For many children across Africa, playing sports on the big stage is a childhood dream — scoring the winning goal in a major tournament; throwing that last-minute 3-pointer to clinch the victory at the NBA playoff finals; testing their skills alongside the finest players in the world and rubbing shoulders with other sport icons. For some, sport is the hope of an exit plan from the communities in which they grew up.
Sports also have a unique power to unite divided groups of people. Just one powerful and symbolic example came in South Africa in the early 90s, amid great tension over the appointment of Nelson Mandela as the country’s first Black president.
Yet, after the South African National Rugby team clinched the World Cup at home in 1995, the crowd filled mostly with white South Africans quickly forgot their animosity. Both white and Black South Africans started chanting with excitement “Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!” across Johannesburg's Ellis Park Stadium. This moment in time will always be remembered as one of, as the New York Times puts it, the “ultimate examples of sport’s power to heal”.
Sports also help to promote human development. And according to Makhtar Diop, the current International Finance Corporation’s Managing Director and Executive Vice President, “reviving school sports in elementary schools — particularly in the most impoverished areas where children do not have access to sports infrastructure or physical education programs — is an investment for life."
Many sport stars, on finding success, are returning to their roots and contributing to the economic growth and development of the communities they came from, via poverty alleviation schemes, supporting charitable causes, or investing in facilities to encourage more children to participate in sports. Like Nelson Mandela once said, “Sport has the power to change the world...Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”
We've put together a (non-exhaustive) list of some of West Africa’s biggest sport stars, who are using their platforms to help make a positive impact, transform lives, and uplift their communities.
1. Didier Drogba
Nationality: Côte d'Ivoire
Issue: Peace Building
Drogba’s name continues to echo in the minds of global football fans three years after the former captain and all-time highest goal scorer for Côte d'Ivoire retired from playing football.
Aside from his prowess on the football pitch, Drogba is also known for his philanthropic work in his home country.
In 2005, during the country's civil unrest and just moments after Côte d'Ivoire qualified for the 2006 World Cup, Drogba leveraged his global reputation and used his voice to call on his country to end the conflict.
"From the north, south, centre, and west, we proved today that all Ivorians can coexist and play together with a shared aim — to qualify for the World Cup," Drogba said, in a speech in front of a TV crew gathered with the players in the dressing room of the stadium. "We promised you that the celebrations would unite the people — today we beg you on our knees."
"The one country in Africa with so many riches must not descend into war," he continued. "Please lay down your weapons and hold elections."
Described by the BBC as "one of football's most extraordinary tales", change did follow in the weeks and months following Drogba's speech — which continued to be played on TV sets across the country — and a ceasefire was signed.
Since then, Drogba’s humanitarian activities through the Didier Drogba Foundation, have earned him a quite stunning list of awards and recognitions — including an honorary degree from a university in his home town, Abidjan.
He was appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme in 2007; in 2020, received the UEFA President's Award, which recognises both professional excellence and exemplary personal qualities; and in October 2021, he became a Goodwill Ambassador for Sports and Health with the World Health Organisation (WHO). Meanwhile in 2009, he also donated £3 million from an endorsement with Pepsi to build a hospital in Abidjan. A champion in every sense of the word.
2. Sadio Mané
"Why would I want 10 Ferraris, 20 diamond watches, or 2 planes? I built schools, a stadium, we provide clothes, shoes, food for people who are in extreme poverty.— Taj Ali (@Taj_Ali1) February 4, 2022
I prefer that my people receive a little of what life has given me."
-Sadio Mane pic.twitter.com/j9pRfQBW5w
Mané, the player of the tournament of the just concluded Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), is one player who doesn't shy away from giving back to his hometown. In June 2021, the one-time African Footballer of the Year donated almost $700,000 to help fund the construction of a hospital in his home of Bambali in Senegal. The hospital will reportedly become the first in the village, which is about 400 kilometers outside Senegal’s capital city Dakar.
He'd previously, in 2019, also donated close to $350,000 to build a new secondary school in Bambali, and in 2018, gifted 300 Liverpool shirts to locals there to wear during the UEFA Champions League final. Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Mané also donated £41,000 to health authorities in Senegal. Without a doubt, despite his success, Mané hasn’t forgotten his roots and the community that raised him.
3. Antonio Rüdiger
Nationality: Sierra Leone
The German-born Sierra Leonean, Antonio Rüdiger, is a one-time winner of Europe's most prestigious soccer accolade — the UEFA Champions League (UCL) — with Chelsea football club. Just last month, the Chelsea FC centre-back launched his charitable foundation for education in his home country of Sierra Leone.
Rüdiger pledged $40,000 to the foundation, as well as auctioning off his signed Chelsea shirt, to help improve the life and access to quality education of the people in his local community. According to him: “This foundation means a lot to me, but I don't want it to be a one-man show, I want everyone to admire it, especially the younger generation." He is a player much loved back home in Sierra Leone.
People of Sierra Leone, thank you so much for all these amazing memories in recent days 🇸🇱💚🤍💙 pic.twitter.com/SdbmWQ2whV— Antonio Rüdiger (@ToniRuediger) January 29, 2022
4. Masai Ujiri
Issue: African Youth Empowerment
Ujiri is a Nigerian professional basketball executive, former player, and the current vice-chairman and president of Canada-based Toronto Raptors Basketball Club.
Back in 2003 and inspired by the impact basketball has had in his own life, Ujiri co-founded the nonprofit Giants of Africa, aiming to use basketball as a way to encourage young children across Africa to dream big. In September 2021, Ujiri and the foundation announced a commitment to build 100 basketball courts across Africa over the next 10 years, including in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Côte d'Ivoire, and Burkina Faso.
"Sports are one of the best ways that we can help our young people achieve their goals and I look forward to hearing the stories of the thousands of young people who will be able to utlise these courts to help make their communities stronger over the next 10 years and beyond," Ujiri said.
ON THE COURT | Believe in yourself and be proud of who you are. That comes first at every camp. Coaches and campers bring the energy, and together, they’re ready for anything!— Giants of Africa (@GiantsOfAfrica) January 28, 2022
Say it with us: I AM A GIANT! #GiantsofAfricapic.twitter.com/Xyp0Gh20Tx
5 & 6. The Ogwumike Sisters
Issue: Girls' Empowerment & Gender Equity
Next on the list are the Nigerian-American Ogwumike sisters, Nneka and Chiney. Both sisters currently play as forwards for the Los Angeles Sparks professional basketball team, while Nneka also currently serves as president of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) players' union.
In 2014, just a few weeks after the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls — which sparked the #BringBackOurGirls movement — the Ogwumike sisters challenged girls' basketball teams to intensify their support for the work UNICEF is doing in Nigeria to protect and promote the rights of women and girls.
The Ogwumike sisters partnered with the U.S. Fund for UNICEF’s Girls’ Education Project, with the aim of helping millions of girls better access quality education — with a focus on Northern Nigeria — through getting more children in school, developing scholarships for female teachers, and creating safe spaces for girls.
In a 2019 charity visit to Queens College, in Lagos, Chiney Ogwumike said that "there is more to basketball than having the regular skills set,” further emphasising the need for young children to be focused on their dreams, in a society where it can be hard to do so.
And in 2020, Nneka Ogwumike led WNBA players in advocating for reduced gender pay gaps in the sport. The 8-year collective bargaining agreement for WNBA players will increase the salary cap for women in the sport, as well as creating a variety of career and quality of life benefits for WNBA players — including childcare stipends and full salary during maternity leave.
7. Kamaru Usman
Issue: Food Access & Nutrition
Sport: Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)
Kamarudeen "Kamaru" Usman is a Nigerian-American professional mixed martial artist and the current UFC Welterweight Champion. In June 2021, during a visit to his home country Nigeria, the UFC champ decided to collaborate with the Lagos Food Bank Initiative to donate and personally share food items to about 1,000 underserved kids in Lagos.
"Being born in a place like Nigeria helped mould me into the man I am today," he reportedly said at the event.
With it's 12,000-strong volunteer network, the Lagos Food Bank Initiative, the first indigenous food bank in Nigeria, has been able to reach 1.6 million people in more than 130 communities in Nigeria. You can read more about their work here.
8. Wilfried Zaha
Nationality: Côte d'Ivoire
Issue: Children/Community Development
Dazet Wilfried Armel Zaha is a professional footballer for Premier League club Crystal Palace and the Côte d'Ivoire's national team. The English-Ivorian national uses his Zaha Foundation, spearheaded by him and his family, to help rebuild inner-city areas so young people can better engage in social activities in a secure, accessible environment.
According to the foundation, this is a "passion" of Zaha's, "who himself grew up silently developing his craft with his friends on the streets and in park areas." Zaha has also spoken about how he was left homeless at the age of six while growing up in London, where he moved at age four with his family.
Through his foundation, Zaha also funds an orphanage run by his sister back home and donates 10% of his earnings to these good causes.
9. Anthony Joshua
Issue: Community Empowerment
Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseni Joshua OBE, 32, is a British-Nigerian professional boxer. The 2012 London Olympics gold medallist and two-time former unified World Heavyweight Champion is a strong believer in giving back. On multiple occasions, he's worked to support the Forever Hope Foundation, a nonprofit that partners with children's charities and organisations on fundraising.
In 2017, for example, Joshua and the Forever Hope Foundation raised £10,000 to support Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in the UK. Alongside this, as highlighted by the foundation, he's also worked to help raise money for anti-gang crime charities, donated money to help support the rehabilitation of offenders, and donated numerous items for charity auctions — such as a pair of signed boxing gloves.
Togetherness 🌍 pic.twitter.com/29HXiaVfUn— Anthony Joshua (@anthonyjoshua) April 29, 2020