How COVID-19 reshaped dreams of female BASKETBALLers

The outbreak of the COVID- 19 pandemic across the world put most activities on hold and impacted negatively on people in all spheres of life. With the National Sports Festival just few days away in March, the Nigerian government announced the first lockdown and everything was put on hold but the athletes are currently looking forward to the government allowing for sports to restart. CHARLES OGUNDIYA in this report outlined the other activities some female basketballers engaged in during lockdown

In March, the Chairperson of Ghana’s Women’s Premier League Committee, Hillary Boateng, lamented the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, disclosing that a female footballer had got pregnant. However, the reverse was the case for four MFM Women’s Basketball Club girls as they have been able to discover their other hidden talents which have kept them occupied since they stopped playing months ago.

Bolanle Yussuf, Trust Oghenerhoro, Fumnanya Ijeh and Ukamaka Okoh were part of the young MFM team that finished second at the 2019 edition of the Zenith Bank Women’s Basketball League last October, losing to Air Warriors of Abuja in the final. Speaking with our correspondent recently, the quartet said they decided to face their vocations as a means of survival and also to keep themselves busy during the enforced break. Bolanle, a centre for the MFM Women’s Basketball Club, is a hairdresser, same as Trust while Fumnanya is into what is mostly seen as a men’s job, shoemaking.

Ukamaka is however into beads making. The Oyo State-born Bolanle Yussuf joined the club towards their historic second place finish in 2019 and, according to her, she was pushed into the game of basketball by the comments of people around her.

“Many felt I was wasting my tall and slim frame and they kept telling me to go and start playing the game,” she said. “So, I’ll say that my height, more than anything else, drove me into playing basketball. “Fortunately, my family supported me from the very beginning.

Specifically, my dad and younger brother really supported and encouraged me when I started playing the game. “It has been so great and I give all glory to God for giving us a father like Dr. Daniel Olukoya and his wife for all he is doing for us; the coaching crew led by Coach Aderemi Adewunmi, my teammates and the management of MFM Women’s Basketball Club led by Godwin Enakhena.” Speaking further, the player said that it has not been easy combining basketball and her job as a hairdresser while revealing that she learnt the job from her mother, who is a hairdresser as well. She added: “Hairdressing is my mum’s work, not that I went outside to learn it. So I learnt it from my mum. “I started from making hair for customers when my mum is not around and from there I will tell my friends to come over so I will make their hair.

“From making my friend’s hair, I became my own boss, like I started having the courage to make customer’s hair. I do use the money I make from making hair to buy equipment knowing that making hair is a plus for me and I thank God for this gift. “Personally, combining basketball and hairdressing has not been easy for me but this pandemic period has allowed me time and chance to make money out of it and I am happy. Bottom line is that I do hair when I am not playing basketball.”

She however revealed her plan to help her club win the next edition of the league after finishing third and second respectively in the last two years. Trust Oghenerhoro, a power forward, is a pioneer member of MFM Women’s Basketball Club and was privileged to have won two medals, a bronze in 2018 and a silver medal a year later.

The Sapele, Delta State-born player is also into hairdressing, a vocation she said she learnt at a very tender age. Oghenerhoro said she was surprised that MFM could achieve what they achieved in two years of their existence, finishing third in 2018 and second in 2019.

“The truth is I love helping others look good. It’s a passion and it has been beneficial to me and my family,” she said. “Of course I’ll invest in equipment when I start making money and have saved enough. “For basketball, it all started when I went to the stadium one day and I saw teenagers like me playing basketball and I fell in love with the game; so I decided to get involved. “That was how I started playing and it has really been wonderful. Interestingly, I got a full scholarship into high school the year I started playing the game and it has been rewarding all the way.

“I must say that we surprised ourselves in the 2018 season when after a few weeks of coming together as a team with little or no practice, in fact some of us were meeting each other for the first time in Enugu, we qualified for the final playoffs in Lagos. “Coach Aderemi Adewunmi who is a father to us pushed us very hard and kept telling us that we could do it. We eventually made the Top 3 in Lagos. “By 2019, we had matured as a team but it was disappointing that we lost the title in the final to Air Warriors but we got a ticket to represent Nigeria in Egypt.

“We told ourselves at the start of this year that this is going to be our year and we had started working very hard towards actualizing this dream before the coronavirus hit the world. Right now, we are ready whenever it is safe to play basketball again. The target is the trophy,” she said.

Combining her job as a hairdresser and a basketball player, she confessed that the game of basketball is not that challenging, as you don’t play it for 24 hours and all week. She added that as a team, they train for a few hours a day and the rest of the day she focuses on her passion which is doing hair for her customers. She however said she practices her craft when the team is not in season or when there is no competition.

Fumnanya Ijeh said she started playing basketball since when she was in Junior Secondary School at Asaba Girls Grammar School in Delta State. Although she started with gymnastics, she began to find interest in the game of basketball because she had a lot of basketball players staying on the same street with her. She added that seeing them go to practice every day, the way they talked about basketball, their love for the game and all that, she decided to give it a try.

“It was a little bit easy for me because it was being played in my school then but also difficult because both trainings were held at the same time (basketball and gymnastics), so I had to drop one for the other,” she said. “My gymnastics coach didn’t want to let me go because she saw that I was having more interest in basketball and also I was really good at gymnastics too.

“I had to leave gymnastics for basketball because the love I have for basketball was much more than I had for gymnastics and I thank God it’s been an amazing one for me.” While there has been lamentation all around, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fumnanya said it was a blessing in disguise for her as she was able to use the opportunity of the lockdown to enhance her skills as a bead maker.

She added: “It was (blessing in disguise) because that was when I finally seized the opportunity to learn something new; and I am very glad that I took advantage of the lockdown to do something that I can earn a living from while I still play basketball. “I learnt a bit of bead making from my late father, but I acquired more knowledge of the craft online. It hasn’t really been long that I got into this trade so I haven’t made much investment into it. “It has really been a tough one for me because I have to balance my basketball, my craft and every other aspect of my life, but I found out that there’s no need to think.

I can excel in both at the same time, so I take them one at a time. “Again, I often have specific times for almost everything I do in life. Doing one thing at a time has worked for me.” Ukamaka Okoh remains the odd one out of the four players as she has decided to delve into what is mostly known as a man’s job, shoe making.

The guard for MFM Women’s Basketball Club hails from Ute-Erunmu in Delta State and was part o f t h e silver-winning team of 2019. According to her, she was born to be an athlete as she loved sports right from primary school. Born to a police officer father, she grew up in the barracks where she was introduced to the police team basketball coach and the rest is history.

Ukamaka said on her love for basketball: “I was born to be an athlete; I love sports a lot, right from primary school. My father was a police officer and this meant that we were staying in the barracks. “One day someone asked me to see the police team basketball coach who took a good look at me and asked me to join the team, and I found out that I loved the game. The rest like they say is history.

“I love basketball a lot, but needed to learn or do something outside sports to earn some extra income for myself. But I didn’t want to do what a lot of girls are doing like hair dressing, catering, tailoring etc; this explains why I had to go into shoemaking.

“I am still putting money together to buy the equipment that I need to make good shoes, right now I am investing my time and dedication when not playing basketball; and it’s been beneficial, let me not lie o! “If I’m not playing basketball, I go to work (shoemaking), and if I’m not doing any of those I read and watch movies.” She added that the lockdown occasioned by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has really helped her become better in her job as a shoemaker.

Ukamaka revealed that the lockdown was a blessing in disguise for her as she has been able to made inroads in her shoemaking craft. “Even in this lockdown MFM pays our salaries,” she explained. “This is in addition to the General Overseer Dr. Olukoya sharing palliatives to everyone; they go as far as sending out palliatives to some of us who are outside of Lagos. “So, the implication is that I am focused because I have money to go to work, food to eat and I don’t have anything bothering me apart from missing the game.”

While speaking about her club, MFM, Ukamaka agreed that the club has been performing beyond expectations since it was formed two years ago. She agreed with her teammates that the main target this time around will be to win the title whenever sporting activities return in the country.

“For a team that was formed in less than a month to finish amongst the top three in 2018 was no mean achievement, even though getting a ticket to the continent would’ve been the icing on the cake; but it was a nice ending. “To better the performance of 2018, the girls had to start early preparations and trust Coach Aderemi Adewunmi to turn them into monsters on the courts.

The title would’ve been more like it but coming second and earning a continental ticket in 2019 was some consolation. “Nigeria and Africa should watch out for MFM Women Basketball Club in 2020, whenever the pandemic allows. You needed to see the kind of trainings we were doing before Covid-19 struck. We have only one target which is to win the title for our beloved daddy, Dr Daniel Olukoya, and his wife for their unbelievable support in all ramifications. We won’t let them down. Make this pandemic go first.”

She revealed further that she has been combining her career as a basketballer with her job as a shoemaker. According to Ukamaka, whose role model in the game is Chiney Ogwumike, it has been easy because she loved both and said it was even easier during this period as she has more time to improve and perfect her craft, and also has time to attend to her clients that are growing and appreciating her work.

Basketball in Nigeria has greatly improved in the last few years especially the women’s team, winning the last two editions of the FIBA AfroBasket Championships while also qualifying for the Olympic Games. While appealing to the government to pay more attention to the game especially from the grassroots, Ukamaka and the three others were of the opinion that women’s basketball will be greater than it is at the moment in the next five years. According to them, basketball is big business and a big sport that needs all the support like football in the country.

Since the lockdown, it has been difficult for athletes to train with all the training facilities like the stadium closed down due to the pandemic. At a time during the lockdown, there was no movement making some sportsmen and women train at home on their own. According to Ukamaka, who was supposed to be representing a state at the National Sports Festival in Edo State, she has been training at home while also taking programmes from her coach. She added: “We were still training and getting ready for the National Sports Festival scheduled for Edo State when we heard the news that everyone should return to their homes due to the pandemic. “So I’ve been doing my personal workouts in my house thrice a week, and I also contact my coaches as well to put me through.

“It has not been easy not playing basketball for months. It’s like taking a feeding bottle from a baby. Basketball is life mehn!” For Yussuf, it was a great relief after the Lagos State government relaxed the lockdown in the state allowing her to go for proper training as she has been training on her own since. She added that she has been going to a basketball court not far from her house but had to stop because of exorbitant transport fare. She has continued her personal training sessions at home while waiting for normalcy to return to the world so that she can go and play basketball again at the stadium. Fumnanya never believed the lockdown would be this long, expecting it to last for just a month, but after two months she decided to dust herself up.

She said: “At first when this whole pandemic started, I thought it was only going to last for like a month or two so I had to grind (put in the work) at home knowing that once the pandemic is over our season will start. “But when it began to last for more than two months; I was so tired of working out all alone at home so I took a break for a week and resumed again knowing that I have a big task ahead of me, not only to win titles in the national women’s league but also win for myself.”

For Trust, apart from personal workouts at home, she has been going to a private gym during the weekends so as to be fit ahead of resumption of sports. With their fulfillment so far in the game and their vocations, the quartet were full of praises and thanks to the General Overseer of the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries, Dr. Daniel Olukoya and the church, MFM. According to them, the church has really impacted on them, their career as basketballers, spiritual life and others.

“From the first day I set my feet in the camp in Prayer City, I felt the love that radiated amongst my team mates, the professionalism by the coaches; how can I forget a team where you don’t spend your salaries on feeding because Dr. Olukoya’s wife makes sure that we always have more than enough foodstuffs in our kitchen,” Ukamaka said. “And there’s electricity 24/7, that I have never seen before. Coming to MFM has made me to take my spiritual life seriously, as we start and end everything with prayers. It’s been a wonderful experience; we are all missing camp and also the goodies in the kitchen. “Dr Olukoya is a father that every child would wish to have, not only does he pray for us to grow, he spoils us with goodies all the time.

This is aside from paying salaries; in this lockdown we also receive palliatives all the time.” Bolanle added: “Mfm is a team all ballers should pray to be. The team management is doing a lot for us. Even in these difficult times, which I don’t want my generation to witness, we have been well taken care of. “All glory to God for giving us Daddy GO and his wife. The GO is paying our salaries and giving us palliatives too. Joining the team has changed my career and I am recognised more now. I am very happy.”

Going the way of her teammates, Trust said coming to MFM has been a blessing to her. She explained: “When you live in comfort, play in a team where there’s unity and there is a conducive environment and most importantly, you’re taught how to commit all your challenges into God’s hands, let me also add quickly that you’re paid your salaries, then you’ll have time to think outside the box and these have really helped me.” Fumnanya said: “How many can I say? Is it the prayers, the GO and his wife’s support, their financial assistance, the zeal to want to play the game of basketball, the encouragement from the coaches and management, or the players? “Playing basketball for MFM has taught me a lot of things in my career that only a few teams in Nigeria can teach their athletes.”

Apart from working together as team mates, they all have same plans for the future as they are looking forward to investing more in the game of basketball after their careers, while also creating job opportunities for others through their businesses. Ukamaka said she will somehow remain in the game by investing in basketball because she loves the game so much. She added: “What is also certain after my active days in the game is my big plans of setting up a shoe factory and then expand the FOOT’MAKA brand.”

Yussuf said: “I have big plans for myself when I retire from the game; one of the plans will be to invest big time in business, and to have my own basketball club in the future.” Apart from owing her own personal hair processing factory where she can produce beauty accessories for wholesale, Trust is ready to give back to her community by having her own basketball team and hosting basketball camps which will have no age limits each year. Fumnanya also wants to develop basketball in Nigeria by helping a lot of kids out there who do not have the necessary kits to play the game and not only that, she will love to build a school for the less privileged kids to help them get education because education is the key. For her trade, her plan is to build a very big complex where beads are sold and also have a lot of people working under her.




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