Ruth Riley's Remarkable Trip to the Congo for Sports Diplomacy

A history of wars, poverty and corruption. A place where the people are valued less than the natural resources that are the foundation of the economy.

Sadly, those descriptions are fitting for both the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The larger of the two is the DRC, which was formerly known as Zaire under the brutal dictatorship of Mobutu. Both countries, which are separated by the Congo River, have seen unrest in recent years, with the internal conflict in the DRC having resulted in 3.5 million deaths from violence, disease and starvation since 1998.

But both countries also have a true passion for growing the game of basketball, especially among youth who want to develop the sport. Hence, my latest U.S. State Department sports diplomacy trip to both the DRC and the Republic of Congo.

Sports diplomacy uses the universal passion for sports as a way to transcend linguistic and socio-cultural differences and bring people together, and has emerged as an integral part of efforts to build ever-strengthening relations between the United States and other nations. I have so much respect for our foreign policy officers, for their sacrifices, their service and their commitment to being a representation and extension of our ideals and values to the world in an attempt to bring aid, resources and peace. Accompanied by former NBA star Cedric Ceballos and Frank Traore from the NBA Africa office, we arrived first in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo.

Courtesy of Ruth Riley

Talking the talk: French is the primary language, but our first stop was to participate in the local English Club, which was created as a place for people to come and practice their language skills through debates and short stories. We shared words of encouragement, our own personal testimonies and took part in a Q&A session.

A news conference a little later allowed us to talk about why we were there, which was not to scout for the next Serge Ibaka (although the courts that he grew up playing on were just around the corner) but rather to impart knowledge, coach the coaches and encourage the youth to understand all the positive intangibles that can be learned though sports to help them in life.

Once we hit the courts, we conducted a full day of clinics teaching a rotation of five different skills and then dividing them up into teams to play games. They were passionate, skilled and eager to learn!! Don’t believe Cedric; my team definitely won.

Courtesy of Ruth Riley

Quick commute: With no bridge to connect the two closest capital cities in the world, we hopped on a tiny boat that took us on a quick five-minute ride from the relatively quiet pace in Brazzaville to the crowded, chaotic streets of Kinshasa.

I have traveled a lot throughout Africa since 2006, and witnessed various skill levels in many different countries. The players in the Congo and the DRC were by far some of the most skilled young players I have seen, especially the young ladies!!

Courtesy of Ruth Riley

Ballers in the DRC: Because their skills were so far advanced, we skipped the basic fundamentals and got to teach a higher level of skill sets. There was no shortage of height with these athletes, but there was definitely a deficiency of knowledge when it came to post moves. Pete Kewell would have been proud as I shared a lot of his “Big Man” moves and counter moves!

Courtesy of Ruth Riley

WNBA prospects: After the clinic, we stuck around for one of the local girls’ games -- and wow, some of these ladies can hoop! It was refreshing to see so many young girls enjoying the sport. These girls were definitely more organized than the boys!!

Courtesy of Ruth Riley

Sports and culture: Our time in DRC was organized by an amazing group, Culture Plus, which found a creative intersection between the world of arts and sports. My team won the graffiti art competition, with no real contribution from me except for coloring between the lines!!

Courtesy of Ruth Riley

Out in the community: We took a break from basketball and headed to the outskirts of town, where shelter was no longer in the form of a house, but rather rows of shanties, built with whatever scrap metal that could be found. Electricity, running water and an education were a luxury in these parts.

We spent the afternoon at an all-girls orphanage called Matumaini, which was started by an amazing woman who recognized that young girls were the first to be discarded, abandoned and even turned away from traditional orphanages and made it her life mission to provide a safe place for them to live, learn and grow. To hear them laugh was priceless as we taught them “Duck, duck, goose” and “Red light/Green light,” and then created a catwalk for them to work on their inner divas!!

Courtesy of Ruth Riley

African Rucker Park: After our last day of clinics, we headed out to see some of our players participate in the street ball tournament on the court that the locals claim has a reputation comparable to Rucker Park! The DJ kept the packed crowd entertained as we watched some of the best talent in the area compete! They tried to get Cedric to do his blindfolded dunk that gave him the Slam Dunk title in 1992. He passed on the dunk but held his own in the all-star game!

Courtesy Ruth Riley

Rumble in the Jungle: Our last stop of the trip was to visit the stadium where one of the most historic sporting events of the 20st century took place. On Oct. 20, 1974, Muhammad Ali took down the undisputed heavyweight champ, George Foreman, by knockout in the eighth round. Look for some activities later this year to commemorate the 40th anniversary of this fight!

Huge thanks to all the people who organized our trip, and who showed us unbelievable hospitality in their countries! In life, our experiences shape us by constantly changing our paradigm of the world we live in and challenging us as to how we want to leave our mark in that world.

I sign off with a sense of gratitude for another life-changing experience that the game of basketball has brought to me and an augmented understanding of how it is being used to positively impact the world around us! I Love This Game!!