DAY 5 June 2015 (861)
DAY 5 June 2015 (861)

Mission accomplished, Davidson's Nathan Ekwu basks in the smiles of Nigerian children

And sometimes, the muse leads you back home again.

Davidson forward Nathan Ekwu was on a three-week mission this past summer in his native Nigeria with Access to Success (A2S), a Christian-based non-profit organization founded by fellow countryman and Wildcats basketball alum Andrew Lovedale, when fate thrust him to center stage.

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A day into their summer program, Lovedale had to fly back to United States as his wife had gone into labor six weeks early — leaving A2S, with more than 500 kids in attendance, without a lead speaker and presenter for its empowerment session on social action and social activism.

“Nathan did not only step in to lead this session,” Lovedale recalled, “he led other sessions on social media citizenship and leadership.”

All those faces? All those smiles? That was reward enough.

“Nothing is more valuable than impacting the lives of others,” said Ekwu, a 6-7 sophomore from Enugu. “Just a few years ago, I was exactly like those kids.

“It was just the opportunity (I had), that was the difference between me and those kids. I’ve always had in mind to give back where I can, especially back to help those kids in any way I can. It was just a great opportunity for me to be able to be a part of something I’ve always wanted to be a part of.”

With (and without) Lovelace on hand, Ekwu spent some of last June conducting clinics and camps for local youth in Nigeria’s Benin City. The A2S curriculum includes schooling, meals, coaching, Bible study and equipment.

“There’s the rural and urban area and the privileged and pretty much the less-privileged,” Ekwu explained. “But this camp is open to anyone that finds a need to be a part of it, whether it’s the education part of it or whether it’s the Christian part of it.”

There’s a food part as well: According to the United Nations, 62.6% of Nigeria’s 170 million live in poverty, and the average annual income is $1,280.

In 2012, roughly 10.5 million Nigeria children — 42% of the primary-school-aged populace — were not attending regular classes. There’s a shortage of teachers in the southern state of Edo, as they’re often not paid on time and have to take side jobs in order to receive a steady check.

“Most of the kids, their parents can’t afford three square meals, let alone two,” Ekwu said. “And they have a place to eat and do homework and use a computer that we’ve provided through the organization. And we’re still working on getting it better than it is right now and I’m hoping to come home and continue from where we started.”

The kids are between 10 and 18, usually, but “it’s not restricted, because knowledge is power and one can always learn at the same time.”

Lovedale’s labor of love started as a shoe drive for underprivileged children in 2009. Since 2014, A2S has provided more than 70,000 meals, more than 580 hours of academic instruction and dozens of scholarships for local youth. A2S-sponsored free basketball camps and clinics have reached more than 2,500 participants and the organization spearheaded the construction of a new kitchen, library and computer center.

After the camp, one youngster sent Lovedale a message to thank him for receiving “my first-ever part of (Air) Jordans today. I see them on TV and in magazines of people who come from the U.S., but I never thought that I would ever have my own.”

Ekwu can empathize. The Wildcats’ swing man came to the United States in 2012 to pursue American education, enrolling at Cardinal Hayes High School in New York City and eventually fielding offers from at least a half-dozen programs, including Minnesota, Temple, St. Bonaventure and Duquesne.

He’d grown up, as most kids on the continent do, playing soccer. Ekwu discovered basketball through television, enraptured by the feats of Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. He took up the game five years ago, at 15, on a lark. It turned out to be a lifeline.

“I don’t know how to put it, if I picked it up quickly or not,” Ekwu said. “It was just playing hard and learning and listening to people. That’s pretty much what it is. And I’m still learning. I think I’ll keep learning.”

Not all the lessons were pleasant. A downturn in the Nigerian economy affected Nathan’s father as well — and not for the better.

“That was really a big pressure for the family, in terms of the comfort level we were used to growing up and having to survive in what turned out to be a more difficult economy than (before),” Ekwu said. “So there’s been some challenges. But I thank God with where I am today and am doing my absolute best to make the best of my opportunity.”

And opportunities for others. As Ekwu wrote in a blog entry from June 22:

“I tried very hard not to cry but came very close. These children could not stop smiling and spent their time just celebrating us, and it is a feeling that I will never forget.”

Education. Communication. Faith. Hard work. How to join in a global village that the Internet has made smaller and more intimate with each passing generation.

“We’re expanding,” Ekwu said. “The big dream is to expand pretty much all over the country and even in other countries that we believe that we can have a positive impact.”

After Benin City, Ekwu kept teaching, kept leading. The Davidson forward went back to his hometown and held another small camp, on his own, for 60 kids.

“It wasn’t as big as the one in Benin City,” he recalled. “But it was good, and I’m glad I did that.”

Lord willing, he’ll do it again. He’s even floated the idea to teammates about coming over for a few weeks and joining him on the journey.

“But it depends on what their summer schedule turns out to be,” Ekwu said. “Hopefully, I get at least one or two of them to come back with me and see what it’s like.”

Empowering smiles. Empowering dreams. Empowering hope.

“I’m a big Christian guy,” Ekwu said. “If you coincide where I am and where my (life) was, there’s no way I could get here without that. I still have faith that God did put me in the right place at the right time.”

Above: Davidson's Nathan Ekwu spent a three-week mission this past summer in his native Nigeria with Access to Success (A2S), a Christian-based non-profit organization founded by fellow countryman and Wildcats basketball alum Andrew Lovedale. (Courtesy Tim Cowie/
Middle and below: Ekwu (Courtesy Andrew Lovedale/A2S)

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