Basketball bounces back on Mogadishu’s courts

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Basketball is one of the world's most popular sports, so a sight like this, where young people are being taught the basics of the game, should ordinarily, not warrant a second glance or further inquiry.

But this is a training session in the Abdi Aziz district of Mogadishu, the Somali capital.

Until about two years ago, sports and other forms of entertainment were forbidden in the large sections of Somalia that were previously controlled by al Shabaab, the al Qaeda linked extremist group.

The Somali National Forces, with the support of the African Union Mission in Somalia - or AMISOM - has driven al Shabaab from most of its urban and rural bases.

These military gains have provided the security needed to catalyze recovery from decades of war, humanitarian struggle and social development.
Sixteen-year-old Hamsa Abdullahi Hussein started playing basketball in hopes of becoming a professional athlete one day.

“I didn't have anything to do. I would spend a lot of time thinking and was very depressed. I started playing basketball, I really like it and it makes me happy,” she says.

The court belongs to Mogadishu’s Dekkeda basketball club, which runs free workshops every day for young locals keen to learn the game.

Dekkeda is the top team in the city’s 13-member association, which is fully recognized by the Ministry of Sports, but funded by the private sector.

Said Mohammed Sheikh and several other Dekkeda players are regularly called up to the country’s national team.

“Basketball has a role in building peace. Our country has been through a lot, and it’s better that the youth stay busy with things like basketball. It helps us to forget. Many of our friends are into smoking and are in militias, we can use basketball to get them out,” Sheikh said.

Dekkeda’s coach, Hassan Ahmed Gelleh, played for the national team in the 70's and tried to keep the sport alive even during the most tense times in the country.

“We’ve come through very difficult times. Al Shabaab wanted people to participate in Jihad rather than play or even wear shorts. We still managed to hold some competitions, but girls weren't even allowed to come to the court. We've had a lot of problems, but there's a huge change now. Both men and women can come and play. Somalia used to be one of the leading teams in Africa,” he said.

Basketball and other sports are also serving as an oasis for people like Yahaya Osman. He was only three months old when his parents fled Somalia's internal conflicts to seek refuge abroad.

After growing up in the U.S. and playing basketball at college level, he's returned to lend his skills on-and-off the court to help rebuild his home country.

“I was told it's dangerous, I was told al Shabaab has the areas, but then I thought fear is the best way to control people. With fear in our minds, the youth and the people that studied abroad, that ran away from bullets, they won't come back, they won't invest their time in our country and if we don't help each other, our country is going to be in bits and pieces, everybody is going to grab a piece. So it's up to us to do something about it because this little bit of fear is consuming our minds and it's keeping us away,” he said.

Earlier this year, Somalia debuted its newly formed national team at a regional tournament, where they beat Kenya and Burundi.

Sports is a powerful tool for bringing people together, boosting their pride, stimulating economic growth and youth engagement.

Somalia’s basketball players have stepped up to the line, and are taking a shot at providing all these things for their country.