As an NBA All Star, Dikembe Mutombo battled Hakeem Olajuwon on the court. These days, his opponents, malaria and Ebola, are requiring much more than an emphatic block and his trademark “not in my house” finger waggle. Mutombo now uses his considerable stature to address his lifelong goal of improving the health, wellbeing, and future of the people of his home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Mutombo visited Harvard Law School on Oct. 23 for a talk sponsored by International Legal Studies, the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, the Harvard African Law Association, and the Law and International Development Society. Introducing Mutombo to the standing-room only audience, Harvard Law School Professor William Alford ‘77, who serves with Mutombo on the board of the Special Olympics International, noted “When I say I look up to Dikembe Mutombo, I’m not talking about his height, I’m talking about his humaneness. [He] is one of the world’s greatest humanitarians.”
Born the seventh of 10 children in Kinshasa, the capital of what was then known as Zaire, Mutombo earned an academic scholarship to attend Georgetown University, where he began his basketball career and graduated with a dual degree in linguistics and diplomacy. Drafted by the NBA in 1991, Mutombo has leveraged his success on the court into a vast philanthropic effort. “I use basketball as a global language for peace,” he said. His charitable endeavors have included visits to Somali refugee camps, serving as a CARE spokesperson, and sponsoring the Congolese women’s basketball team’s participation in the 1996 Summer Olympics. In 1997, Mutombo launched a foundation, devoting millions of his own dollars to the goal of building a hospital in Kinshasa. In 2007, the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital, named after his mother, opened its doors. Through its inpatient and outpatient service, and educational programs, it has reached tens of thousands of Congolese.
The Harvard Crimson reported on Mutombo’s visit, noting that “To combat brain drain, Mutombo has funded training for over 400 doctors and nurses at his hospital, who have gone on to pursue careers in the DRC.” (Read the full Crimson article.)
In his talk at HLS, Mutombo discussed the multiple challenges facing Africa, his foundation’s efforts to provide access to medicine and high-quality healthcare, and the responsibility of the next generation to do its part in the fight against the tragedies ravaging the continent. He urged the students: “I want you to find a way to become a leader in your generation. You have a chance to apply what you learn here. We need you.”
Taking questions from the audience, Mutombo elaborated on the public health crisis in Africa and its domino effect, stating that the continent cannot experience true economic growth until it rids its people of preventable diseases. Describing the challenges in Africa, he said “I pray that one day people living in developing countries will have equal access to healthcare.”
Mutombo wrapped up his visit to Harvard with a visit to the Harvard Men’s Basketball team practice. During a break in drills, Coach Tommy Amaker introduced Mutombo to the team and each player introduced himself to Mutombo and shook his hand. Mutombo had actually met Steve Moundou-Missi, a senior from Cameroon, this past summer at a basketball camp in Johannesburg, South Africa—fitting evidence of the 7’2” star’s remarkable reach.