Following is a speech I gave at the January 25, 2011 awards banquet of Athletes for a Better World. That organization honored Dikembe Mutombo with the Wooden Cup for his humanitarian work, especially the hospital he built, in his home country of the Congo.
Good Evening, Bon Soir, Hamjambo, Mbote
I have just greeted you in four of Africa’s thousands of languages. The Africa that Dikembe Mutombo represents is diverse. There are thousands of languages, thousands of vibrant cultures, thousands of different traditions scattered across the vast continent. The variety of differences and the contrasts are astounding. Some nomadic pastoralists herd cattle, camels and goats as they have done for centuries, many millions of Africans subsist on the production of their small farms, but others grow cash crops like coffee, tea or cocoa and sell it to the world’s market. Many more millions now live in cities where they eek a living from road side stands or the lucky ones have wage employment in the modern sector. Roughly speaking about half of Africans are Muslim and the other half Christian. Yet where ever Africans are, or however they worship, Africans retain profound links to their families and communities.
Values, such as those that undergird Athletes for A Better World, are indeed universal. Thus, Americans and Africans have many values in common, but how we emphasize them may differ.
Africans place a special value on family. In America we think of our families as Mom and Dad and the kids. We have grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins some of whom perhaps we rarely see. So our universe of relatives – especially those we interact with frequently – is fairly small. In contrast African families are huge. Mom and Dad usually have about seven or eight children and there may be another eight or more step- brothers and sisters. Children are celebrated. In the Central African Republic, for example, on the national day when awards are handed out to politicians, diplomats and generals, one of the most celebrated distinctions is that of “mama decoree” given to mothers who have successfully raised at least eight children to adulthood.
Usually an African family lives in a village and since large families have been present for generations in the same place, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of nearby kin. Family members look out for each other. No one lacks for advice, or shelter or food or help when needed with crops or cattle. These days when more and more children go to primary school, families rally to provide school fees, especially for those who go on to high school and beyond.
Africans respect their elders, folks who have gained experience by living out their lives. Their status is high and their wisdom applauded.
Being in a family entails obligations. Just as American kids have – or should have – some regular chores, Africans kids do too. Boys look after the cows or goats, girls fetch water and mind younger siblings. There are many other tasks. Living in a family where everyone has to contribute enstills a strong sense of responsibility to others. And as a child’s horizons expand to the larger community around him, this sense of responsibility also expands.
It is a two way street. The family and community expects a continued sense of involvement and support from those individuals it has nurtured and who have gone on to bigger things. They become role models not just for family, but for their community and in Mutombo’s case for an entire nation, if not a continent, of youths. In turn individuals who have registered success in life, also feel the obligation to give back. This completes the circle of strong family and community values.
We see clearly that Dikembe Mutombo has given back and that he plans to continue to do so.
Most governments in Africa, including that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have not provided sufficient or adequate medical services to their peoples. Continent wide – infant mortality is high, life expectancy is low. Prenatal care is non-existent and mothers and infants suffer accordingly. Poor sanitation, contaminated water, and malnutrition compound all maladies. Children succumb to diseases like measles, malaria and dysentery. Tuberculosis, pneumonia and now AIDS afflict older folks. In many areas it is not that the population is underserved by modern medical establishments, it is simply that they are not served at all. Thus, wherever a church mission, an individual or a private foundation steps forward to fill the void, the impact on the community is miraculous. All of a sudden there is care, medicine, and expertise.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the political class, that is the men and today a few women, who have risen to power and status are often referred to as “big men.” It’s a phenomen not unique to the Congo, after their election to Parliament my Kenyan and Ugandan friends would pat their big bellies and proudly state, “I am eating.”
Although the term “big men” has some derogatory meaning embedded in it – just as our term for political “fat cats” does, it does reflect the reality that these individuals do have the opportunity to improve life in their communities. Of course, many have done that.
Mutombo at 7 feet 2 inches is obviously a big man physically, but he has a big heart too. And he arrives on the scene as a big man without derogatory inferences. His giving is from the heart, his giving is in accordance with the values of family and community that are intrinsic to him.
It is entirely proper that a values oriented organization like Athletes for a Better World honor Dikembe MuTOMbo’s contribution and engagement in seeking to make a better world.