Mutombo comes to Yale

To the average American, Dikembe Mutombo is best known as a Georgetown basketball prodigy, a member of the Hoya trifecta of centers including Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning, whose tenacious defense continues to impress NBA crowds.

But in central Africa the lore surrounding Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean Jacques Mutombo extends well beyond the hardwood. His stats in his birthplace, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, reflect tremendous humanitarian effort — helping provide polio vaccines for 8.2 million children, breaking ground on a new 300-bed hospital, and volunteering at programs for thousands of children. In a country of over 50 million where life expectancy is under 50 years, his efforts hardly go unnoticed.

During a visit to the University yesterday, the 7-foot-2 Houston Rocket towered over his entourage as he met with child patients at Yale-New Haven Hospital and received an anatomy lesson with local high school students in the Anlyan Center — complete with extra-large latex gloves. A medical student asked Mutombo to prod the lungs of two cadavers with his hand, eliciting a low, rumbling roar of a laugh from him.

In addition to basic anatomy, Mutombo gathered knowledge of health care from medical school administrators and officials.

“My visit has been great,” Mutombo said. “I got a chance to learn a lot from the faculty.”

After his tour, Mutombo gave a speech and fielded questions about health care in Africa from a near-capacity audience at Battell Chapel.

The event was the brainchild of Anup Patel MED ’08. After he learned about Mutombo’s work on health care in the Congo, Patel and fellow medical students asked the University and the School of Medicine to extend an invitation to the eight-time NBA All-Star.

Patel said Mutombo’s stop at the Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital was particularly successful.

“A lot of kids were really happy when they saw him,” Patel said. “He put a smile on a lot of faces.”

Mutombo’s visit was part of an ongoing campaign to raise awareness about health care issues in Africa and publicize the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital. Mutombo is building the hospital through the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation in his home-town of Kinshasa, the capital city of the Congo. Named after Mutombo’s mother, it will be the country’s first new hospital in almost four decades.

“The purpose [of the hospital] is to improve the health care and living conditions of my people,” Mutombo said.

The facility, set to open in June of 2006, will hold 300 beds and the latest medical technology, he said. Mutombo himself donated $10 million of the $29 million needed to fund the project and has been campaigning to raise the remainder of the money since the hospital’s conception in 1997, he said.

Mutombo said he hopes his visit to Yale will mark the beginning of a collaboration between Yale-New Haven, the medical school and the Kinshasa hospital.

“We can work together to improve the lives of human beings around the world … to implant the technology and the experience into a third world country,” he said.

Mutombo, who returned to the United States three days ago after his most recent visit to the Congo, said he was pleased with the progress of the hospital’s construction.

Yale basketball player Chinenye Okafor ’07 said she admires not only Mutombo’s philanthropic efforts but his personal achievements as well. A native of Nigeria, Okafor said she knows first-hand how difficult it can be to make from Africa to the United States.

“The fact that he came [to Georgetown] on a scholarship before he started to play basketball is impressive,” she said.

Both the men’s and women’s basketball teams met with Mutombo for a photograph before his presentation.

In his keynote address, Mutombo spoke about the devastating effects of diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS on the African population. Throughout the presentation, which included a video about his work in Africa, Mutombo emphasized the continent’s lack of sufficient health care facilities and trained medical professionals to combat these diseases.

“We are here to share our concern for the people of the African continent,” he said. “It is my sincere hope that the Africa of tomorrow will have equal access … to health care. It is our common interest as citizens of the world.”

Mutombo said after his retirement from basketball in the next two years he plans to fully devote himself to humanitarian aid. Following the completion of the hospital, he said he plans to build a new school and gymnasium in Kinshasa.

After his address, Mutombo fielded questions from the audience on a variety of topics focused around African health care and politics. When asked if he will ever set his sights on the presidency of the Congo, Mutombo just laughed, shook his head and said, “Stay away from politics.”

In addition, Mutombo was awarded the first African American Legacy Council Creed Medal on behalf of the Communities of Color Initiative of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. The award honors Courtlandt Van Rensselaer Creed, the first African-American graduate of the Yale School of Medicine.

Houston Rocket Dikembe Mutombo examines a lung during a tour of the Yale School of Medicine. After the tour, Mutombo spoke to students in Battell Chapel about health care issues in central Africa.
Michael Blank
Houston Rocket Dikembe Mutombo examines a lung during a tour of the Yale School of Medicine. After the tour, Mutombo spoke to students in Battell Chapel about health care issues in central Africa.

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