As much as it can interfere with regular life, one of the best things about a factual TV show is that you have to get out on the road. A sports show even more so, perhaps, as you have to cover actual games – and a basketball show… getting into the local ‘hoods and learning the local balling culture… absolutely crucial. To produce a top-quality, authentic African basketball TV show, you simply cannot stay home and do it from the local court…. there’s a need to engage and get truly respectful of what players must do, what they go through, to make themselves into world-class ballers. You have to get out on the court with them… no matter the situation.

BAQE’s Silalei Shani with Marier Anyuat, now Secretary General of the South Sudan Basketball Federation

The 2017 season of Ball’n Africa is a case in point. We’d done showcasing some of the best African basketball from Lagos to Johannesburg, Dar es Salaam to Luanda, Nairobi to Cairo. Then we realised that despite the security situation at the time, we were still missing one of the most important basketball destinations on the continent – Juba, South Sudan.

It was my suggestion to head over to Juba. Despite a strained political situation, South Sudan is known for producing some of Africa’s most prolific basketballers – like Luol Deng and Manute Bol to name but a few. Besides, it’s in east Africa – practically on Nairobi’s doorstep.

Of course, the first concern was security. No problem… I got people who know people.  The second concern was filming access, but even there, knowing and connecting to the right people helped immensely. It was Juba or Bust!

We landed at the airport on January 31st. It was a “hot” day, we were told, but nothing – not even my years living in West Africa – could have prepared us for the blast of humid heat. February can average 37 degrees centigrade and because of the proximity to the Nile River, the city is also humid. Juba International Airport arrivals hall was a sparse combination of 6 tents and some wooden planks on the floor but I was still excited.  We managed to get through immigration smoothly and were welcomed by our host for the trip. Marier Anyuat is a 6’11″ gentle giant who insisted we were going to have a good time. I was stoked and so was the crew.

An outdoors league game played in +35 degree celsius heat… not for the faint-hearted. Picture: Silalei Shani

My initial impressions of Juba were how much it reminded me of my early days in Mauritania. The next thing I noticed was how many Land Cruiser V8s people were driving. They were everywhere! Mariner drove us around Juba showing us the sights and getting us set up with phone lines and the local currency and I realized how safe I felt.  It was hard to believe that this was the same city that the media portrayed as war-torn. Marier explained that violence does break out but it ends quickly and is forgotten even quicker. I got a real sense of community just from observing the interactions between people in the streets.

Marier Anyuat, current Secretary General of the South Sudan Basketball Federation

The rest of the trip was an enjoyable blur – from filming local games and interacting with the Ol’ G’s of the basketball community… hearing them talk about the “good ol’ days” and cheering on the “young turks”… it’s amazing how many South Sudanese have American accents… to sailing down the White Nile in a speed boat and enjoying the local, flavorful food. The people received us like royalty and again it struck me how wrong my media-affected perception of Juba was.

By the time we left Juba I was filled with an admiration of the sense of brotherhood in the basketball community, a hope for the people of Juba…. and an appreciation for air conditioning!! Seriously, Juba is brimming with basketball talent, we saw it and I can’t wait for the world to realise and see it too.

(Which is what is starting to happen now and why we were happy to receive this “throwback” from Silalei. Oh and by the way, Marier Anyuat is now the Secretary-General of the South Sudan Basketball Federation, so be sure to catch the video that goes with this piece – Editors)