Bismack Biyombo understands firsthand the need for change.
His experiences, his growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have him fully committed to significant, deep-seated, lasting change in his native land.
However, when the Charlotte Hornets center (and LaMelo Ball mentor) talks about that change, he doesn’t talk about massive spending programs or political change. He talks about change on the ground level, about first steps — changing youth’s lives, giving them opportunities. It’s about planting a seed in young minds then watching them grow.
“We want to be able to impact life on a daily basis, but also it’s far beyond that,” Biyombo told NBC Sports. “I’ve seen a country that I lived in for years, every year it’s taken advantage of. Kids are not educated. The country is worth over $24 trillion [in natural resources] but is one of the poorest countries. Every day is a fight for these kids, you know… You wear somebody else’s clothes; people make donations and that’s how a lot of us used to receive those clothes.”
It’s why the first major investment of the Bismack Biyombo Foundation was to build the Kivu International School, located in the city of Goma (near the Rwandan border). In a nation where one-third of children drop out of school before sixth grade, this was an opportunity to change the lives of 500 students — give them the chance to learn French and English, along with a full national and international curriculum, in modern classrooms with Wi-Fi and a library. Not to mention the nation’s first covered basketball court.
“The goal is we want to give these kids opportunities I didn’t have,” Biyombo said. “Most of the kids want a way out; I want to give them a reason to stay. All the kids want a way out of the Congo; to me it’s about poverty, it’s hard, all this. I want to give them a reason to stay.
“That’s exposing them to the right information, putting in the right infrastructure so that they feel comfortable enough to be home, dreaming at home, living their dreams while their mother, father, family are there with them.”
It’s hard to take those first steps with a worldwide pandemic causing a nation to stumble.
Those stumbles helped Biyombo focus on another basic need in his native land: healthcare.
The DRC is considered a coronavirus hotspot, with new cases having surged since December. While the World Health Organization officially counts more than 25,000 cases and just shy of 700 deaths from the disease, those numbers are considered undercounted because of a lack of tests.
Then there is Ebola — the DRC just had its 10th outbreak of that deadly virus. On top of that, malaria remains one of the top killers in the nation (particularly of children).
Infrastructure upkeep has declined in the DRC in recent decades, and hospitals in the impoverished nation were not ready for this.
“To be honest, a lot of the hospitals were not up to the standard, perhaps you could say, of the normal hospitals,” Biyombo said. “What we started doing was refurbishing, as many of those as we can, and clinics, as many as we can. So far I think we are around six.”
That includes upgrading hospitals in the capital city of Kinshasa as well as his hometown of Lubumbashi.
“The hospitals are coming along, thousands of people are using it,” Biyombo said. “Obviously it’s a blessing to see everybody using it, but I think there is more that we want to do and we’re going to do, and the goal is to refurbish as many hospitals and clinics as we can and see where that is going to take us.”
Biyombo isn’t the only former NBA player from the Congo working on improving hospitals. Dikembe Mutombo built a hospital named for his late mother and has worked on the healthcare issue for years. But the demand is still great.
The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the problem — PPE supplies were in short supply, as were the other tools needed to fight the disease.
“We donated a lot of gloves and the basic tools that could be needed because at the time we got hit with the pandemic, we only had 50 respirators in the country at the time. We’re talking about 50 for 80 million people,” Biyombo said. “We had resources from a lot of people [help out] and now the country is in a much better spot.”
Still, just like all over the globe, the key to slowing the pandemic’s spread is simple steps of people just following common-sense rules like wearing a mask and social distancing.
“I think the goal for a country like us is having everybody do their little part, to play a small role, to bring the country up to the standard,” Biyombo said.
That is where the nation’s poverty creates another challenge.
While the DRC has an estimated $24 trillion in natural resources, those are untouched or squandered. Only an estimated 10% of the farmable land in the nation is used to grow food. While the nation is rich in minerals and precious metals — gold, uranium, oil, and much more — those are primarily mined illegally by armed groups. The nation’s corrupt and unstable political situation only exacerbates the problem.
The United Nations World Food Program estimates that 90% of the people living in the DRC are food unstable on some level, with 3.4 million children facing malnutrition. Getting enough food just to survive is the daily goal, and it’s something Biyombo faced firsthand growing up.
Biyombo asks, how can you tell someone to stay home or stay socially distanced when they have to find a job that can put food on their family’s table that night?
“It’s more surviving day-to-day,” Biyombo said for families there. “It’s difficult to tell those people to stay home. So, every day it’s more survival for them, and we just want to make sure we can help them throughout this transition and see how we hopefully can create jobs, and coming up with ideas to start creating jobs, in the close future.”
For Biyombo, education and the opportunities it can provide are the way out. He is close to opening a second school, this in his hometown of Lubumbashi, a poor copper mining city.
“Obviously, the second school was slowed down by COVID and the pandemic, but that second school will be done this year and then kids will be able to attend school 2021-22, so we look forward to that.”
The school is new, the goals are the same.
“So, to impact daily lives… but we want to give these kids the best opportunity. We were bringing kids from the Congo to [to the United States], I think we have done a little over 60 kids, that we are giving scholarships. But we can’t keep taking the kids out, so even like the school we are building, those schools are like private schools here, so the kids can have a chance to go to a nice school…
“But again, the goal is to impact daily life but implement new ideas in these kids’ minds so that hopefully, in the near future, whenever I’m not doing this anymore, they are doing bigger and better than me.”
Biyombo continues to run basketball camps back in the DRC, but the nation’s issues are ever present.
“First (basketball) camp that I did, I had 25 kids, I give one of the kids shoes because his shoes were pretty messed up, and he was playing with running shoes, so we give them basketball shoes,” Biyombo recounted. “And I remember he took the shoes and goes hide them in his backpack. So I looked at him and asked him, ‘where’s the shoes we just give you?’ He said, ‘I will use those shoes to go to school with.’ I had no comment.”
Biyombo understands that boy’s plight. He has stories similar to it. He hopes his story can be part of that important, lasting change for his country.
“I’ve learned so much, now I can use that to go back home and motivate a lot of kids, use that to put new ideas in them,” Biyombo said. “Hopefully, now that we’ve started the work, they have a different understanding of life. They want to be somebody in life.
“If I didn’t go through that I wouldn’t be able to explain anything to them.”