Meet the creative Nigerian athletes earning alternative livings during lockdown

In March, Austin Akpejiori had prepared for a memorable comeback to the court after a long injury layoff. The inaugural, much-anticipated Basketball Africa League (BAL) was due to tip off in a few days. After several practices, he was finally raring to go with Rivers Hoopers, Nigeria’s champions and league representative. Then, as 2020 narratives go, the coronavirus plot twist hit. 

“When it came, I felt really terrible,” Akpejiori told the Mail & Guardian. “You know when you prepare for a tournament and you know that you are in shape, like ‘let them just bring what they have to’. I could feel that I was fit. I was in the right place of mind. Those things take time, especially when you’re coming back from an injury preparing for a tournament. You invest so much in your body; you invest in things and the tournament is [in] a few days’ time and all of a sudden you’re hit with postponement. It can just demoralise you.”

Akpejiori last played a competitive game in December 2018, at the Fiba Africa Zone 3 Championship in Cotonou, Benin. It was still early in Hoopers’ opening fixture against Civil Defence when the 23-year-old sprained his ankle.

Coming off a protracted recuperation process, he was omitted from the final roster for last December’s Nigeria Basketball Federation President Cup. Before the BAL’s postponement 10 days before its March 13 launch, Akpejiori was certain of a spot in Ogoh Odaudu’s delegation to Dakar, Senegal. Nigeria followed up with the suspension of sporting activities and, eventually, lockdown

A redesign of focus 

But he’s turned the negative circumstances around, taking solace in interior and exterior design. “The lockdown was an opportunity. It was like ‘thank God basketball is not happening right now’,” he said. “It gave me focus and more time in my other craft. It was an opportunity for me to now have time for that other side of me.”

Designing used to be an off-season indulgence. “It was in 2014-2015. It started with event decoration. I used to decorate halls and events for people,” Akpejiori recalled. “When I’m not playing basketball or while I’m in the off-season, that’s what I usually do.”

One of the activities the Covid-19 lockdown and restrictions has forced on people across the world to engage in is introspection. It has reawakened people’s consciousness to a lot of aspects, one of them being physical space. 

With people working from home seeking more convenient spaces or some simply tired of seeing the same space and needing a makeover, Akpejiori’s basketball career may have been brought to an abrupt halt, but his craft was in high demand.

“In this lockdown, I’ve had a lot of jobs. I’ve had like 25 jobs of varying degrees. Like I’ve had people who say, ‘come and paint my house’, ‘come and clad my walls’, ‘come and renovate my entire living room’ and so on. The lockdown inspired people to redress their home. Because you know that you’re going to be indoors for a long time and you just want to make it feel as comfortable as possible,” he said. 

Akpejiori now moonlights as an entrepreneur, and has founded Quinta Essentia, his interior- and exterior-design company. In collaboration with other skilled people he calls “teammates”, he gets the job done. He’s a wall specialist, but also capable in other areas. The process is detailed. On agreeing with a client on design, “we generate some sort of 3D prototype” to simulate the outcome, Akpejiori said. He uses SketchUP, a 3D-modelling computer program, for this purpose.

“Off the court: No basketball, No problem”, read a May tweet from Queen Moseph, the Hoopers media officer, about Akpejiori’s exploits during lockdown. It was enough to get him a few more jobs from other states, but with the interstate travel banned in Nigeria, there was no way he could fulfil his appointments from his Port Harcourt base.

Athlete turned shoemaker

Ukamaka Okoh, however, has enjoyed more than one windfall from social media. 

“Basketball is my life; making quality shoes is a deep passion,” she wrote in a Twitter thread posted in July to showcase her craft. The tweet garnered numbers, with one of her videos racking up close to 70 000 views at the time of writing.

“I wasn’t expecting it to go viral. I thank God it did: it reached some people and I’ve been having more orders than I used to. It opened ways for me,” Okoh, who plays for Mountain of Fire and Miracle Ministries Queens Basketball (MFM Queens), a Lagos-based basketball team, told the M&G.

Like Akpejiori’s design business, for Okoh, shoemaking was meant for the off-season. “Instead of doing what every other girl [is] doing,” she learnt shoemaking as an extra source of income and a plan for life after sport. But it came in handy when Covid-19 struck.

“I felt very bad. You know when they tell you to stop what you love doing; you know how you’d feel,” she said.

The shooting guard was with MFM Queens in Edo State, preparing for the 2020 National Sports Festival. The event was called off five days before starting because of the pandemic.

Okoh reported to MFM camp on January 27, alternating training and travelling for qualifiers before heading to Edo for the event. However, since she returned to Lagos — the epicentre of the virus in Nigeria — she has taken to her off-season activity; making shoes under the brand name Foot’Maka, a portmanteau of footwear and Ukamaka, her first name.

Okoh primarily works in leather, which she uses in making monk straps, sandals, palm slippers and Chelsea boots, among other shoes. And, despite the restriction on movement at the peak of lockdown in the country, she recorded a lot of sales.

“A lot of people like shoes. Even during the lockdown some people were going out; you can’t tell them not to wear shoes. Despite complaints of the economy, people are making shoes,” she said.

With many athletes struggling after their playing careers, Nigerians in their early twenties are keen on preparing for life after basketball, especially after the test they have endured at the hands of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, at the moment, nothing — not even their crafts — can match their love and hunger for basketball. “[I] can’t wait for it to come back,” Okoh said. “I’m hungry for it.” Understandably so. In Lagos, most courts are locked so she’s restricted to road walks and other simple fitness routines.

Akpejiori, on the other hand, is lodged in Hoopers’ camp in Rivers State and has access to the team’s court, where he occasionally plays with friends and teammates. Ankle strengthening, weight work, track and field, sand racing and water treatments are some of the exercises he does to keep his fitness at peak condition. 

For Okoh, salvation is nigh: the National Sports Festival is expected to start in October. The BAL is still holding out hopes to launch this year, and so is Akpejiori, itching to get his 6’10 frame back to work. But before, then they both continue to be creative in lockdown, while scheming for life after sport.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.

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Tolu Olasoji
Tolu Olasoji is a Nigeria-based journalist covering sports in Africa, and its intersections with human being and social issues

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