Hoop Dreams: basketball teaches core values to Congo’s youth
“You come here, you play hard, you work hard.”
That’s what Dario Merlo says to those asking to join PJB or Promo Jeune Basket (Promote Youth Basketball), a basketball program in Goma, the largest city in eastern Congo. There are plenty of takers, now more than 650 kids, all masters of the three-man weave and the pick and roll.
Merlo was born in Goma and moved to Belgium in 1994 during the Rwandan genocide. He was 11 at the time, just the right age to fall in love with basketball. He played whenever he got the chance.
In December 2005 he returned to Goma interested in development and agriculture. He immediately found a league so he could keep playing basketball. When a friend didn’t show up for a pick-up game he found four kids to play with. The young boys knew where to find him and Merlo kept playing, teaching them a few drills, working on jump-shots and lay-ups. Before long Merlo was buying them new shoes and paying their school fees.
At first it was just for fun. But, by 2009, Merlo had become serious about starting a youth basketball program that would transform lives. He created PJB, an organization that now reaches 600 youth, ages 5 to 25. In 2012, he oversaw the creation of a new basketball stadium.
Merlo does have a day job—he is country director for the Jane Goodall Institute, a global conservation non-profit. PJB is part of the institute’s Roots & Shoots movement that involves youth from more than 130 countries in community service. And it is Jane Goodall, humanitarian and chimpanzee expert, who inspires Merlo to carry on.
He used to coach: now he recruits coaches and helps train them, a responsibility he does not take lightly. “A coach is a leader and a role model for everybody. A coach cannot be drunk in the street,” he said.
Gérard, one young player who asked to be a coach, was a former street kid. “He said he wanted to train people. I couldn’t believe this. He was only 18,” Merlo said. “But he turned out to be one of the best. Tough, humble, honest, hard-working, also an elite player.”
All basketball players must be enrolled in school. Merlo has also hired an English teacher and insists that all players take after-school English lessons. The rationale is simple. “If you have integrity and skills and speak English you have the best chance to find a job,” Merlo explained. He tells kids they’ll be rewarded if they try their best. “We teach them not just to be a good player but also a good guy.” He added, “They need to be good teammates, to be disciplined. This can be taught.” The program also includes 150 girls—they all get equal treatment.
“They like it. They dream about playing in America,” Merlo said. But he wants more for them—he wants them to be leaders of change in their own country. He insists they work hard and that they take responsibility. “When they grow up they will have a network of people with the same values.”
Few might prove as single-minded as Merlo to take on such a challenge. The fighting in and around Goma has caused people to lose their homes and schools to be destroyed. In July 2013, UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) reported that 967,000 people in North Kivu, the province of which Goma is the capital, had been displaced due to the conflict. Thirty-two percent of those in North Kivu who are between the ages of 17 and 22 have less than two years of education, according to UNESCO. The percentage of youth with so little education is double the national average.
Yet Merlo is determined to see that as many children as possible beat the odds, stick with the program, and stay in school. He also encourages youth to care for the environment. Weekend activities include planting trees, between 500 and 2,000 a year, installing trash cans, and cleaning up neighborhoods.
Not that the kids don’t stay focused on basketball. As the players get older the games become more competitive. There are 11 teams in the boys’ first division and four in the girls’. PJB provides scholarships for more than 100 of the top players. Merlo wishes they could afford more. “90 percent are deserving,” he said.
Christian Maliro, 18, started at PJB three years ago and now has an academic scholarship. “I’ve learned how to behave in society. I know to protect the environment, to plant fruit trees here and at home,” he said. But he also likes the competition on the court. “My coach understands my weaknesses. He’s not arrogant.”
Sometimes parents are reluctant to let their children participate. They want their children available to fetch water and do chores. “But parents eventually come around,” Merlo said. “They start thinking practice is important. Team spirit is good stuff. We teach values. If you lose your phone in the PJB area you will get it back. Parents become proud of their kids.”
Photos by A. Graham/PJB.