, so we don't get to say goodbye.


We return to the U.S. and to our very busy lives, but our experience in Rwanda lingers. We learn that Mama Lucy has begun to repair clothing in the village and plans to take a sewing course on dressmaking. She has taken in an orphan boy whose parents abandoned him.

Lisanne calls to report that one of our girls from Kayonza was out with a male friend when he tried to force himself on her. She told him no, and when he persisted, she pushed him away and reported him. "I never would have done that if you hadn't showed us it was possible,'' she told Lisanne.

We learn that Mama Kababa's cow died unexpectedly. "Her family's value was tied to that cow,'' Amy frets.

Chloe has decided to stay in Rwanda beyond her 11-month fellowship. I understand why. There is unfinished business to address.

We need to get Mama Kababa another cow and Lisanne a car that doesn't need tape to hold it together. We need medication for the 3-year-old girl whose lip is ripped open every time she has a seizure because her family can't afford to treat her. We need more hot meals and more sneakers and better water and pills for typhoid fever.

We also need to continue our support of this legion of remarkable women who are just beginning to discover their voices.

I can't wait to hear what they have to say.

For more information on Shooting Touch, visit www.shootingtouch.com.