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My people perish for lack of knowledge," says Dikembe Mutombo, paraphrasing the Old Testament, from whose pages he seems to have sprung, like some prophet from a pop-up Bible.
His people perish for our lack of knowledge. Surely, we'd help the inhabitants of his native Congo if we knew that a man's life expectancy there is 42 years and shrinking, that half the population of sub-Saharan Africa is now younger than 15, that 35 million African children have been orphaned by AIDS.
One in five kids in sub-Saharan Africa never celebrates a fifth birthday, and for those who do, life is a trial from Day One. Two years ago, while visiting a maternity ward in Congo, Mutombo says he met 10 new mothers whose babies were not being discharged by the hospital until the women could pay their bills, each of which was $25. Though his homeland has witnessed manifold horrors, Mutombo had never seen anything quite so wretched as this--infants treated as collateral.
He gave the hospital $250, a fraction of his hourly wage in the NBA, where he's spent the last 15 years as a hardwood Robin Hood, taking from the rich, giving to the poor. "God has blessed me with a fortune," says the 40-year-old backup center for the Houston Rockets. "I love this country. It is a blessed country--especially for those of us who came here, were given an education and blessed to play basketball. One lesson my mother taught me was, The more you give, the more blessings you receive."
Biamba Marie Mutombo sold Cokes at the 20th of May Stadium in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, where Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fought the Rumble in the Jungle on Oct. 30, 1974. "All I know of the fight is that she made a lot of money that night," says Mutombo, who was eight at the time. It was his first experience with professional sports, and for his family it was a trickle-down agent for good.
And so Mutombo has been dreaming of this Saturday in Kinshasa, when he was supposed to cut a ribbon to open the $29 million Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital, honoring the woman who died of a stroke in 1998. Mutombo personally contributed $15 million to the project. He says that 55% of the patients will arrive on foot.
Ancient ways prevail in Congo, still visited by plagues--among them malaria, measles, tuberculosis, cholera and AIDS. Mutombo is a dual citizen of opposite worlds: the conspicuous wealth of the NBA and the abject poverty of Congo. This was thrown into starkest relief several years ago, when Mutombo traveled to Congo briefly, to visit his mother's grave. It was the only time he has gone there without taking antimalarial medication. "I figured I am big and strong, I cannot be killed by a mosquito," says Mutombo, who was playing for the Hawks at the time. It wasn't until he returned to the U.S. that the disease felled him like a 7'2" tree. Two hours after a game against the Celtics, Mutombo collapsed in his Boston hotel room.
Malaria can be fatal in two days, but Mutombo was saved by American health care. As he says of the African epidemics, "These are diseases of the poor."
Poverty is a terminal affliction in Africa, which is rapidly becoming a continent of children. "Go downtown in Kinshasa," says Mutombo. "There are thousands of street children, at every stoplight, good kids begging for food because their parents died of malaria. In Rwanda, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Liberia, these children carry guns on the street, 10- and 11-year-old soldiers."
Last week, shortly after Congo's first multiparty elections in 46 years, fighting in Kinshasa killed 31 people, forcing Mutombo to postpone the opening of the hospital. "The safety of all participants is my primary concern," he says.