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Making it big in the NBA, Bismack Biyombo goes home to Congo to help

Bismack Biyombo, a 22-year-old basketball center who recently signed with the Toronto Raptors, grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, dreaming about playing in the NBA. Contributing editor Soledad O’Brien follows him on a trip back to his home country to see how new initiatives and investments are helping transform the lives of the Congolese.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Tonight, we begin a three-part series entitled Congo's Hope.

    The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the world's poorest countries as a result of colonialism, misrule and, most recently, war, and this despite being endowed with precious natural resources.

    Our series marks the debut of NewsHour's contributing editor Soledad O'Brien.

    She begins the series in Goma, a city on the shores of Lake Kivu, and the place where Congolese NBA player Bismack Biyombo returned this summer.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    Bismack Biyombo comes ashore on the banks of Lake Kivu like a jolly lean giant, young, handsome, 6'9". He is 22 years old, a center in the NBA who towers above this village of coffee growers.

    And that is not where the contrast ends. Just hours earlier, Biyombo signed a two-year $6 million contract to play basketball for the Toronto Raptors.

  • BISMACK BIYOMBO, Center, Toronto Raptors:

    Done. I'm a Raptor.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    Signing right here in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the poorest countries in the world.

  • BISMACK BIYOMBO:

    I grew up here. I dreamed one day about being in the NBA. And the process that I have been through to be able to make it, and then come back here and sign it from here is just — it's that feeling that I can't explain.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    Why do you come back to Congo?

  • BISMACK BIYOMBO:

    I love the people. I love the potential of this place. And I think we have a bright future.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    Biyombo is of the Congo, perhaps even a metaphor for what it might be. He was born in Lubumbashi on the southeast end of the country.

    What was your childhood like in Lubumbashi?

  • BISMACK BIYOMBO:

    Like, we were eating once a day.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    One meal a day?

  • BISMACK BIYOMBO:

    One meal a day, because you cannot afford. But I'm actually glad of those things happen to me.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    Really? Why?

  • BISMACK BIYOMBO:

    Because it teach me. That's what help me to come back here and help.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    Like Congo, he was rich with potential, but low on prospects. He was discovered by a Portuguese coach and played in Spain before being drafted to the NBA.

  • BISMACK BIYOMBO:

    Every time I think about the way I got to the NBA, it is a motivation to myself, and I'm thankful for it.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    Biyombo is traveling with the Eastern Congo Initiative, ECI, the brainchild of actor Ben Affleck, which focuses in the area around Goma, a place scarred by volcanoes, overrun by refugees, and repeatedly, for the last two decades, at war over its rich minerals.

    Congo is fighting to do what Biyombo did: pick itself up off the floor.

  • BISMACK BIYOMBO:

    It's good to see people trying to help us put it together. But more than anything, it's that I believe in human resources.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    ECI showed Biyombo an example of those resources in these hills.

    Here, a sleeping coffee industry is waking up, as a string of aid organizations are building infrastructure and training workers. The newest customer for the arabica coffee is Starbucks.

    Baraka Kasali manages the initiative that works with 4,000 farmers.

    There has been coffee in this community for 30 years. I mean, the farmer we met said his grandfather is the one who brought the coffee plants and planted them 30 years ago.

  • BARAKA KASALI, Program Officer, Eastern Congo Initiative:

    They haven't received the value for that coffee.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    Why not?

  • BARAKA KASALI:

    Because they haven't had access to the markets. So we partner with them. We were able to be a catalyst to bring in folks, like USAID and the Howard Buffett Foundation, and say, hey, here's an opportunity to invest in people.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    The work has transformed the life of this woman and her children. This is her old home, and this one the new, bought and built with coffee money.

    The program is one of several that NGOs are promoting, with the goal of creating a sustainable society for the Congolese, one with economic development at the forefront, rather than war.

  • DARIO MERLO, Executive Director, Eastern Congo Initiative:

    Peace and stability will one day be a reality in this country.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    Dario Merlo is executive director of ECI.

    Is it realistic to think that a country that literally for the last 20 years has been in conflict can turn it around?

  • DARIO MERLO:

    You need to invest in people. People are ready to do something for their country.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    The DRC, the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa, is a compilation of sad statistics. The life expectancy is in the 50s. The infant mortality rate is among the highest in the world. Hunger and starvation are commonplace.

  • DARIO MERLO:

    This is a country with extraordinary people, and when you add it to the potential in minerals, in forest, clean water, you know, such a resilience from nature, from people, from everything.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    That means that successful Congolese like Biyombo must do more than just encourage business.

    What does hope come in the form of? Is that, hey, you just got a big contract; you are going to write some seriously big checks? Is it, you're going to come and visit? What is — describe specifically what hope looks like.

  • BISMACK BIYOMBO:

    Well, to me is to be able to establish companies that will create jobs, give people jobs, establish schools, that kids will be able to go and get an education, and then establish farms where people actually can eat, because, if you don't eat, you cannot work.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    To fill those jobs, Congo needs a well-trained work force. Here, young people learn new skills, like carpentry, auto repair, and plumbing. This young woman told Biyombo she wants to be a mechanic.

  • BISMACK BIYOMBO:

    What she said to me was touching, because she said that, I wanted to do mechanic, because it's not just a man's job, and I don't want people to think this is just a man's job.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    For Biyombo, this is a very different Congo than the one he left. Goma, where the program runs, was in the crossfire of a civil war just two years ago. The population was on the run from violence. Now people are dropping their arms and picking up tools.

    Jobs aren't all this community needs to prosper. They need to get along. Biyombo also came here to run a basketball clinic.

  • DARIO MERLO:

    For all of us, he is this national hero. Every professional athlete must show some discipline, hard work, and all these value, you want him to actually share that with the kids, especially in post-conflict area, because kids who play together, when they grow up, you realize that, actually, difference and diversity is a richness, that it's not something you should be afraid of.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    For Biyombo, this is fun in a country where there has been too little, a place where he no longer wants to see the ugliness, but the beauty, like the vast rich farmland which could grow an economy, or the rare gorillas that could attract new tourism.

    The story of Congo, to him, is all of this, and the potential of a people who have resilience at their core.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Soledad O'Brien in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Our series Congo's Hope continues tomorrow. Soledad profiles a Congolese filmmaker who is bringing movies and moviemaking to his country.

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