At a Giants of Africa basketball camp in Tanzania, a shy young girl stood in front of one hundred campers and started speaking. For the first time, she felt confident enough to speak about her experience as a young Black woman, her dreams for the future of Africa, and how much she loved being African despite not being born and raised there. Looking back now, Myrah Oloo – a Giants of Africa alumni turned Ambassador – notes that was the first moment she felt truly accepted into a community.
“Giants of Africa, through basketball, has given me confidence, given me a voice,” Oloo says, “From that moment on, I have never stopped speaking up.”
Giants of Africa, founded by Toronto Raptors Vice-Chairman and President Masai Ujiri, celebrates its 20th anniversary this weekend in Toronto. For two decades, Giants of Africa has visited 17 African countries, built over 30 courts, and impacted more than 40,000 youth. Yet, the true impact of Giants of Africa is easily discovered through a short conversation with any of the program’s alumni.
Oloo, now a graduate of the University of Nottingham with a degree in Economics and Politics, grew up in the United Kingdom in an African household. She describes never feeling “English enough” or “African enough,” until her Kenyan boarding school offered to send her to a Giants of Africa basketball camp.
“I came in with the mindset of wanting to be the best player, win MVP, show off” Myrah laughs, “My first day I was terrible.”
Yet, these camps are so much bigger than just practicing basketball skills. Giants of Africa Coach Geraldine Robert, who grew up in Gabon before playing professional basketball and winning championships in Europe, enjoys how much you can teach youth about life in just a short basketball camp.
“We use basketball to impact the youth and show them that they matter,” Robert says. “We show them they can be a leader anywhere they are through classes, and through the way we talk to and empower them.”
Myrah didn’t end up winning the MVP award at her first Giants of Africa camp, but she did win the Energy Player Award, which celebrates basketball being about more than just playing well. In her words, it was about “having sportsmanship, having leadership and respect for the people around you.”
For Oloo, it’s the subtle ways that Giants of Africa empowers women in particular that spoke to her most. She explains how women are just integrated naturally into every level of Giants of Africa – from players to coaches to staff – which immediately made Oloo feel like she belonged in the space.
“In a patriarchal society, it’s important to see how someone like Masai talks to young boys,” Oloo explains, “He doesn’t just put the agency on women to be better for ourselves, but challenges the young boys to think that way as well.”
The age-old saying of “if you see it, you can be it” is how Robert describes how Giants of Africa impacts young women to see the potential in themselves. She describes using her role as a coach to show the young kids – girls and boys – that if she can do it, they can too.
“For these kids, sometimes it’s hard to have someone coming from Europe or America, to see themselves,” Robert says, “But I tell them ‘if I can come from Gabon, a country with two million people, and win a European Cup, of course you can do it.”
She also describes being honest about the hard work and sacrifice it took to get to where she is, but it all comes back to the way Giants of Africa teaches youth to discover their potential through sport.
“The thing I like about Giants of Africa is the way we use sport to deliver all these messages,” Geraldine says, “Because we are here to play basketball, but we use sport to deliver a message about leadership, about self-confidence, and about being a woman.”
All of that and more will be on display this weekend in Toronto as Giants of Africa celebrates its 20th anniversary. Along with the celebration at Friday night’s Toronto Raptors game and a Giants of Africa Gala, there will also be an all-girls basketball clinic taking place in partnership with the Muslim Women’s Summer Basketball League. Oloo and Robert, along with WNBA All-Star and Raptors analyst Kia Nurse, Raptors assistant coach Mery Andrade, and three-time Olympian Miranda Ayim will be in attendance to run the clinic. Participants will have the opportunity to do on-court drills as well as goal-setting activities and a leadership workshop.
Another way Giants of Africa is celebrating 20 years is the launch of the ‘Lift a Giant’ program, enabling young individuals to participate in life-changing experiences. Through providing access to camps, clinics, and well-equipped basketball courts, they are dedicated to empowering the next generation to Dream Big.
Both Oloo and Robert are traveling to Canada for the celebrations in Toronto. For Robert, it will be her first time in Canada and her first NBA game.
“I’m excited to meet the young girls, to see how they perceive life and what their issues are,” Robert says, “Because it may be different from African or European girls.”
For Oloo, she’s excited to bring a little bit of African culture to the West, as someone who has lived in both Western and African countries.
“It’s something you just have to feel, it’s so vibrant,” she explains, “It’s so empowering, we don’t have to tell people to get up and groove. I know they will love it.”
As for the next 20 years of Giants of Africa, both women hope that the organization can continue to build young leaders through the power of basketball.
From being that young girl who found her voice by speaking to her peers at a Giants of Africa camp, Oloo knows now that sports isn’t all about winning MVP – sport teaches us teamwork, resilience, and confidence. A message she hopes to continue speaking up about through her role as an Ambassador for Giants of Africa.
Once a shy girl struggling to find community, Oloo is now one of many women Giants of Africa has inspired to Dream Big.