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Jean LUC

Basketball, action on courts speak louder than words

In 2019, the NBA set foot on African ground, determined to start the first Basketball League outside of the American continent. That’s how Jean Luc Agboyibo came to Dakar, Senegal, as one of the driving forces behind the development of the BAL (Basketball Africa League). The game has always been an essential element of his life, from growing up in Togo, to where he is today. Once nurturing the ambition to go pro, he soon realized that there’s more to basketball and what it can do.
By leveraging his own project Milédou (translates as “We Are Together”), Jean Luc reflects on the potential sports can have in helping young people to regain confidence and a sense of belonging. Both are essential to enable them to create opportunities at home. Finally, Jean Luc describes what he thinks the role of privileged members of the diaspora like himself should or can be in supporting young people back home.

Marianne: Jean Luc is a young Togolese living now in Dakar, Senegal. He works for the NBA, the American basketball league, and is helping to create an equivalent of this globally known competition in Africa. But I’m going too fast, let’s start at the beginning.

Jean Luc: I was born in Togo. I stayed there until the age of 13 and then I went to France for my studies. I came back to the continent almost 8 years ago. Growing up between two continents and moving around quite a lot means that I consider migration to be an integral part of my life and I can recognise myself quite easily in migration topics when they’re being discussed.

Jean Luc: I don’t want to draw a parallel with people who suffer or who end up losing their lives in the Mediterranean Sea, but having left at a young age without parents, returning later and not finding one’s place, I think that we can relate to these people who are affected by migration. And I think that it is not only those who suffered who can talk about migration since they are displaced. Especially when we are still children and do not decide to migrate. Therefore I think that in a way I have migrated, yes.

Jean Luc: When I came back, I had the feeling that it was a step backwards, that it was a failure. I left Paris to return to Lomé and I saw the sand; I saw dirty things and I thought: “How am I going to get my career off the ground in a city like this?” While all my friends were going to work in New York, Asia or Australia, I was going back to my country. So, when I look at what I went through for 4, 5, 6 years and I look at the young people today, I tell myself that it will be extremely difficult for them to change their perceptions. But it’s up to us to lead this fight.

Jean Luc: That’s kind of it: the core of Milédou. Milédou today is a network of 37 educators in 11 localities. A lot of people think we’re doing basketball, when in fact we’re trying to develop guides, people who can accompany young people. It takes a lot of time. Sometimes you don’t see the result right away, sometimes you see the result later.

Marianne: Now we can go ahead faster.  “Milédou” means “We are together” in the local Togolese language.  This is the project created by Jean Luc when he returned. It started step by step with basketball games in the communities, but he soon realized that sport can be more than physical activity.

Jean Luc: Sport can be a key component, can be a complementary tool to what’s offered in schools today. It’s essential to have a certain education and to have basics in mathematics, French and other topics. So, I wouldn’t say that sport can replace that, but in any case, I think that in all refugee camps or displaced populations or people who arrive in localities and experience difficulties in finding their place, sport can immediately play a key role. I had the chance, a few years ago, to implement a project in Yopougon where many populations were displaced following the post-electoral crisis and faced difficulties integrating. Sports, especially basketball, became an incredible tool for mixing girls and boys from different social categories. And it’s true that yes, I think sports can play a key role, but not only. Not only sport, but you also must add other components as well.

Jean Luc: I had another experience in the prison of Abidjan. I worked with young people who had committed rape, murder and so on, and I began to ask myself the question: can’t we go even further? Can we push it even further? We started to dig a little deeper into the topic of mental health, learning to be good with oneself. Someone with confidence will perceive that he has a chance at home and that there are resources, that there are things that he can work with. And this is where Milédou’s current mission lies, it’s how to use sport to allow people to be aligned with themselves. And that’s when they can listen to the advice given to them and say to themselves: I don’t need to leave, there are things around me that I don’t see, that I don’t perceive; it’s a matter of time, it’s a matter of education, it’s a matter of life skills, to be able to create this world that allows you to change things, to earn your living.

Jean Luc: A few years ago, I was inspecting the Maslow pyramid. It’s a ranking of basic and less basic needs by importance. At the top is fulfillment. I told one of my mentors: “what if we flip it around?”. If we allow children to have a feeling of belonging, to feel good about themselves, to pursue self-esteem and love for themselves, life becomes much simpler. Unfortunately, we don’t have the luck to grow up with people who accompany us to give us towards self-esteem.

I come from a family of 17 brothers and sisters. I have 13 sisters which made me reflect long and hard on women in the world, starting from our own village… This notion of self-esteem is extremely difficult for young boys in rural areas, but it is even harder for young girls. The difficulties we identified in the areas where we work are often linked to the absence of a father, the absence of a guide. And while little boys often have their mother at home who steps in, we realize that in many homes young girls do not grow up with such a father figure. Today, through our coaches, we don’t want to substitute the role of fathers or mothers. Yet, if you feel there’s a lack, you shouldn’t hesitate to play the role of a person capable of sending a child back to himself so that one day he can feel protected, that he feels he has a community and that he has everything he needs.

Marianne: The real definition of being together is that everyone has a role to play. That’s the spirit of Milédou. As for him, what is his role, a big brother, a coach, a leader perhaps?

Jean Luc: In my village, young people listen to me a lot. I lost my father last year and one of the things he told me before he left was that I inspired him a lot. I think that we don’t take enough time to admit these things, that people inspire us. And it’s true, I grew up with a stammer, so I didn’t express myself through words, and today, from what I’ve learned about being a leader, is that the best way to transmit leadership is through actions. I feel good in this role, putting things in place and speaking through my actions. So yes, I accept this position. Even at work, my boss often pulls my ear and tells me that I must talk more. It’s not in my nature and the good leaders that I see today are often people who do things and not just say what needs to be done.

Jean Luc: There was this young guy I often think of, Richard. He went through the programme, he spent four years with us. He went through a lot of trouble getting his Baccalaureate, and once he had it, we offered him the chance to become an educator so that he could pass on his knowledge. That’s the strength of our programme today, out of the 37 coaches, half are young people who have passed through Milédou.

Richard told us when he joined that he had other plans and that he would like to go to Dubai. Myself, I was back on my way to France. I’m very happy that I spent some years in France. I’ve learned a great many things. So I’ll never say to anyone not to go. More importantly, good leaders don’t tell people what to do. Leaders help people to become aware of what they should do even if they make mistakes. It’s their choice and that’s what I said to Richard: “before you leave, we have a programme in Ivory Coast, come with us, come and have a look” and we left a month later to Yopougon. Not even the capital Abidjan or Cocody, but Yopougon. Richard arrived in Yopougon, in a shopping mall, and he was struck by amazement. Two weeks later, he tells me “I don’t want to go to Dubai anymore”, and I ask ” why?” he says: – ” there is everything here”.

I think what a young person like Richard wanted was to get out, to see something else and he wanted to go to Dubai for adventure. Now he’s working with us, getting a decent salary, continuing his studies. One day he will go to Dubai, but he will go to Dubai with clear ideas about Dubai, with money to spare. If the experience doesn’t go well in Dubai, he will be able to say “I want to go home because it doesn’t go well”. If he had gone to Dubai in the first place, maybe he would have been ashamed to come back, even if it doesn’t go well there. I’ve never seen the notion of migration as something bad, it’s just that we don’t give people the tools to move around properly.

Something surprised me when I joined the NBA to work in Senegal. Everyone had this image that I was going to fly and for the people in my village, flying means going to Europe. Today, for them taking a plane doesn’t mean anymore to travel to Europe but to go to Senegal. Their dream is not in France anymore, it’s in Senegal. It’s exactly that, the whole idea of changing the dream of taking a plane to putting that destination on your own continent.

Jean Luc: A few years ago, watching people detained in Libya, I was trying to grasp the looks on their faces. They were no longer aligned with themselves. Every time I see young people growing up, 18-19 years old, I see some of them are lost. That’s why I insist a lot on pre-teens, 9, 10, 11, 12 years old, it’s still at that age that they listen to us before they enter adolescence. With social media, it’s very complicated to make a young person to believe that they should take their time.

Transforming a continent takes time. I joined the NBA when I was 33. Fom the age of 27 to 33, I made my way, I struggled. I wasn’t chasing the money. I make a very good living today, but for six years I told myself I was going to serve the continent. I was lucky, I come from a good family with food on the table. Thanks to that, I didn’t carry that mental load in me that many young Africans have. So, my contribution is to remove a mental burden from as many people as possible so that they can also contribute and give themselves the chance to say we’re going to transform this continent.

I don’t necessarily have a message for young people, because those who leave, they decide to leave and it’s very complicated to stop them. But it’s rather for all those people who are like me, who come from a somewhat privileged position, to contribute to creating a framework, to help as many as possible to remove this mental burden, this heavy weight from their shoulders. I often hear about universal income. Today, the coaches in Milédou earn between 25,000 and 90,000 CFA. In rural areas, knowing that you are going to earn 35,000 every month, takes away a burden. You know that you can put food on the table and focus on other things, and be able to help young people around you. For me, that’s the message to all the people who have been lucky enough to come from my background. After all, growing up in rural areas is complicated. If you don’t have the support from their surroundings, they’ll leave, whatever we tell them. They’ll say that “you can’t understand what I’m going through”, which is what I often see in their eyes. I understand them, but I also understand that they think I don’t understand.

“The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in these podcasts belong solely to the speaker, and not reflect the view of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), its partners or donors. This podcast is protected under creative commons and can be used by third parties under certain conditions. For more information, contact [email protected].”
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