Lots of NBA free agents were signing lucrative contracts last week. None may appreciate each dollar more than Bismack Biyombo. When Biyombo learned to play basketball growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he didn’t have basketball shoes. He walked 45 minutes to attend school. And once he arrived, there were many days when he went without a meal. With a new four-year, $70 million contract with the Orlando Magic, the 23-year-old forward-center plans to continue donating money to build schools and help his homeland in other ways.
Pro basketball teams in Qatar often recruit young African players, and Biyombo was given a contract offer at age 16. The bigger challenge was getting there. Traveling with friends hoping to find basketball jobs, Biyombo’s journey to Qatar came to a quick halt in Tanzania, when he was detained for lacking the proper documentation. “They thought we were running from the Congo because of the struggle there,” Biyombo said. “That was my first time being in a jail. I never wanted to be in a jail. Every time I see police, I was scared because of how I grew up. They arrested us at 3 a.m. and they released me about 6 a.m. The smell was terrible. I wouldn’t say the prison was like a jail. A jail in Africa is nothing close to a jail in the United States. People would be happy to be in a jail [in the U.S.].”
He will hold basketball camps in Lubumbashi, Kinshasa and Goma to teach both the fundamentals of basketball and life skills. He’ll also be awarding scholarships to attend local schools and ultimately abroad. He plans to visit a bilingual school he is building in Goma and celebrate a new outdoor basketball court there. Two more outdoor courts will be built next summer. Biyombo also plans to visit Virunga National Park, where poaching and the long-running civil war have seriously damaged its wildlife population. “He always goes back every year with everything that is going on there,” Denver Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay, whose family is from the Congo, told The Undefeated. “He is building a lot of schools and trying to do good stuff in the communities. He is trying to better education. He wants everybody to have an opportunity. He can’t do for every single child, but the fact that he is doing it for so many is a good thing.”
In the late 1990s, the Mudiays’ homeland was a battleground in a bloody African war. Rwanda, a small country on its eastern border, invaded Zaire in ’97, sparking a conflagration that would involve 10 nations. The country’s rich natural resources—minerals and timber—were looted. Reports of rape, dismemberment and murder were widespread. Over the next nine years an estimated 5.4 million people died in the conflict and its fallout, according to the International Rescue Committee. Kinshasa, Congo’s capital and largest city, was a flashpoint. Stephane and Jean-Michel remember the charred, rotting corpses of people who had been girded by tires and burned alive. They remember the bullet-riddled bodies. They remember the pop of rifles and the rat-a-tat-tat of automatic weapons at night. Once a stray bullet tore through one of their windows, clipping a relative in the shoulder. “I try not to think about it,” says Jean-Michel, his voice trailing off. “Those images are hard to forget.”
Cavaliers forward Christian Eyenga was 9-years-old when he learned how disposable life could be in a homeland rich with resources and impoverished by instability. He watched as rebel soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians at a street corner in his native Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Eyenga heard the gunfire and the screams. He ran from the scene, escaping harm but not the gnawing fear that tomorrow would bring more of the same. “There were a lot of people shot,” Eyenga said. “You just saw people dead in the street. It was crazy. You just wanted to go somewhere safe. “Back then, you didn’t plan for a future, you lived life in the present. You grow up thinking, ‘In two minutes I could be dead.'”
Spanish agent Pere Gallego rode through the hardscrabble streets of Kinshasa (population 10 million) with a different kind of shooting guard by his side four years ago. He was stunned by what he witnessed. “It was very sad,” Gallego said. “There were just thousands of poor people everywhere. The wars had left the city in ruins.” The UN annually releases a Human Development Index, which ranks 187 nations using health, education and income as composite measures for well being. The Democratic Republic of Congo finished last in its 2011 report. Life expectancy in Eyenga’s homeland is 48.4 years. His brother Khomedy, the one who taught him how to play basketball, died at age 21 in a car accident.