Dikembe Mutombo: Children our most precious natural resource

Basketball helps former Hawk give back to Congo, world

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ALPHARETTA, Ga. — Philanthropist and former Atlanta Hawk Dikembe Mutombo was in Alpharetta to tell the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce about the work he is doing to for children around the world.

Chamber Human Resources Steering Committee member Chris Etheridge introduced Mutombo at the June 27 Eggs and Enterprise breakfast and told his remarkable story that led to the NBA and on to his greater work.

Mutombo attended Georgetown University on an academic scholarship and was not asked to try out for the basketball team until his second year. So he was not one of those “student athletes” looking for a stage to showcase athletic prowess.

Fluent in nine different languages, Mutombo received a dual degree in linguistics and diplomacy. After graduating, Mutombo did play NBA basketball for 18 years.

“Believe me, I enjoyed the roar of the crowd and the cheers,” Mutombo said.

“But my inspiration in life has always been the improvement of the living conditions of my people in the Republic of the Congo [and] especially in the continent of Africa. Playing basketball here in America…allowed me to give back to the homeland by building a brand-new hospital.”

The Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital, named after his mother, is near the Congolese capital of Kinshasa. The hospital cost more than $40 million, with Mutombo contributing $24 million. Since it opened in December 2007, it has treated 125,000 people.

In 2009, the NBA created a new position for him — global ambassador for basketball. In this role, he has traveled to India, Brazil, Haiti, China, Senegal and other nations.

He has visited tsunami victims in Japan and comforted families in refugee camps in Kenya, including one where a half-million people live within one square mile.

He uses the sport of basketball to advocate peace and help eradicate poverty. For example, basketball camps provide lessons in teamwork and healthy living. Many graduates of these basketball camps go on to play for the NBA, European basketball leagues or at American colleges.

Mutombo has also been active in the fight to eradicate polio and fight malaria, which kills 1.3 million children per year in Africa. He has also fought against HIV/AIDS. He said the development of a country is closely tied to its citizens’ health.

“Children of the world are in a state of crisis, not only in Africa, but here in America,” he said.

He said children are the most precious natural resources. Investing in them is an investment in the economy, security and social health of the future. Mutombo told his audience he was doing his part and that he hoped each person in the room would do theirs.

“It’s in your hands to create a better world for all who live in it,” he said, quoting former South African President Nelson Mandela.

He added that one’s career is how one makes a living, but what one gives makes a life.

People can start improving the world within their homes, with their spouses and children. However, one must realize there are people beyond one’s immediate family. In nearby Atlanta, there are many people without food, homes or jobs.

For Christians like himself, Jesus commanded his followers to help the poor.

Event guest Mary Hester asked if knowing so many languages has helped him spread his message. Mutombo said people who grow up in Africa learn many different languages. One’s parents might be from different tribes and one might learn the colonizers’ language — in his case, French — in school.

English is taught because it’s the international language. His life in Kinshasa, where there were many foreigners, contributed to his linguistic knowledge. In particular, he learned Portuguese from refugees from the Angolan Civil War.

When he finished his talk, North Fulton Forsyth Touchdown Club Board member Roger Wise asked him for a favor.

“For old times’ sake, can we see a finger wag?” Wise asked, referring to Mutombo’s trademark gesture.

Mutombo obliged.