Emotional Attachment

Good morning from hot, sticky Thies.

While the Western world might not have a cohesive strategy for ISIS, Noah and I had a detailed strategy session last night to develop a plan for dealing with the hardened West African terrorists known as mosquitoes. Having been eaten alive nightly for the last 10 days, we had to change something in our tactics.

A 3 step plan, bug bombing the room an hour before going to sleep, drenching ourselves in repellent, and changing our potentially infested mats and I woke up with…considerably fewer bites. The cost of freedom from mosquitoes is high, and requires constant vigilance.

No one will sleep while these terrorists are at large.


Having had a week in Thies to interact with the kids, I’m starting to become unfortunately attached. We’ve already had some setbacks, with the Embassy denying a visa to one of our Academy students, Ibrahima, who had been given a 50k/year scholarship to the elite Hyde School in CT. The fact that a mid-level bureaucrat, who probably got his job by virtue of the US political patronage system, would stand in the way of a deserving kid’s immense opportunity is both heartbreaking and intensely infuriating.  

The loss to Ibrahima is huge, but the loss to the kids at the Hyde School is really no less. Typically, 50k/year East Coast prep schools are not bastions of socioeconomic diversity. The benefit to those kids through both the cultural interaction, and the fact that they will have a face to associate with West Africa would be huge.

Ibrahima, to his credit, took the bad news stoically. I’m not a terribly emotional person, but I would’ve punted a basketball clear to Mali. He stood there, as Noah told him, and then walked over to his friends with a body language that hadn’t changed. We’ll keep looking for other options for him, and he’ll keep working hard in the gym, perhaps with no greater end in mind than being better than he was yesterday.

All this because a stuffed shirt bureaucrat was told to reject more student visas.

We keep trucking though, working with other students in the hope that this was a one-off problem. One of the captains of the Academy, Abdou Gaye, is applying to a prep school in upstate NY to further his English and gain exposure for college programs. A quiet leader whose English is good until he psyches himself into a stutter, Abdou is exactly the kind of kid that we try to develop at SEED. He’s been in the program 3 years, passed his Baccalaureate exam (only 31% of the few who take the test pass), and has been selected for both the Basketball Without Borders and the U20 National Team. He met Noah and I for lunch to work on his application, and then sent us a heartfelt message for the help after we left.

We met him at the gym to play some half court last night. I should mention that we only have one functioning light at the gym, so half court is more of a forced activity after 8PM. The other side of the court was still filled with kids dribbling in the darkness.

I grew up with some gym rats, especially some of the kids at the Boys Club. Let me assure you, I’ve never seen anyone with enough desire to go dribble in the dark until someone boots them out of the gym.

I drew the unenviable task of guarding Abdou, which was comical for anyone watching. I shouldn’t be allowed on a basketball court with well coached 12 year olds, let alone a bunch of freak athletes, the shortest being a mere 6’6’’. Abdou threw down a couple of 1 handed slams in the 3 games, including one where he almost ran his nose into the bottom of the rim.

I just tried to shuffle my slow, white and old feet in front of him as much as possible.

Noah and I tried to exploit some teachable moments, especially with respect to the physicality of the American game. These kids are all stringbeans, as Mactar found out when he challenged the “toubab” to wrestle.

Listen kid, you might have a full foot on me, but your 160 lbs is NOT going to be putting me on my back. Try again in 40 lbs.  

The games ended when Thies suffered one of its many blackouts. We shuffled to the exit, trying to locate phones and wallets before calling it a night. I think there were still 25 kids in the gym when we left. 17 of them working in lighting categorized as “semi-darkness” at best.

Noah and I headed down the dirt roads back to the apartment, crossing the railroad tracks/dump, and asking “Ca va?” to the many families huddled around radios in the darkness in the “streets.”

It is fun to see the talent and it is amazing to see the drive. It is also heartbreaking to know that all the work these kids put in, both on the court and in the classroom, can be derailed by a bureaucrat after an interview that lasts less than 3 minutes.

The ability to have hard work rewarded is a fundamental component of the American Dream.

It is not however, a universal truth.

Good Morning Vietnam

From the first mile in the cab, pulling away from the Hanoi airport, I knew that this place was different. The highway was a veritable river of Vietnamese “mini-vans” or what Americans would call a moped. Some mopeds had full families of 4, while others hauled bushels and bushels of perilously stacked rice at high speeds.

Hustling on Boats

Hustling on Boats

The red and yellow hammer and sickle flag waved next to the simplistic yellow star flag of Vietnam. Uncle Ho, (Ho Chi Minh) looked down from billboards, flags and tee-shirts. Verdant rice paddies specked periodically with the same cone shaped straw hats, unchanged for a thousand years. Massive smoke billowing Foxconn plants which make most of the iPhone sitting in your pocket. Women burning stacks of “$5,000 US Bills” in the middle of the street. Vietnam is a schizophrenic story told in a thousand colors.

Vietnam was one of the first cultures to practice agriculture some 20,000 years ago, but its history is written largely in the blood of its people, shed by colonial overlords for most of the past 1100 years. Whether the Chinese, French, Mongol, Japanese, or American, foreigners have had a near constant hand in this land. Until 1651, they didn’t even have a written script for Vietnamese language. This too was haphazardly grafted onto a Chinese script.


The Vietnamese people are largely a happy bunch. There is a frenetic energy, especially in Hanoi, where everyone seems to be in a mad rush to nowhere. People are laughing, families are eating on the street around tables made for 3 year olds, and everyone wants to talk.


For a “communist” society, this place is as capitalistic as I’ve seen.

Everybody is hustling.

From the woman with 50 lbs of vegetables on two plates slung over her shoulder


To the multitude of impromptu restaurants on every street corner


To every Vietnamese with a moped being a “taxi driver”


This is a place scraping and clawing its way to a better life. GDP growth is among the highest in the world, and there are cranes in the sky in a way that reminded me of Dubai in 2008.

More will come but it is breakfast time. Thank God the Pacers remembered to play basketball for Game 7.