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Nigeria is the most populous African nation. Lagos, with nearly six million people the political, commercial, manufacturing and shipping center of the country, is urban Africa at its most horrendous. Three-fourths of the city's residents live in rooming houses in which the average occupancy is more than five people per room. Almost 40% of the work force is unemployed or underemployed. In the early 1970s Lagos became an oilrich boomtown, but now, along with the world petroleum market, it has gone fairly bust. The place is a symbol of capitalism run amok. Skyscrapers hard by open sewers. Emaciated livestock pitifully nosing into a jam-up of cars, trucks, taxis and "mammy wagons,"—half-van, half-bus, all-rattletrap. Horrid junkyards, firetrap shantytowns, broken-down marketplaces and inactive construction sites dominate the landscape. Smoke and grime and foul odors are staples of the atmosphere. Bribery and hyperinflation are staples of the economy, DO NOT URINATE HERE signs are plastered all over the exterior walls of the bus station.
Lagos lies mainly on three islands in the crook of the Gulf of Guinea and is linked to the mainland by bridges which should take about 15 minutes to traverse. Traffic is so congested that peddlers can sell everything from watches to cheese to ironing boards car-to-car during the hourly "go-slows."
Arriving U.S. State Department employees are placated by a 25% cost of living differential—the maximum allowed—for serving in a hardship post. Beirut and San Salvador also are 25s. "This is the costliest, ugliest, craziest, dirtiest place in Africa," says Bill Campbell, a free-lance photographer based in Nairobi, Kenya who has been shot up in combat, "and the absolutely worst peacetime place to work in I know."
It's necessary to know in detail what Olajuwon comes from to undertand why he's so unusual—not just for a college basketball player in America but also for a Nigerian. Amid the squalor of Lagos the Olajuwon home at 19 Bank Olemoh Street in the Surulere neighborhood seems an oasis. At first glance Alhaji Salaam Olude Olajuwon, 68, and Alhaja Abike Olajuwon, 63, Akeem's father and mother, respectively, appear to have spent more for their spectacular outfits—the traditional Yoruban gowns and caps known as Aso-Okes and Filas—than they have for their humble abode. They are a large, handsome, formidable pair—strong features; warm, open, animated; smiling and laughing, often uproariously at nothing at all. The 6'3" Salaam, a cement man, makes regular trips to the Lagos docks where he brokers the incoming loads. Abike, who is about four inches shorter than her husband, handles the neighborhood cement orders, which they keep in a shed next to their home.
No. 19, a one-story, three-bedroom red concrete house behind a small fenced-in courtyard, is nestled among similar domiciles that belong to members of Nigeria's relatively small middle class. Goats and chickens wander along the potholed dirt street. A merchant dyes his cloth in enormous, fuming vats outside his shop across the way. Women walk by carrying fried bread and cassava on the flat trays perched atop their heads. Behind the dye vats there's a sandlot soccer field, rutted and rocky, with only one goal, which is bent. It's used as a simple playground by the neighborhood dogs and children and is the only evidence of sports in the area. This is where a Nigerian basketball coach spotted the gangling 6'9", 170-pound Olajuwon, leaning against the goal one day.
Abike stands laughing in the courtyard. She's said to speak no English, but upon introduction she says, "Mommy Akeem, Mommy Akeem." Let's see. Besides Mommy and Pop and Akeem, there's 6'7" Akin, who has gone off to join his brother at Houston, where he's a freshman at the university but isn't on the basketball team; and two other brothers, Taju, 17, and Afis, 13, who are still at home. Afis is the neighborhood "pin pon" (table tennis) champion. Akeem's sister Kudi, 22, who was educated at the American University in Cairo and is married to a Nigerian doctor, lives nearby, as does Kaka, a surveyor in Lagos, who when visiting the elder Olajuwons, parks his Mercedes 230 SL on the wooden boards that cover the sewer out front. Many aunts and uncles and cousins join the Olajuwons nearly every Sallah (holy day) for a family celebration.
This is the second marriage for both Olajuwons, though each has been monogamous—unlike Moslems in northern Nigeria, where husbands take as many as four wives. Kaka, who is Abike's son by her late first husband, acquired his taste for Savile Row suits while attending graduate school in London. Just as Kaka and Kudi went away to university and have come back, so is Akeem expected to do the same—following a hiatus for his chosen profession, of course.
"When he was here I did not want to encourage my son in basketball, because I did not know the value," says Salaam. "Now that I see what Akeem is doing, I compel Taju to keep playing—haw, haw, haw. But this talk of professional basketball. When I heard this I was not happy. I wish for Akeem to finish his studies. After that he can jump into any business he wishes—even cement. Haw, haw."
Long before Akeem grew to scholarship height, the family spoke of sending him to the U.S. for his education. With a countryman, tennis player Nduka Odizor, enrolled at the University of Houston and a large Nigerian contingent at Texas Southern, Houston, the famous oil city, "rang small bells," says Kaka. The older Olajuwon children had gone to school far away, but no one had studied in America. This would be a change. If Akeem could qualify, it was time. "Our parents have always advocated a strong education above everything," says Kaka. "It is the greatest legacy a chap will have as security against poverty. Akeem always loved this idea of going away from home to prove his worth. He was going for all the good reasons. We expected him to be gone for four or five years. Mother was so close to him. Still, leaving was a form of joy."
As the first born, Kaka was Akeem's primary adviser. He reminded Akeem of three Olajuwon family rules: "one: Face your studies squarely; two: Keep away from bad friends; three: Stay calm, collected." The hallmark of Yoruban sculpture is a facial expression devoid of emotion. Composure is an ideal in good behavior—the ability to be nonchalant at the right moment. "Akeem is blessed with serenity," Kaka says.