Few Americans can imagine what it’s like to walk a single mile in Samson Akilo’s sizeable shoes, let alone understand the backbreaking load of fear, anguish and expectations he shouldered on every step of his nearly 5,300-mile odyssey.
But when he sits towards the end of the bench on Tuesday night in the NCAA Tournament First Round, Manhattan basketball’s 6-foot-8-inch freshman forward needs to only turn his head to the left to find someone who knows exactly what it is like to walk, step-for-step, along the same, winding, and arduous journey from Lagos, Nigeria to Manhattan College, that Akilo has trudged along for the past five years.
“It means everything to me, to have someone with me who knows exactly what I’m going through,” says Akilo of his teammate, countryman, best friend and “brother” Samson Usilo. “We’re the same — we come from the same city, the same culture, the same struggles. Having someone to help me out and be by my side is amazing.”
“Almost no Americans can really understand what it’s like, to be so far away from your family, to worry about them, to not be there to help if they need you, but to know they need you to be that far away,” echoes Usilo. “Samson knows and that helps me keep going.”
The parallels in the paths trod by Usilo and Akilo are staggering. Both were born in the same city in Nigeria. Both were the fifth child in their families — Akilo the youngest in his family and Usilo the fifth of six. Both grew up in meager means, and both lost their fathers far too young.
And both found salvation in basketball; a path to not to just simply survive — no small task in Nigeria, where the average life expectancy remains just 52 — but break down the door that stands between so many that grew up in similar circumstances and a better life.
And now, both are looking back across the Atlantic, hoping to use the game to help lift their families up with them to a better life.
“I am here because of them,” says Usilo of his family. “Everything I am doing is to try to help them have a better life. That’s why I get up every day, to try to make their life better.”
“Whether I can bring [my family] over here, or whether I go back to Nigeria, no matter what, I am going to be doing whatever can to help my family the most,” echoes Akilo.
The long journey
Present day Nigeria was carved out of the cradle of West Africa by European colonialism, and came under the British Empire in the late 1800s. The history of the people — more than 500 distinct ethnicities — that make up present day Nigeria goes back virtually to the beginning of civilization, serving as the site of numerous civilizations that rose and fell over many millennia.
Through its history, Nigeria has been a country of stark contrasts: serving first as a hub of the trans-Atlantic African Slave trade, and then as the base of the British anti-Slave movement. After achieving peaceful independence from Great Britain in the 1960s, the country almost immediately turned around and plunged into several years of civil war, followed by decades of military dictatorships and juntas.
“I don’t think many American’s really know what it is like to not know if you are going to be able to find food that week to stay alive, and that’s something many people in Nigeria face,” says Akilo.
And nowhere has Nigeria’s contrasts been more stark than Usilo and Akilo’s home city, Lagos.
The most populous city (between 17.5 and 21 million residents) in Africa’s most populous country, Lagos has been simultaneously boom and bust for virtually its entire existence. A port city sitting on a lagoon just off the Atlantic Ocean, Lagos is Nigeria’s economic focal point, and is home to most of the country’s big business and financial institutions and industrial production. But in the shadows cast by the skyscrapers that stretch towards the burning African sun, commercial banks, oil refineries and bustling nightlife, sit slums, ghettos, a booming drug trade and organized crime underbelly, and unimaginable poverty.
“We didn’t have a lot growing up, but we had each other, and that was enough,” says Usilo of his family.
“We were poor,” says Akilo, before quickly correcting, “we weren’t poor — we had a roof over our heads and we had food, but we didn’t have much more.”
It was a life filled with danger, danger that remains for the families that Akilo and Usilo left behind.
“You definitely worry a lot about them, especially not being there,” says Usilo.
The Islamist terrorist movement Boko Haram has made (at least a few) international headlines by butchering entire towns and abducting men, women and children across northern Nigeria — including the horrific massacre of upwards of 2,000 people in a January attack on several villages. And while the group has, thus far, remained in northeast Nigeria — the complete other side of the country from Lagos — the threat to Usilo and Akilo’s family hovers over their heads, and weighs heavy on their hearts, every day.
“You definitely worry about it, because you don’t know when or where they might come from, and they haven’t been caught or captured,” says Akilo.
“I try to not worry about it,” says Usilo, before admitting, “yes, it is very scary.”
But even without the threat of terrorists, life in Nigeria is fraught with disease and danger. Barely more than half of Nigeria’s roughly 174 million residents have potable drinking water or sanitary facilities. It remains the lone country in Africa to have yet to fully eradicate polio, and has a staggering infant mortality rate of more than 97 deaths per 1,000 births.
“Growing up with not a lot, it makes you appreciate life, family, friends, a lot more,” says Usilo.
Despite the difficult living conditions (or perhaps because of them), athletics have become inseparable from Nigerian society.
“Playing a sport, or being athletic, is part of life,” says Akilo.
“I think it gives people kind of something they can concentrate on and forget about the bad things,” says Usilo.
Soccer remains king in the former British colony — akin to a religion — and both Akilo and Usilo dabbled in it as youth, but both quickly gravitated to basketball, which has also propelled a fair share of their countrymen on to significant success, none more so than NBA Hall of Fame selection Hakeem Olajuwon.
And for both Usilo, who would blossom into a ferociously athletic 6’4” wing, and Akilo, a developing forward, basketball would provide an opportunity to a new life. But for both, it would mean leaving their families behind.
“It was a very hard decision,” says Akilo of deciding to accept an offer to play basketball at Nazareth High School in Brooklyn, “but my family wanted what was best for me.”
“My family pushed me to go do it,” says Usilo, who first attended a high school in North Carolina, before transferring to Nazareth.
Despite growing up in the same city and traveling in the same basketball circles, Usilo and Akilo had only met once in Nigeria, briefly at a basketball camp, and didn’t get to know each other until they became teammates at Nazareth. Usilo arrived first and Akilo came a year later.
“Samson had been there for a while before me, so he really looked out for me and helped me adjust to everything,” says Akilo.
“It was really great to have Samson there, because having him around helped me feel less lonely, to miss home a little less,” says Usilo.
Usilo was the unquestioned star — a high-major level athlete who would drill pull-up 3-pointers on the fast break and throw down reverse dunks in traffic — but Akilo began to carve out a niche of his own, throwing ‘bows and crashing the boards in the low post. Usilo received dozens of Division I scholarship offers, but when Manhattan extended an offer to Akilo, who had also been offered by Long Island, it sealed the deal for both.
“I really liked the school and the coaches a lot, but the fact that Samson would be there with me definitely helped,” says Usilo.
A rough landing at Manhattan
For both Usilo and Akilo, freshman year of college has been a challenge. While their time away from home has left both much more well-prepared for the independence that comes with college, life for their families in Nigeria been has rougher than at any previous point in their lives. Boko Haram’s attacks, coupled with record unemployment rates and a massive drop in the price of crude for an oil-dependent country, and impending elections already growing contentious, has left tensions high across the country.
“It’s definitely hard for them back home, and that makes it hard for me,” says Akilo.
On top of strife at home, the duo has experienced adversity for the first time on the court, their former safe haven and the eye of the storms that had swirled around much of their lives. Usilo suffered a season-ending torn quad before playing a single minute, and Akilo has stood on the outside looking in at the rotation.
“It has been a challenge,” says Usilo, “being hurt, not being able to play has been very, very hard — very frustrating.”
But both have found solace and support from one another.
“I can talk to Samson about anything, and we talk a lot and help each other a lot,” says Akilo.
“It would be a lot, a lot harder without him,” adds Usilo.
And in the aftermath of Manhattan’s 79-69 upset of top-seed Iona in the MAAC championship game, Akilo and Usilo found each other amidst the celebration to share an embrace as they punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
Looking back across the Atlantic and ahead to the future
Despite their freshman year struggles, both Akilo and Usilo say they are more committed now than ever before to making the most out of their time and earning their degrees at Manhattan so that they can help their respective families.
“When you face something hard, you realize how much you really want something, and I don’t just want — I need to be successful here,” says Usilo.
“I want to give my family a much better life, and for that I need to do great things here,” adds Akilo.
And according to both, whatever their future holds and wherever it may be, it will include the other.
“Samson and I are definitely friends for life, no matter what,” says Usilo.
“We’re family,” Akilo says. “Family is forever.”
For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.