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David Aldridge

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Kermit Washington has been working to help feed families in Africa for the past 17 years.
Kent Smith/NBAE/Getty Images

Ex-Blazer Washington recounts his first aid trip to Congo


Posted Aug 22 2011 3:26PM

Welcome to The Morning Tip. While I'm away on vacation I've again arranged for four very different folks to write guest columns, each of whom has a special love for the NBA game. I hope you enjoy them.

Our first guest columnist is former Lakers, Celtics, Blazers and Warriors big man Kermit Washington. The last college player to average 20 points and 20 rebounds in a season (for my beloved American University Eagles, in 1973), Washington established himself early in his NBA days as a tough inside complimentary player to the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Washington was a rugged rebounder who was improving as a scorer. But his pro career was defined by one horrible decision in his fifth NBA season, with the Lakers, when his infamous punch broke the nose and jaw of Rockets forward Rudy Tomjanovich. Washington was suspended for 60 days (26 games) and, despite highlights like making the 1980 All-Star Game for Portland, believed he was made an outcast for much of the rest of his pro career.

But Washington's second act in life has been ennobling.

Long after his playing career ended, Washington became involved with a grass roots humanitarian group looking to provide aid to refugees in the country formerly known as Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. His group snuck into the country, facing reprisals from the ruling government, but nonetheless was able to get to a refugee camp with 300,000 persons awaiting food and water. Washington's group couldn't feed them all, but Washington has spent the last 17 years trying. His group, Project Contact Africa, has helped to build a clinic and school in Kenya that serves 50 children a year -- most of whom are HIV-positive -- and sees 40 patients a day. Washington spends much of his time soliciting donations from current players -- he is a regional vice president of the National Basketball Players Association -- and has frequently paid much of the $35,000 annual operating expense out of his pocket. It has been worth every penny.

In this week's Tip, Washington tells the amazing story of how he became involved in the unending struggle to provide aid for thousands of the world's most vulnerable people.

* * *

In the summer of 1994, I was working with Pete Newell at his Big Man Camp. At the time, his camp was probably the No. 1 camp in the world. Pete was a world-renowned coach and former general manager of the Lakers. He was the gentleman who drafted me to the Lakers out of college [No. 5 overall in 1973 Draft], and was responsible for me earning a spot as a starter in the NBA. I was working on the camp when the situation in Rwanda broke out.

The news was flooded with horrendous accounts of murder and terror, affecting hundreds of thousands of lives. My daughter, Dana, came into the room after watching the news on TV and was incredibly upset. Here was a young girl who was so sensitive and caring that if she saw a dog or cat hit by a car, she would always make me stop and pull it out of the street. She was compassionate for everyone and everything. She told me I better do something about this situation. I saw the broadcasts and it reminded me of the problems in Somalia years before when people were suffering and dying from the drought. I felt as though I should have helped those people and didn't, and even years later still had residual guilt. I felt like this was my opportunity to change that feeling, so I looked in the phone book for an organization where I could donate money.

I called Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross. I didn't have any success speaking to a person, just to an automated teller telling me how to donate money. When I called the Northwest Medical team in Beaverton, Ore., my luck changed. They were operating 10 minutes from where I was living, and got a person on the line that was able to talk to me and give me information. They also knew who I was and were very thankful that I called so I decided to donate to them. I don't remember how much I donated on my credit card, but I did happen to say to them before I hung up that one day I would like to go and see for myself what the conditions were really like. They said, you can go with us next week, we're taking a group over.

The head of the organization, Ron Post, got on the phone, hoping that he would be able to convince me to make the trip. He knew that if I went it would help generate a lot of exposure for his organization because of my affiliation with the NBA. I told him I would talk to my wife, Pat, and make a decision in a few days. Pat was out of town, and when she came back Dana told her what I wanted to do and I asked her if it would be all right with her if I went. She was never the kind of woman who would tell me not to go or stand in my way, but I asked just to respect her feelings. Ultimately I had to make up my own mind. This was still during the war so things in that area hadn't calmed down.

The next day, I told Post I had decided to go. I asked what I needed to do to get ready. They were very happy about me going and told I had to get vaccination shots from the doctor, make sure my passport was up to date, and acquire a visa. I had never been to Africa and honestly it was terrifying to say the least, and it was all happening very fast. I had no idea who I was going with, only that there were about 10 doctors and nurses going, and I wouldn't be meeting any of them until I flew into London. While getting my vaccinations the doctor informed me that the shots I was taking would take more than 10 days before the antibodies would be active -- so, in other words, they wouldn't do me any good until I came back. On top of that I didn't even know where we were going; our airline tickets only got us to Nairobi.

So, three days later, unprepared and not knowing what to expect, I boarded a plane taking me to Minneapolis, then from Minneapolis to London, where I met up with the rest of the traveling party and introduced myself. As soon as I met the doctors and nurses I could tell what great people they were. These were people paying their own way to go head-first into danger to help others, and I thought it was very admirable. We flew from London to Nairobi, got off the plane with all of our supplies, medicine, and tents, and I was told we were to head to Entebbe, Uganda.

Have K-rations, will travel

In Uganda, where the soldiers were stationed, the airport was desolate -- a shell of a building with supplies and people. I still didn't know where we were and how we were going to get where we were going. There were no airport amenities like restaurants, comfortable seats and clean bathrooms. We were waiting for one of the American planes to refuel and take us to where we wanted to go. There was no set schedule or any particular arrangement for us to leave. We were at the airport with all of our equipment, but no one knew how we were going to get to Zaire. Because of all of the strife in the area, things like planes and transportation were being handled as well as they could be under the circumstances.

I noticed there were a lot of K-rations, or food surplus, that the Army gives the soldiers. I thought that this might be a really important thing to have for the trip, not knowing where my food would be coming from in the next few days. I asked the soldiers if they would be able to part with some of them. They were laughing at me and asking why I wanted K-rations. My response was that you never know when we might need them. I traded NBA shirts with team logos for the K-rations; for the homesick U.S. soldiers, they were mementos. (The American solidiers were so professional, staying in position, waiting for their orders.)

By the second night, Post had found a way for us to get from Uganda to Goma, Zaire, (now the Republic of Congo) by getting us a ride with the Canadian Red Cross. We traveled in a large cargo carrier -- riding in nets, not seats, on the side of the plane. The carrier housed supplies, tents and big trucks -- like large desert Hummers. I remember thinking to myself that if this plane crashed those big trucks could come unhinged and crush us like bugs. Traveling was exhausting, and there was no food or fresh water available; all I had was my K-rations. I remember when the plane took off it was heavy and smooth. It was very loud, but so heavy that you couldn't even feel it coming off the ground. It wasn't like commercial travel where you feel the bumps on the runway. I remember looking around at everyone sitting in the net seating, not comfortable but getting from point A to point B, still in my mind not knowing where we were going. It was very surreal, but together we were on a mission.

At about 4 a.m., we landed at another military base. I was unsure where we were, because apparently we had landed in a country where we didn't have visas. The soldiers helped us to get all the supplies and medicine unloaded into a truck that looked like a military transport truck -- only an enclosed cab and open sides. I remember the military people saying to get in the back with the equipment and stay down. We would be taken to jail if anyone stopped us and discovered we were in the truck and didn't have visas. After driving for like an hour we came to a road and saw a house on the hill. We were greeted by an organizational leader from ADRA, the Adventist Relief Agency. We unloaded and went to our rooms, following a long and tumultuous trip.

The next morning we woke up and found out where we were -- in Goma, about a mile outside of the Mugunga Camp. When I looked outside, there was a clear view of the surroundings. There were a few other houses nearby with broken windows. All of the trees were chopped down and the ground was bare and covered in powder like dirt. There were lines of hundreds of refugees walking by every hour who had fled Rwanda with nothing but the clothes on their backs. To me it was like a death march. These were people who were forced to leave their homes with only a few minutes notice or they would be killed. When I initially agreed to come and help these people I simply had in my mind that I was coming to help people and was unaware of the circumstances that they were subjected to. They were everyday people, doctors, teachers, family people just like us, who were one day living normally and the next struggling for their lives as refugees.

The 'Valley of Death'

The Rwandan conflict was between the Hutu and Tutsi groups. Most Rwandans were Hutu. But the Tutsi minority was the controlling party after the country gained its independence from Belgium in 1962. The Tutsis were considered "favored" and received more privileges. ID cards separated the tribes, including in the schools. A civil war between the sides began in 1990 and in 1994 -- the year I arrrived -- the Hutu president was assassinated, leading to the genocide of up to a million Tutsis by Hutu extremists.

Not only were the Hutu organizing to kill Tutsi, they were also killing the pro-peace Hutu, their own people, with the attitude that if they weren't with them, they were against them. There was encouragement from radio broadcasts and political figures to carry out the violence. People were hacked to death with machetes by their own neighbors and youths who were members of the militia. Women and children were not exempt from the violence. But the Tutsis re-organized their army and began to fight back, killing masses of Hutu, and began to win the war.

So it was the Hutu -- civilians and members of the defeated army -- who were in Goma to try and escape further violence. These were the people passing in thousands past our house as we looked down.

I had originally thought that the people we were going to aid were the disadvantaged and had been the ones who were attacked. As I came to learn more about the situation I began to understand that the majority of the people we were aiding were the ones who were members of the group that had actually started the conflict. The level of desperation was enough to make the area dangerous, and coupled with the anger of the men of the militia who had been embarrassed and lost face, the potential danger was raised to a whole new level. Here were heavily armed men struggling to regain respect and control because all they had was lost.

The refugees had been given permission to camp in Goma by the government of Zaire, which was a seemingly generous act, but in actuality the entire place was virtually uninhabitable. Goma is referred to as the Valley of Death, an area that came to be as a result of a volcanic lava flow, with the threat of a new volcanic eruption on the horizon. The quality of the ground is such that it is potentially toxic during rain, emitting a carbon dioxide gas that is lethal. It is incapable of growing food to sustain any type of life. Since the whole top layer of the ground was volcanic rock, it was impossible for the refugees to dig holes for bathrooms or graves. Because of this, bodies were left on the side of the road wrapped in blankets. I was saying to myself how awful it must have been for family members to have left their loved ones on the side of the road wrapped in blankets, just waiting for someone else to pick them up and bury them in a mass grave.

Setting up camp

In our house, we bunked with about five people per room and there were no working bathrooms inside, only an outside latrine. It was small, hot, and smelly. I was the only one without a mosquito net so I wouldn't allow my roommates to open the windows because I remembered that the doctor who vaccinated me told me my shots would be ineffective at protecting me from any disease. It was difficult to sleep because it was so hot and stuffy with so many people in the room. During this time, in addition to everything else, there was an outbreak of the Ebola virus and little was known about how the disease was transmitted, and there certainly was no cure. That being said, I didn't want to take any unnecessary chances.

If my memory serves me correctly, the Adventists didn't eat meat; they cooked potatoes and vegetables, which I do not like to eat. Therefore I was very happy to sit in my room and eat the K-rations. Waking up in the morning, looking out the front door and seeing others in distress, I began to wonder how safe we were staying up in this house where people knew we had the things they needed. They were responsible for a massacre of thousands of people, and I knew we were certainly not exempt from potential violence. There was no police of any form or military backup, so whoever was the strongest would survive. I advised my counterparts to be mindful of standing on the porch watching the people and eating as if it were any other day at home. We were part of this now, needless to say right in the middle of it, and the circumstances applied to us, too.

The first day, half of the group began to assemble the equipment and medicine so that we would be ready when we found a place for the clinic.The other half got in a car and drove up and down the road to find a place to set up that would be the most accessible to the refugees. As we were driving some of the doctors were taking pictures of the people. I told the doctors this may not be a good idea because of the distressed nature of the people and I didn't want to create any animosity or be disrespectful. After we stopped in a few places and tried to dig and set up a tent, we realized it wouldn't work. We were not able to dig into the ground and the clinic would be out in the open and vulnerable to theft.

Ron decided we needed to go to the Mugunga camp where the Red Cross and World Vision were set up so that we would have some stability alongside of them. If we left our equipment in their areas, we would have protection from theft as opposed to setting up and breaking down every single day. They had people stationed there 24 hours a day; we were a smaller group with less manpower. We went to the camp with 300,000 people with no food, water, light, bathrooms or security. It was a terrifying place with men walking around brandishing machetes and guns, looking very angry. These were the men from the Hutu army who had been embarrassed and fled Rwanda and were attempting to regain some status and control over the civilians by threatening violence and attempting to control operations at the camp.

I told the doctors to remove their valuables, watches, rings, earrings, and be mindful to not put their cameras out the windows. One swing of a machete was capable of taking someone's arm off, and the temptation would be there if there was a valuable attached. I also remember saying to myself if I was in the situation I would get away from this area saturated with so many people, sleep during the day and stay up at night because that was the most terrifying time without having shelter. These were destitute people. It was hot and stinky, waste was everywhere and because it was so hot the waste became dust and part of the soil. It would get kicked up as people were walking, so there was bacteria everywhere.

An endless hardship

We put up our tent and organized the medicine. People lined up by the hundreds: women having babies, babies needing medical care, everyone needing water. The French would bring water in in a big truck, thousands of gallons. There wasn't enough water for everyone so people would line up for hours. If you got out of line you lost your spot. No one was sharing water because people didn't have enough for their own families. Half of the doctors would be working and half would go around to the makeshift shelters because a lot of people were too weak to make it to the clinics or to wait in line. It was just too hot and they were too sick to move anywhere. Every day the doctors would go up and down the line and determine the people who were in the most urgent need for treatment. People were dying every day of heat and dehydration.

One day late in the evening we saw two brothers carrying a young girl. She was about six or seven years old. The doctors realized immediately she was very ill. They determined she had pneumonia and gave her a shot of antibiotics and set her up to an IV. They were having a hard time getting the IV into her because she was so small and frail. They finally got her set up and her brothers were looking after her. I wanted to take her back to the camp with us so that we could monitor her and said that she could have my bed, but being new and my first time, I didn't insist that we take her.

I will always remember her because as she lay there I was putting Chapstick on my lips and she pointed and gestured that she wanted some. So I put some on her lips and gave it to her to make her more comfortable. When we returned in the morning the little girl had died.

I felt very guilty that I didn't insist that we take her. I couldn't help but think how terrible it would be for the brothers to return to their family and tell them their sister had died. From that point I realized I needed to have more power within the group because I would have made the decision to take her with us. Since she'd been born in Africa she had a minimal chance of survival; a child in America would have been ill for maybe one week.

Unfortunately, one thing that I learned is that even if the doctors had stayed for one year with as much medicine as they needed, the line would not have gotten any shorter. The magnitude of the devastation and the hardship of the people was endless. I felt very guilty that I was able to get on a plane and leave at any time I wanted. I always told the people that I would be back to help but that I needed to gain knowledge and information so that I could help them more effectively. Because there was no place to bury the people, the French would come by and pick up the bodies and bury them in the sand near the lake. Wild dogs were digging up bodies and eating them.

One morning, a group of men came and asked me to help them re-bury the bodies and I had to tell them no, you have the wrong man. I was already having nightmares and I knew that was not a job I wanted to be part of. In Goma, we were working with a translator named Viene who helped us a great deal because he spoke French and fluent English. He lived in the Houston area but when the conflict broke out between the Hutu and the Tutsi, he flew to Zaire to find his family. Without his ability to help with the translation and communication we wouldn't have accomplished half as much.

Along with us in the house was a little boy named Moses. Moses was an orphan whose family was killed during an attack when a bridge was bombed in order to prevent people from crossing into the next region. He was saved from a pile of bodies that were about to be bulldozed into a mass grave when someone saw him moving. He was brought to the house where I was staying and I was his best friend because of the K-rations, which included M&Ms. After about five days, Post asked if I wanted to stay any longer. I told him no, that I was ready to leave and get back home because I felt like my physical presence there was no longer needed. What I learned was how the operation was being conducted and what the needs of the people were. I also realized that for about a dollar per day a Rwandan could be doing the job that I was doing and better because I was not able to translate.

The long trip back home

I was anxious to get home and begin to assemble my ideas into actions for future trips. I was physically and emotionally drained. I saved one pair of shoes and one change of clothes; all of my other clothes were dirty. I decided to leave them all behind on the advice of the other doctors because they told me with all of the bacteria present it was possible to spread disease. I was wondering how I was going to get back to Nairobi without a visa or transportation. I told Viene that I would contact him and help him find his family and I headed home. I got lucky and hitched a ride with the Canadian Red Cross who took us to Nairobi. They were very happy to aid us, all that needed to be said was that we were relief workers and without question they would give us rides or assistance.

Once again we were flying in a large transport plane, this time an empty one because it was returning to collect another load of cargo. I got my ticket to fly out of Nairobi and headed to the gate. Africa is not like America in terms of the flight check in -- there are not people at the gates, nor can you walk in and buy tickets. They don't even open the doors to the airport until an hour or so before the plane takes off. When I finally arrived, I walked in and approached the lady at the counter. She said the flight was full because I had not confirmed 24 hours in advance and my seat was given away. I told them I was in a place with no phones. They said they were sorry but the best they could do was try to get me on a flight the next day.

In Africa, there is no such thing as sleeping in the airport overnight. That meant I would have to leave the airport and go somewhere. Not knowing where to go I asked to speak to a supervisor and told them that there was a terrible accident at home with a family member and I had to return for a funeral, so it was imperative that I got on a plane. She began to cry and booked me first class to London. After boarding the plane I was greeted by a flight attendant who brought me a Coke with ice. I remember thinking how wonderful ice was at that moment, and how refreshing the soda was. I was so exhausted I don't even remember the plane taking off, only being awakened by the flight attendant nine hours later telling me we had landed in London.

After arriving in London, I was informed that I had missed my connection. I had only a backpack and one pair of clean clothes, the ones that I was wearing. The help counter took mercy on me and saw me staring at the departure wall and saw how exhausted I was. She gave me a complimentary hotel pass to the Heathrow Hilton. I checked into the hotel and went to the room where I slept for the next 20 hours straight. I missed my next connection, sleeping through the wake up alarm because of my exhaustion. I think it was also the first time I had felt like I was safe and clean in almost a week.

The house in Zaire was surrounded by death and danger. I couldn't help but think to myself that the United Nations should have stepped in and done something to keep peace. I always heard the phrase "Never Again" used in terms of the Nazi camps from World War II and the violence that came with that. I felt like this situation in Rwanda was no different and the UN should have intervened.

Once I woke up, I headed downstairs to a Chinese restaurant where I proceeded to order about seven different things on the menu. It had been days since I had really eaten and ate all of the food that the waiter brought to the table. I had lost about 20 pounds during the trip. When I returned to Portland, The Oregonian had a front-page article about my trip. Tens of thousands of dollars were donated to the Northwest Medical Team because of the article, which had raised the awareness of the people in regard to the situation.

Next week, Washington will make his 35th trip to Africa since 1994. Because of the lockout, he will not be able to take active NBA players with him, as he often has and as he had planned, even though his relief efforts are not officially sanctioned by the league. So he will go it alone. That has been standard operating procedure for him most of his life.

If you want to make a donation to his efforts or want to help in other ways, visit projectcontactafrica.com.

[Editor's note: Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.]

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