As a boy in Zimbabwe, Gus Chikamba had very little. He made do.
“I remember we could not afford a soccer ball, so we used to make soccer balls out of plastic, out of trash,” he said. “I think I first saw a basketball at the age of 14 when I went to boarding school.”
Basketball was his ticket to opportunity. He played in high school and college in Zimbabwe and believes it kept him focused and too busy to get into trouble, unlike some of his friends.
“They did other things, and they fell through the cracks of life,” he said.
Today, Chikamba, 47, lives in Indianapolis, a world away from where he grew up. Yet he has never forgotten how far he has come from kicking makeshift balls on dusty fields.
Even after coming to the U.S. in 2000 to earn his MBA and then launching a career — he’s now a retirement planner for Capital Group — Chikamba kept thinking about ways to help a new generation of kids back home. That crystallized in 2008 when he and his wife, Madeline, returned for a visit.
Not long after, they created Africa Outreach USA, a nonprofit that has donated sports equipment, funded basketball courts, held sports clinics and created opportunities for boys and girls to play basketball, soccer, volleyball and tennis at schools across Zimbabwe. Those sports programs include a teaching component about gender equity (50 percent of all participants must be girls), health and the importance of school. Some students have received sponsorships for school tuition.
Chikamba estimates 50,000 children have participated and more than 10,000 pieces of sports equipment have been donated.
“Part of the vision that we’ve always had is to deploy sport as a vehicle to help kids in Africa, kids who look like we did when we were growing up,” Chikamba said.
It has come together with a dash of serendipity, the help of a basketball Hall of Famer, donations of equipment and money, the “sweat equity” of community volunteers, a few donkey carts and thousands of bricks.
Admire Masenda, president of the Zimbabwe Olympic Committee, coached Chikamba at the University of Zimbabwe and is on the advisory board for Africa Outreach USA. He says the organization is doing important work.
“Such self-help programs are needed in these schools and areas and will have a lasting impact,” Masenda said.
Hall of Famer joins the cause
After getting his MBA at the University of Indianapolis, Chikamba worked for a software-development company for a while until he and Madeline launched their own business, a pick-up laundry service in Indianapolis.
One client was Sharon O’Brien, the wife of Indiana Pacers head coach Jim O’Brien and the daughter of Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay.
From the moment she met Chikamba, O’Brien was impressed not only by the way he did business, but by his passion for basketball. Gus and Madeline had been trying to get their Zimbabwe sports plan rolling for more than two years, but it was stalled.
“Gus asked if we would take the time to listen to an idea he had, and it just so happened to coordinate with the time the Pacers were beginning training camp, and my dad would always come to Jim’s training camps,” Sharon said.
One night after dinner, Gus and Madeline came to the O’Briens’ home to pitch their vision, looking for input.
“Bottom line, my dad said, ‘This is a good idea and I think it can work. I support it,'” recalled Sharon, who became an advisory board member for Africa Outreach USA.
The Pacers soon were donating basketballs, shirts and other items to the Chikambas’ cause. What Ramsay provided was his name and expertise.
The Dr. Jack Ramsay Initiative became a way to help grow basketball in even rural parts of Zimbabwe, where basketballs, much less hard courts, were rare.
“We needed a training DVD that we could use to train coaches so they could teach kids the fundamentals,” Chikamba said.
Ramsay and his son, Chris, now a deputy editor for ESPN.com, had put together a training video years before called “Uptempo Basketball.” Chris Ramsay helped convert it to DVD format, and it has been used as the guide for teaching more than 1,200 coaches, Chikamba said.
The tutorial covers “dribble, pass, shoot, rebound, defend,” Chris Ramsay said, along with conditioning and team concepts of offense and defense.
Chris says his father always had been a sort of “Johnny Appleseed of basketball,” traveling the world with NBA stars to give clinics. The chance to help boys and girls in Zimbabwe learn the game was something the coach of the 1977 NBA champion Portland Trail Blazers relished.
Jack Ramsay died in 2014, before he had a chance to visit Zimbabwe and see in person kids using his fundamentals. But his son recalls spending an afternoon with his dad watching some DVDs that had been delivered to his home.
“It was dozens of African kids playing basketball, doing drills and really working, sweating buckets,” Chris says. “A lot of the kids didn’t have shoes. Boys and girls, ages 5 to 18 or 19, really working hard.”
The courts were a mixture of dirt and asphalt. The baskets were rickety.
“After about 20 minutes of this, the camera panned over, and on the fence there was a sign and it said, ‘Jack Ramsay Grassroots Basketball Initiative Zimbabwe, Africa Outreach USA.’ I said, ‘Dad, this is your thing?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, I guess it is.’
“We were just so impressed by how hard these kids were working and how much they seemed to be enjoying it. … Those kids inspired us.”
Paving the way to success
In northeast Zimbabwe, there is a dusty court at Clare Secondary School in the village of Nyazura. It’s in the Makoni District of Manicaland Province. It is here that Nash Majoni — a mathematics teacher at the school — coaches boys and girls to play basketball the Ramsay way.
On this court, he coaches passing, defense and teamwork, but there are no shooting drills.
“We practice on an open dirty surface that has no hoops,” Majoni said.
But a concrete court is coming within a few months. It’s part of the Pave-a-Dirt-Court piece of the Africa Outreach program. So far, 31 schools have concrete courts that also can be used for volleyball and tennis. The first constructed was at Clare Primary School, just a few miles from Clare Secondary.
Majoni, who coordinates the Africa Outreach USA program in Manicaland, met Chikamba in 2012.
“I told him I had a community that was passionate for sport but didn’t have facilities,” Majoni said. “I shared with him my story, then he said he could work with me.”
Since that first court went in, other schools have gotten in line, eager to build their own. Africa Outreach USA donates $1,500 to each school, enough to cover the materials. But a key feature of the program is that local residents have to donate the work.
“What we try to avoid is sending the wrong message to the communities in Zimbabwe,” Chikamba said. “We don’t want them thinking that people are going to come from the United States, build a basketball court, provide sneakers and basketballs. We want them to invest sweat equity in the whole process.”
So, community members must dig the foundation, donate bricks — which are used for stabilization under the court — and pour the concrete. Bags of cement are delivered as each stage of construction is verified. It’s manual labor, aided with ox-drawn or donkey-drawn carts.
Chikamba is amazed, time and again, at the talent and energy of the builders. So is Majoni, who watches courts come together with the help of parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and neighbors. Majoni says families see the positive impact of courts and sports programs in neighboring communities and want courts for their local schools.
Part of the reason is academics. In order to participate in the sports programs, students have to be on solid academic footing. Majoni says at Clare, test pass rates have jumped significantly since the sports programs were initiated. Also, he has seen older kids who have dropped out of school return because of their interest in playing basketball, soccer or volleyball.
“The parents are supportive,” Majoni said. “They know their kids spend most of their time between books and sports. There’s not that extra time that they will be playing around, fooling around, engaging in drugs, because it’s either they are in class or after class they are in practice. They go home, they’re tired and they just go to sleep.”
Majoni can point to specific boys and girls who are getting more opportunities because of the basketball program he coaches at Clare and at nearby Kriste Mambo Secondary School for girls.
One, a boy whom Majoni began coaching in Grade 5, is getting scholarship offers from Zimbabwe schools. “The last time Gus came around, he brought him some sneakers,” Majoni said. “For your information, he keeps them safe. He only uses them during the game.”
A girl at Clare, who lost both her parents and lives with an aunt, has been selected to the under-17 national team, a long shot considering she comes from a school with a dirt practice court. “The girls are motivated,” Majoni said. “Even if they don’t have a court at school, they can be able to stand with other schools with confidence.”
A recent graduate of Kriste Mambo plays for her university team.
The success stories, he says, are leading younger students to follow.
His students have little access to NBA or WNBA games, yet they are interested in them. They have favorite teams and players they idolize. Majoni and other coaches will download games for their athletes to watch.
“I have one kid who’s always telling me, ‘Coach, can you tell me what these guys require for us to join the WNBA?'” he said. “I’ve been telling them you have to work very hard, and I show them videos of those girls and they’re like, ‘Ah, I can try to be Maya Moore!'”
Adding education to the equation
When Gus and Madeline Chikamba first launched their program in Zimbabwe they put on a basketball camp, partnered with a local coach and donated 100 new basketballs provided by the Pacers.
Later, it occurred to Gus that there was no way to verify the balls would ever get where they were needed. So the Chikambas decided they would work through schools, Gus said, for these three reasons: “We thought if we partner with schools as a way of verifying where all the donated materials go, that’s one. Secondly, schools will deliver the maximum participation. Thirdly, the school concept ties into the education component we want to address.”
Another element is that it’s a way to ensure that females can be involved, whether it’s in participation or leadership. Soccer is the No. 1 sport in Zimbabwe, yet girls traditionally haven’t had much opportunity to play it.
Chikamba says girls haven’t received the same opportunities in sports or education in Zimbabwe because many fathers have believed their daughters would have no options but to marry young, so school and sports were superfluous. Yet Chikamba says his father made certain his four daughters received good educations, and each has been successful in their lives and communities.
“If we break that paradigm, if we break that cultural concept to where we begin to empower the girl child at a relatively young age, you will be amazed what she can do,” Chikamba said. “In Africa we have a saying: ‘When you educate a woman, you educate the entire village.'”
Majoni says he and other coaches regularly talk to their athletes about topics such as gender equity and HIV/AIDS awareness. When they go to tournaments, coaches carve out time for lectures and discussion.
“Before we start the tournament, we discuss issues about life,” Majoni said. “We teach them life skills.”
Barbara Soria, who works with Chikamba at Capital Group, has led fundraising efforts as a board member. She says as the program has gained momentum over the past three years, Americans who have donated are excited by the payoff.
“For somebody to say, ‘For $1,500 I can sponsor a basketball court,’ and we literally send them a link where they can watch the development of the building of the court,” she said. “It’s tangible.”
Others donate to pay for trophies or medals, sports equipment, clean-water projects or to sponsor a student-athlete’s tuition at a rural school.
It’s possible that someday Africa Outreach USA will produce athletes who go to the United States to play in college or the pros. If that happens, Chikamba believes the positive ripple effects in Zimbabwe would be significant.
The true focus, however, is to give kids opportunities for a better life.
“Being born and raised out of Africa,” Chikamba said, “the concept is to empower those communities, including the academic institutions, to really raise these kids so they can contribute back to the community.”