10/08/2013 12:46 pm ET

Timbuktu's Basketball Dreams Revive After Al Qaeda Defeat

TIMBUKTU, Mali -- When the jihadists came to town last April, it took a little while for Ageysha to realize she wouldn't be playing basketball anymore.

A slim, steely, 15-year-old at the time, Ageysha made a plan: She would cover herself in a face-concealing niqab and full-length burka, as the Islamists demanded, and wear it while she walked to the courts. Once there, she'd cast off the extra fabric, except long pants for good measure, and dribble away.

"I thought we could just cover our bodies and keep playing," she said recently as she sat in the shade near the basketball courts of an old secondary school. "But eventually the boys convinced us it wasn't a good idea."

The al Qaeda-linked Islamists who ruled Timbuktu and Northern Mali for most of 2012 imposed a strict social order on the entire region, forcing women to cover their bodies in public, banning men and women from mixing socially, and enforcing rules against liquor and cigarettes with harsh punishments: public lashings, chopping off hands.

Women who refused to follow the dress code were imprisoned in a tiny ATM vestibule downtown, often for days. Many also say they were raped.

After a few weeks, Ageysha, like most of her friends, was sent to Bamako for safety -- "I wasn't ready to give up my life just to play basketball," she says. But now she is back, and basketball has resumed with the fevered enthusiasm of practitioners of a banned religion.

On an upper court, 25 of the older boys and girls ran high-speed, full-court drills that they said their coach had learned from television.

Down below, on an uneven asphalt court, El Hadj Adjanga, the 54-year-old coach of the clinic called Academie de Basket, ran warm-up sprints with an energetic group of younger kids. There were easily 50 kids on the courts, evenly divided between boys and girls.

The basketballs were worn and recycled, and the players possessed wildly varying levels of skill -- and attire. One girl, among the best shooters of the younger group, played vigorously in a bright yellow dress and sandals. Others wore hand-me-down NBA jerseys of teams they could barely identify. (A girl in a Miami Heat jersey had no idea the team had won the championship last year.)

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Taking a break from the drills, Coach Adjanga said that the period under Islamist occupation had been miserable for him, especially because he couldn't play the game he loves.

"It made me sick to my stomach," he said. "The kids couldn't play at all -- it was a great tragedy."

Like his players, Adjanga wore a grab-bag ensemble of sporting gear, despite the searing evening heat: a red T-shirt, navy sweatpants, a green Adidas jumper.

Adjanga, who is a butcher by day, said the game of basketball came into his life in the 1960s, when foreign visitors arrived with balls and lessons while staying in Timbuktu for tourism. At its peak, the program he started 13 years ago traveled to tournaments in the bigger cities in the south, even once to the capital, Bamako.

But now, like the rest of Timbuktu, Adjanga's basketball clinic is just getting back on its feet. They're fortunate to find friendly competitions with neighborhood squads and are more often limited to intramural games. Just as fortunate, the players say, is the fact they can play at all.

For a moment, Adjanga paused to take in the activity around him. On the upper court, Ageysha, dressed in a black tank-top and shorts, passed a ball to a friend.

"I can tell you this," Adjanga said, "the first week after liberation -- as soon as they could do it -- the kids were back here playing."



Post-Intervention Mali