The coronavirus pandemic has put the sporting world on halt indefinitely. Although their seasons were either suspended indefinitely or cancelled, many athletes are “stepping on the court” to fight against the pandemic by contributing to relief efforts. Among them, Duke women’s basketball players Onome Akinbode-James and Jennifer Ezeh are sending much-needed assistance to their homeland on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
On March 6, Duke lost to Boston College in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament. Six days later, upon learning of the cancellation of both the men's and women's NCAA tournaments, the Blue Devils disbanded after a brief team conference.
“It's kind of surreal for the most part. I didn't come to terms with what actually happened for the last few months,” Akinbode-James said. “I think it's just beginning to dawn on me now especially that school's over. I just realized this was a big thing, and I'm saying there's a chance that it could go beyond just now. I was upset a little bit at first because we didn't get a fair shot, but at the same time I understand that humanity is greater than just basketball.”
As the coronavirus quickly spread around the world and the number of reported cases increased exponentially in the United States, Akinbode-James continued to keep a close eye on the situation back home even while staying with her host family in New Jersey.
Nigeria, the most populated country in Africa, reported its first case of coronavirus Jan. 28. Since March 30, the government has mandated a lockdown for major states in the country. When the lockdown was further extended April 13, it became apparent that the livelihoods of many low-income households would be threatened. Akinbode-James, sensing the gravity and the urgency of the issue, posted a call-to-action video on social media.
Various people responded to her video, including Ezeh, who suggested the idea of starting a fund to help feed the families struggling to make ends meet.
“We're going to keep talking about it,” Akinbode-James said. “But at the same time, while we're speaking, there are people that are going through the circumstances that we’re speaking about, and we need to find a way to reach out to them. That conversation with Jennifer and the comments I received fueled me to start the fund.”
After navigating through NCAA compliances, the Nigerian teammates set up new social media and Gmail accounts, eventually launching COVID Fund Naija April 21. Initially, they targeted Nigerian basketball players in the United States for a donation of five or 10 dollars. Now, they also accept transfers from the general public through apps such as Venmo and Cash App. At the other end, Nigerian citizens can send requests for the fund through direct messages. In communities where internet access is not available, they have local volunteers who contact the team on behalf of the whole community.
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“Ten dollars is actually quite big in Nigerian currency. That's all it takes right now and that's what we're sending each family [approximately 4000 nairas] to see them through for a week or a few days,” Akinbode-James said. “We messaged our friends in Nigeria, asking them if they know anyone that needs assistance, and if they need assistance. It's been crazy the amount of response we've gotten.
“A lot of times we asked the recipients to send a picture of the alert [of money coming in] so that at least we know the money's going somewhere. A lot of times you see the account balances and it's just like, going from zero to basically what we put in. I think that's sad because it's not that much money. It's insane to think that people are literally going about with zero in their accounts. Some of them are super grateful that we were able to help them.”
As of May 2, COVID Fund Naija has provided monetary support to 43 Nigerian families, raising a total of 885 dollars. Now that the hectic academic semester has come to an end, Akinbode-James says she is going to devote even more time to the initiative and respond to many messages that were left behind while she finished up final exams.
“Being able to give back to my community is something that is a big part of what I want to do going forward,” Akinbode-James said. “Though this is a sad time, it does give me a little bit more time to take a step back and reflect on my life. I don't know if I would have started the whole thing if Jennifer didn’t reach out to me. For me, it's something I've always wanted to do and now this is a great time to start taking some action. Hopefully, it's something I can carry on.”