Commentary

Ogwumikes out to make a difference

Activist/former athlete Mobolaji Akiode also working to help girls in Nigeria

Originally Published: May 26, 2014
By Michelle Smith | espnW.com

Los Angeles Sparks coach Carol Ross handed Nneka Ogwumike a book last week called "Half the Sky." Written by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, it's an examination of the worldwide oppression of women and girls.

The third-year WNBA forward has already finished it, and one overriding idea stayed with her.

"It said, 'The turmoil of girls or women is as tragic as it is an opportunity,'" Ogwumike said. "That's very powerful."

As several hundred Nigerian schoolgirls remain hidden from their families, kidnapped en masse more than a month ago by terrorist group Boko Haram, the choice between opportunity and tragedy in this circumstance is incredibly obvious. The international community has mobilized in the last few weeks to hunt for the missing girls but has yet to bring them home. There are but glimmers of hope in a horrific situation that has captured the attention of the world and mobilized social media.

[+] EnlargeNnemkadi and Chiney Ogwumike
AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesChiney Ogwumike, left, and Nneka Ogwumike are Nigerian-Americans who were both All-Americans at Stanford.

What we know now, thanks to the global reach of 140 characters, is a clearer picture of the kinds of lives these girls have been living. Lives with limitations on their goals, expectations, cultural roles and even their desire to pursue an education.

Contrast that to the seemingly limitless possibilities of two of the best-known Nigerian-Americans in this country, Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, supremely talented basketball-playing sisters who have parlayed their talents and their Stanford degrees into national profiles in the WNBA. Nneka is an emerging player for the Sparks. Chiney is playing across the country for the Connecticut Sun. The sisters -- both of whom were born in the United States -- are well known in Nigeria, their accomplishments qualifying as news throughout the African nation. Chiney was drafted No. 1 in the WNBA on the same day, coincidentally, that the schoolgirls were kidnapped in mid-April.

Nneka and Chiney are far removed geographically -- and in some ways culturally and economically -- from the land where their parents were born, where they spent significant time as children and where their father still returns often for work. Emotionally, they are deeply attached.

Chiney Ogwumike, who studied abroad in Nigeria for eight weeks last summer, can't help but put herself in the missing girls' shoes.

"That's definitely what strikes so close to home about it," Chiney said. "My mom and dad went to boarding schools in Nigeria before they moved abroad, and what if my parents had stayed? I could be in one of those schools."

There was no lack of strife in Nigeria during Chiney's stay there a year ago while she interned at the department of petroleum.

"There was a car bombing and I was getting messages from my friends and I was telling them that it was in a completely different part of the country," she said. "But at one point, some policeman were kidnapped and that was about 20 miles outside of the capital city I was in. These things have been going on for a while."

Both sisters said their family -- which includes two younger sisters -- had a discussion about their responsibility to shed light on the kidnappings as prominent Nigerian-Americans. That discussion included the possibility of risking their own personal security by speaking out.

"You don't want to put yourself in a position to bring harm to yourself or your family," Chiney said. "But if we are going to say that we are proud to be Nigerian, then you have to speak up. This is personal for anyone who has a heart for Nigeria."

The sisters posted the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag on their own social media pages. They also announced plans to begin work with the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, which will focus on education and child-protection efforts in Nigeria.

"We are American and we are Nigerian," Nneka Ogwuike said. "Everybody in my family relates to this. This has resonated with me and all of my sisters because we embrace who we are. My mother always made sure of that."

The juxtaposition of their own lives in the United States is not lost on either sister. They were educated at Stanford while the kidnapped girls in Nigeria were targeted for pursuing education. And the Ogwumikes -- only the second set of siblings in American sports history to be No. 1 draft picks in a professional sports league, joining Peyton and Eli Manning in the NFL -- are products of a culture that has fostered their success and achievement.

They have a unique platform and understand the obligation to use it.

"We've been blessed with a great position and we have an awareness about that," Chiney said. "We care about these girls. They were targeted for wanting to better themselves and there's something very pure about that. They represent innocence."

But more than words are needed here. Awareness isn't sufficient. Hashtags are not enough.

"The hashtags, the activism on social media puts pressure on the system," Chiney said. "Other incidents have been happening, but they didn't get the worldwide attention. And this is rightfully what it needs to be. I wish we could have it all the time."

[+] EnlargeChiney and Nneka Ogwumike
Brian Babineau/Getty ImagesNneka Ogwumike (2012), left, and Chiney Ogwumike (2014) were each selected No. 1 overall in the WNBA draft.

Nneka said the sisters are having conversations about what more they can do to help, how they might be able to use their visibility to positively impact not only this situation, but future efforts to help the girls of Nigeria. Wednesday, the United States deployed 80 troops to Chad to aid in the effort to find the Nigerian schoolgirls.

The Ogwumikes admit they don't have ready-made solutions, but they are actively discussing and debating what their next step might be.

"We need to scramble a little and gather our resources," Nneka said. "But I think we both want to extend ourselves as much as we can."

Mobolaji Akiode has been extending herself to the girls in Nigeria for the past four years. The former collegiate standout and member of the Nigerian women's national team asks an important question about the international spotlight now shining on this situation.

"Now that we know the vulnerability of these girls, what are we going to do about it?" asks Akiode, the founder of Hope 4 Girls Africa, a nonprofit that has been running sports camps, workshops and soliciting grants for athletic programs in Nigeria since 2010.

For Akiode, the girls are not a lead story on a newscast, or the subject of a celebrity tweet. They are representative of the girls she knows, whom she has mentored and, in some cases, helped to send to American universities, using basketball as the conduit to a different life.

"If you are part of the elite class in Nigeria, opportunities abound," said Akiode, who played her collegiate basketball at Fordham and worked for a time at ESPN before leaving to pursue her work with Hope 4 Girls. "Average or low-income girls are fighting against cultural and family biases about what their parents think their daughters can be and it's very limited."

Akiode said that what the girls need more than anything else are meaningful opportunities -- in education, in sports, in creative fields. She remembers the first time she traveled to Nigeria to run her first basketball camp. There was no infrastructure. She borrowed money, put things on her credit card in order to fix the courts and build backboards. But at the end of her journey, 60 girls -- some of whom walked for miles over several days to get there -- went through her camp. She has since run camps all over the country.

"There were a lot of tears -- from them and from me," Akiode said. "If they have access to programs, it's amazing how they respond. If someone can create these things for them, they will succeed. But there aren't enough people creating opportunities."

Akiode said she hopes the attention this incident has received can hold its momentum.

"Is this just going to be a fad? Are we going to move on to the next story?" Akiode asked. "If people really care about these girls, take a look at what's really going on in Nigeria. The people like me, who were there before this and will be there after, are looking to add value to their lives. Not just jump on this story because of the international attention.

"Everyone can do a hashtag, but hashtags don't add value to their lives. How are we going to empower them?"

Michelle Smith

Contributor, espnW.com

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