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Shooting hoops in Senegal

Jean-Robert with Handistar Dakar

While in Senegal doing research for his PhD, a Johnian inadvertently ended up coaching a Senegalese wheelchair basketball team. 

Over the Easter break, History PhD student Jean-Robert Lalancette was doing research in the National Archives of Senegal. While there, Jean-Robert, who is the captain of the St John’s basketball team, ended up coaching Handistar Dakar, a Senegalese wheelchair basketball team.

Jean-Robert was in Senegal looking at diplomatic documents from the early post-colonial period. His PhD explores inter-African politics in the early days of independence from 1957-63 and how the new states viewed themselves and competed with one another to create a post-colonial Africa in their image.

Jean-Robert, who is a French-Canadian, was staying in the neighbourhood of Sicap Baobab, in the capital city of Dakar. By chance there happened to be a basketball court outside his accommodation and so he bought himself a ball and went out to play.

“I started to attract quite a lot of attention from the local kids playing out there on my own and quickly found myself surrounded by children shouting ‘Je veux jouer! Je veux Jouer!’ or ‘I want to play! I want to play!’ I started teaching them the basics of the game and refereed some matches for them” said Jean-Robert. “A couple of days later a wheelchair basketball team came onto the courts. I watched them for a while and realised they were really good”.

Jean-Robert and the team got talking, and he found out that they played for a national league. Although they had been given government funding for their wheelchairs, after an initial injection of cash they had been pretty much left to their own devices. Many of the players were also unemployed with no formal education and only two had skilled jobs. Being on the basketball court was an invaluable means of escape from the stresses of their everyday lives and gave them a sense of purpose.

When the team heard about Jean -Robert’s role as the captain of the St John’s basketball team, they asked him to be their coach for the month he was staying in Senegal.

“It was a great experience to learn about wheelchair basketball as it’s a really different game and not something I was familiar with. I spent a lot of time on YouTube learning drills that I could teach them! I think we all got a lot out of it though as I brought a new element of structure and organisation to their training sessions and improved team morale” said Jean-Robert.

When he left, Handistar Dakar made Jean-Robert an honorary member of the team and gave him a team jersey. Jean-Robert gave them the basketball he had bought in return.  “They were an inspiring group of people and I’ll be keeping in touch with them over Facebook and getting updates on the rest of their games this season” he added. “While this trip yielded great research, the friendships I made in the local community were really what made it an amazing experience. Being able to help out people from a neglected segment of Senegalese society was a tremendous honour.”

The St John’s College basketball team is now in the first division. You can find out more about sport at St John’s via: http://www.joh.cam.ac.uk/sport-st-johns#teams