Basketball is one of the world’s most popular sports. In Somali, a country where two years ago sports and other forms of entertainment we not allowed, things are completely different now.
Two years ago large sections of Somali were being controlled by the Al Shabaab, an al Qaeda linked terror group. The Somali National Forces, with the support of the African Union Mission in Somalia or AMISOM has driven Al Shabaab from most of its urban and rural bases. These military gains have provided the security needed to catalyze recovery from decades of war, humanitarian efforts and social development bringing the country to stability.
This is the reason why people like 16-year-old Hamsa Abdullahi Hussein, a Somali Basketball player are not only free to walk in the streets of Mogadishu but also walk in relative safety, Hamsa is just one among the many young people who have embraced basketball and hopes of becoming a professional athlete one day. “I didn’t have anything to do. I would spend a lot of time thinking and was very depressed. I started playing basketball, I really like it and it makes me happy’’ she says
A training session in the Abdi Aziz district of Mogadishu, the Somali capital is in progress and so a sight like this, where young people are being taught the basics of the game, should ordinarily, not warrant a second glance or further inquiry
The basketball court belongs to Mogadishu’s Dekkeda Basketball Club, which runs free clinics every day for the likes of Hamsa and her friends, and other local youth who would like to learn the game. Dekkeda is the top team in the city’s 13-member association, which is fully recognized by the Ministry of Sports, but funded by the private sector.
Said Mohammed Sheikh another basketball player and several other Dekkeda players are regularly called up to the country’s national team.
“Basketball has a role in building peace. Our country has been through a lot, and it’s better that the youth stay busy with things like basketball. It helps us to forget our problems. Many of our friends are into smoking and are in militias, we can use basketball to get them out.” Said Mohammed Sheikh
Dekkeda’s coach, Hassan Ahmed Gelleh, played for the national team in the 1970’s and tried to keep the sport alive even after the country fractured in 1991. He admits that as a country they have indeed come through very difficult times. Hassan says the Al Shabaab wanted people to participate in Jihad rather than play or even wear shorts. They however still managed to hold some competitions, although girls were not even allowed to come to the court. This created so many problems but the huge change now has seen both men and women can come and play.
Basketball and other sports are also serving as an oasis for people like Yahaya Osman. He was only three months old when his parents fled Somalia’s internal conflicts. After growing up in the US, and playing hoops at college level, he has returned back to his country to lend his skills on-and-off the court to help rebuild his home country.
“I was told it is dangerous, I was told al Shabaab has the areas, but then I thought fear is the best way to control people. With fear in our minds, the youth and the people that studied abroad, that ran away from bullets, they won’t come back, they won’t invest their time in our country and if we don’t help each other, our country is going to be in bits and pieces, everybody is going to grab a piece. So it’s up to us to do something about it because this little bit of fear is consuming our minds and it’s keeping us away.” Said Yahaya Osman
Somalia used to be one of the leading basketball teams in Africa before the al Shabaab took over. Earlier this year, Somalia’s debuted its newly formed national team at a regional tournament, where they beat Kenya and Burundi.
In every country, Sports are a powerful tool for bringing people together, boosting their pride, stimulating economic growth and youth engagement. Somalia’s basketball players have stepped up to the line, and are taking a shot at providing all these things for their country.
With the country now free and safe from the al Shabaab, these basketball players are so optimistic that they are going to put back the country where it once belonged when it was one of the leading basketball teams in Africa.
By Nixon Kanali, Nairobi Kenya