The making of Okal; life and times in Algeria amid Covid-19 pandemic
SPECIAL REPORT Ernest Mkalla
The thrill of an athlete lies in the ability to exercise and play the game they so dearly love.
Whether on the pitch, court or track it is here that they best express themselves finding peace and comfort that bond with their soul.
Sadly, for one towering Kenyan athlete, Ariel Okal, the joy and thrill of playing his favourite game, basketball has been a mirage, thanks to the global pandemic – Covid-19 – that is ravaging the globe like wildfire.
Add this to the fact that he is in a far-flung land, coupled with language and cultural barrier then you understand the challenges he’s going through.
In fact when he held a lengthy exclusive interview with our sister station Radio Citizen last weekend on the popular sports magazine show Michezo na Burudunni, his courage mellowed the pain, frustration and solitude he’s had to endure in Setif, a quiet small town inhabited by some 288,000 souls in Algeria.
It is in this town, located around 268 kilometes east of the capital Algiers that Okal plies his professional trade, turning out for local basketball club US Setif.
“I have not had an opportunity to enjoy life and basketball in Algeria since I joined US Setif,” he says at the start of the marathon interview, lifting the lid on the challenges of living in a foreign land amid a lockdown occasioned by the flu-like virus.
Okal arrived in Algeria late January joining Setif but even before settling well the pandemic became a global monster leaving Algeria with no option but to force a lockdown while also barring him from returning home.
Algeria, as opposed to Kenya confirmed its first case of Covid-19 much earlier on February 25 becoming the second African country to report the disease.
And the city of Setif is among the regions where the government of Algeria has imposed a curfew with limited movements during the day and gatherings of more than two people banned.
“Things are not easy here; I live alone and the internet is my partner. Unlike when I arrived and was welcomed in pomp and colour with my neighbours nowadays I do not even see them closely, most of the time I’m indoors. I just go out to dump the garbage and rush to get some bread (from a nearby supermarket) and get back home because you are not sure who has the virus,” he explained.
“Not playing basketball is hard for me because I had started to familiarise myself with the city; the fans and players receiving me so well, it felt like home from the moment I arrived,” reminisces Okal.
At the time of his arrival, the Algerian basketball league was well on course but he got a chance to feature in his first game not long thereafter bagging 18 points in a 69-50 defeat to TRA Draria . In total he featured in four games before the government suspended all sports activities in the country on March 16.
“The first games were based on load management on my side so I didn’t play for longer periods, maybe 18 to 16 minutes in total. The team had failed to make it to the play-offs but it had a good chance in the Algerian Cup,” he says. “It’s hard when you are a new player in a foreign league because when you get a chance to play all the plays start and end with you making you the ‘donkey’ of the team which is pretty tough.”
The Kenyan international is on an initial six-months contract and even though he has not been asked to take a pay cut owing to the pandemic, he hopes that the club and his manager will reach an amicable solution going forward because he still feels he has unfinished business in Algeria.
“Our curfew starts at 1500hrs local time and ends at 0800hrs the next day. We are allowed to do shopping between 8am and 12noon or in case you need some medicine from the pharmacy. The period between noon and 3pm has been set aside for people to make sure they reach home early. No gatherings of more than two people are allowed in the streets,” said the dreadlocked player who stands at an astonishing 6’9ft.
Though still relatively new in his surroundings, Okal brags that he already has so many fans around his neighbourhood.
In fact he says his towering height is a sight to behold for the Algerian fans who never shy away from asking for picture opportunity with him whenever they spot him; prior to the corona pandemic.
“When I walk in the streets (in our hood), children call one another to see this tall guy with parents watching through the windows,” he says, adding that low temperatures which at times drop to 6 degrees centigrade at night and during winter it can drop to below zero is a challenge he’s taken in his stride.
Right now interacting with the fans is a privilege he can ill afford. Their interaction limited as he can only see them through a peep via the window with the police always on patrol to ensure social distance directives are not breached.
He admits that it’s depressing staying alone in a new city but he tries to talk to many people via the internet to get his mind busy.
“Back home my family; especially my mother is worried about me and my sister who plays basketball in the US. We have a daily health check-up on our family WhatsApp group whereby even a slight headache has to be disclosed. I talk a lot with fellow morans (Kenya national team basketball players) and coaches who help me with training tips,” he disclosed.
In a bid to keep in shape, Okal trains indoors using a broomstick with two 5.5 litre bottles on each end as makeshift weights. He also does yoga, low ankle squats and lots of push-ups.
The two-hour time difference between Kenya and Algeria, the east African nation ahead due to geographical location has also impacted on his life routine but he says he’s opted to run his errands guided by Kenyan time.
“I changed my time zone to go with the one in Kenya meaning that I sleep very late (in Algerian time). When I wake up the phone is my first companion checking on my family back home then I talk to my club officials before starting my training program at 0500hrs. I have three sessions everyday using programs shared by my coaches and players especially Griffin Ligare, the Kenya basketball national team captain and my friend Nicole Nunga (personal nutritionist and trainer) who also sends me cardio exercises.”
But that is not all; like many Kenyans Okal is a huge fan of ugali and nyama choma and he misses the delicacies so much.
“I take a lot of rice and bread because it’s not easy to get maize flour here. However there is a certain flour in the supermarkets that resembles maize flour but it’s a mixture of cassava and other grains and can be cooked like ugali(Kenya’s staple food).
With having ugali on the menu limited, Okal has been getting steady supplies of food from the club officials who ensure home delivery every Saturday.
To aid with language barrier as Arabic and French are the predominant languages in Algeria, the Kenyan ace has downloaded language apps which helps him in communicating with locals; coming in handy in the provision of services such as when hailing a taxi.
Okal concludes by advising his fellow basketballers and Kenyans to obey the Covid -19 safety guidelines rolled out by the Health ministry to help combat the virus.
“Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring but you can prepare for it by becoming vigilant and careful with your actions.”