In Conversation with George O., HOLA Athlete


By Cameron Schuster, HOLA Athletics Director

George (left) and Cameron (right) share a love for basketball and common bond of having lived in East Africa.

George (left) and Cameron (right) share a love for basketball and common bond of having lived in East Africa.

Peace, HOLA Family. My name is Cameron Schuster and I am the new Athletics Director at Heart of Los Angeles. I am honored to join this unique organization that has had a powerful history of social impact. I come from a background of coaching, teaching, community organizing, and social uplift work around education often for marginalized people of color.  Closest to my heart is the time I spent in Western Kenya and South Africa working with impoverished communities to ensure better access to educational facilities and sports leagues. The time I spent in Africa made clear to me that helping those in need would be a focus of my career.  While doing this work, I was able to experience firsthand a society that operated differently from the charged racial lines that America so often retreats to. Not perfect by any means, but it was a totally different psychological experience to not have to deal with race on a constant basis.

As I began to get to know the various HOLA Athletics programs, I was impressed particularly by the diversity of our Central City Basketball Association (CCBA).  Comprised of teams from the San Fernando Valley to Compton, and of course right here in Koreatown / Rampart District, the CCBA gives charter schools, community based organizations, and youth who fall outside of the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) an opportunity to participate in a competitive basketball league.  When I learned from Head Coach Kristina Wheeler that our very own HOLA Bulldogs had a power forward from Tanzania you can imagine my curiosity. I had to learn more about this young man, hear his story, and possibly reminisce about East Africa. I hope that the following interview between myself and George is thought provoking.

C:  Peace, George, and thank you for agreeing to chat with me.

G:  No worries, I am happy to talk with you before practice.

C:  When and where were you born, George?

G:  I was born in Nairobi Kenya on June 21, 2000.  But I grew up in Arusha, Tanzania.

C:  That’s awesome. I have been to Arusha, it’s a breathtakingly beautiful place.  

G:  Yes, that’s correct. That’s where most of my family still lives.

C:  How long have you been in Los Angeles?

G:  I came over when I was beginning my junior year in high school and I am now a senior.

C:  How do you like LA?

G:  Man, I love it here. I am applying to colleges in California because it really suits me and I like the climate.

C:  I can imagine that you prefer a climate that is closer to the one back in East Africa.  What do you miss most about Tanzania, George?

G:  I miss the air, how pure and clean it is.  I also miss the smell of the rain, and the power of a real downpour.  I also miss the food - my favorite dish of chicken and rice may sound simple but the way it is prepared is what I grew up eating.  In Africa the meats and vegetables are so fresh that they have a different taste.

C:  I agree, brother. In Africa  the meat is usually slaughtered that morning and prepared right away. My favorite meal was fresh samaki (fish) straight out of Lake Victoria, a plate of ugali (corn starch kind of like thick grits), and sekuma wiki (kind of like collard greens).

G:  Oh yeah - sekuma wiki, that’s a staple.

C:  When was your last plate of ugali?  I have not had some in a while.

G:  I had some last summer when I was home.

At this point both George and I take a pause, the flavor memories disrupting our conversation, each tasting East Africa if only for a brief moment.

C:  Aw man, George, we could talk food all day but it’s making me hungry. Let’s pivot to what brought you to Los Angeles, but even earlier than that. What was your childhood like?

G:  When I was around two or three years old, my parents observed how I would interact with books or with the television and they realized that my mind was developing quickly and that education was key for my success in life.  I remember them sacrificing so that I could have the best possible access to education.

C:  Your story rings so true to what I experienced in Africa. Parents, some with very little, will do whatever they have to in order for their children to have access to a good education.  I also found that the children themselves take on a similar zeal for education, and with little means often speak 2 to 3 languages by high school, and have limitless goals for higher education and professional careers.

G:  I agree that is one of the reasons why I chose to attend boarding school in Los Angeles, to set myself up for success in college and my future career.

C:  So how did you ended up in a boarding school in Los Angeles, and what is it called?

G:  I go to American University Prep, but my journey there began some years before when I spent a summer in Dallas, Texas.

C:  Oh wow, Dallas - that’s definitely different from Los Angeles. What brought you there?

G:  Well, you see I was a bit big when I was in middle school, about 240 pounds in 8th grade.

I find this hard to picture, George resembles more of a Draymond Green type of power forward and he has taken to wearing the popular leggings, and long sleeves that many NBA stars like Kevin Durant wear.  

G:  We got this coach at my school in Arusha who wanted to switch the focus from football (soccer) to basketball.  Basketball presented a different kind of physical challenge for me, and when I started playing I started to lose weight rapidly.  I was getting good at it so when the opportunity came to attend this basketball camp I jumped at it.

C:  George, that’s awesome that you found the sport that spoke to you.  I am originally from Brooklyn, New York, and I got the opportunity to go to a basketball camp in Corpus Christi, Texas when I was in 6th grade, and man, was it a culture shock for me. I can only imagine what that experience was like for you.

G:  Yeah, it was definitely an eye opener to the American education system in terms of what students knew about Africa.  The kids all thought that we rode elephants and ran from lions. I mean, I come from the British system of education because most of East Africa was colonized by the British.  They really dumb down the history of colonization so I can understand not having all the knowledge, but these kids really had no idea or concept of life in Africa at all.

C:  The American system is quite internally focused; the rest of the world, particularly Africa, is not properly studied.  So what brought you to American University Prep?

G:  When I got to high school I knew that if I wanted to attend an American University it would be best if I attended an American high school.  I began my search by typing in “least racist cities in America” that were not in the cold. I quickly narrowed it down to Los Angeles and found this new prep school that was just starting with 50 students.  The students were from all over the world and it advertised cultural immersion which really made me interested.

C:  That decision is what brought you to HOLA - how did that connection get made?

G:  After I arrived here in Los Angeles I would go to the downtown YMCA to shoot around and try to find pick-up games.  One day while I was shooting around a guy approached me and asked if I played on a team. I told him that my school did not have a basketball team, but that I would love to play on a team.  He gave me the email for the HOLA Athletics Director at the time, and I remember writing a detailed email requesting access to a competitive league. I guess my email was good because I was welcomed to HOLA and have been playing with you guys ever since.

C:  That’s inspiring on so many levels, George. Your tenacity to go out and find the right environments for you to succeed in both in sports and education is something I want all of our HOLA youth to strive for.  How has this whole experience of attending a school in a foreign country shaped who you are today?

G:  That’s a great question.  I have learned so much about different cultures through interacting with a diverse group of people and hearing about their lives.  I have learned a lot about movements for social justice and movements that caused change in society. For example, when I go home to Tanzania, I find myself advocating for more equal rights across genders and correcting people who may still harbor homophobic tendencies.

C:  That is incredibly introspective, George.  Last question, what has it meant to play for Heart of Los Angeles?

G:  It has been a great experience for me.  The game nights are always very competitive and fun.  Getting to know my teammates and form a bond with them has made my LA experience authentic.  I also appreciate the affordability of the HOLA league; it’s at no cost so that works out well.

C:  Ok, George, I really appreciate your time and willingness to share your story.  

G:  No worries - anytime.

C:  Asante Sana, Shukran.

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March 20, 2018