Senior Helps Girls Rise Up in Nigeria Through Sports

May 19, 2016 – Shoes have played a pivotal role in Omowumi “Kike” Rafiu’s (C’16) journey from Nigeria to study and play basketball at Georgetown as well as in her quest to empower girls in her native country.

It took her six months to buy her first pair basketball shoes, and once she got them, she kept them away from her brother only by sleeping with them under her pillow at night.

“I wanted to play sports, but my parents didn’t want me to,” says Rafiu, who will graduate May 21 with a bachelor’s degree in justice and peace studies and a minor in computer science. “They held the stereotypical belief in gender roles.”

Rafiu is the creator of Girls Rise Up, a nonprofit that supports the empowerment of Nigerian girls through sports.

The Georgetown senior was recently selected as one of only 11 current and former student-athletes to attend the 2016 United Nations Sports Summit this June.

Falling in Love

Like many girls from her hometown of Kaduna in the Northwest region of Nigeria, Rafiu says she was expected to go to school, study nutrition and home economics, graduate and find a husband to marry.

But at age 14, she had already fallen in love at first sight when a young boy passed by her home one day playing with an object she had never seen before.

“I asked him what it was, and he told me ‘a basketball.’ I thought it was so pretty. I followed him to the courts,” she recalls. “I just wanted to play, and I fell in love with the game.”

Despite her parents’ skepticism, Rafiu excelled in basketball to the point that she garnered a scholarship to attend school in the United States. She left her home in Nigeria in 2010 to attend Neumann-Goretti High School in Philadelphia.

By her senior year there, the idea of the Girls Rise Up nonprofit started to take shape as she looked at the number of shoes she had amassed from playing basketball.

“I had so many shoes,” she says. “It was crazy compared to when I first started playing basketball.”

Sharing Shoes, and More

She saw the opportunity to share the shoes she collected during high school and college with young girls in her hometown. She knew from her own experience how hard the shoes were to come by.

With about 10 pairs of shoes in tow, Rafiu went home after high school and asked her old coach if he knew of any young female basketball players who might benefit from the shoes. He came back with a list of 12 high school girls.

But she wound up sharing more than shoes with the group.

"We talked about and played basketball, and we talked about my experiences on the court and in school,” she recalls.

Supporting Goals

Rafiu told the girls how basketball started off for her as a recreational activity, but ultimately became her pathway to a better education.

“I know most of them are back home right now working hard to step into my shoes,” says Raifu, a two-time member of the Big East All-Academic Team.

Girls Rise Up, now coming up on its fifth year, has grown into a three-day program. It includes reading and writing exercises that give the girls a chance to express themselves in a way that isn’t encouraged in Nigeria. 

“Last year was our biggest year, we had more than 100 girls to participate,” she says. “I want to see Girls Rise Up continue to grow. My ultimate goal is to see a lot more female coaching and mentorship in our own space. Right now, girls have to share spaces where boys dominate.”

Cura Personalis

Rafiu says her experience at Georgetown helped crystalize her nonprofit’s focus.

“Georgetown has changed my life,” says Rafiu. “The Latin phrase cura personalis (care of the whole person) is something that will forever stay with me. I came to Georgetown thinking I was going to get an education, but I got so much more than that.”

When Rafiu crosses the stage Saturday morning to receive her diploma, it will signal the beginning of the next leg of her journey. 

She plans to continue her work with Girls Rise Up when she returns to Kaduna in August and then begin graduate school at Georgetown, where she’ll study sports industry management.

“My focus will remain on girls participation in sports,” she says, “and I hope to someday expand Girls Rise Up outside of Nigeria and outside of Africa.”