Senior contributing writer Leo Adam Biga, winner of the 2015 Andy Award for international journalism from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, chronicles recent travels he made in Africa with two-time world boxing champion Terence Crawford.
Expanding his vision
Terence "Bud" Crawford's rise to world boxing stardom reads more graphic novel than storybook, defying inner city odds to become one of the state's most decorated athletes. Not since Bob Gibson ruled the mound for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1960s has a Nebraskan so dominated his sport.
When Bud overheard me say he might be the best fighter pound-for-pound Neb.'s produced, he took offense:. "Might be? I AM the best."
En route to perhaps being his sport's next marquee name, he's done remarkable things in improbable places. His ascent to greatness began with a 2013 upset of Breidis Prescott in Las Vegas, In early 2014 he captured the WBO lightweight title in Glasgow, Scotland. He personally put Omaha back on the boxing map by twice defending that title in his hometown before huge CenturyLink Center crowds last year.
In between those successful defenses he traveled to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa in August. He went with Pipeline Worldwide co-founder Jamie Fox Nollette, an Omaha native and Bud's fourth grade teacher at Skinner Magnet School. After reuniting in mid-2014, he expressed interest going to Africa, where her charitable organization works with partners to drill water wells and to support youth-women's programs.
When I caught up with The Champ last fall, he left no doubt the impact that first trip made.
"It's life-changing when you get to go over there and help people," he says.
Nollette recalls, "When Terence left he had an empty suitcase. He left all his clothes, except what he was wearing, to a bus driver."
"I just felt they needed it more than I did," he says. 'I just thought it was the right thing to do."
Seeing first-hand profound poverty, infrastructure gaps and atrocity scars made an impression.
"Well, it just made me appreciate things more. It kind of humbled me in a way to where I don't want to take anything for granted. I haven't in my life experienced anything of the nature they're experiencing over there. For one thing, I have clean water – they don't have clean water. That's one of their biggest issues and I want to help them with it. They appreciate everything, even if it's just a hug or a handshake."
Simpatico and reciprocal
Nollette says the trips and fundraisers she organizes raise awareness and attract donors.
Only weeks after winning the vacant WBO light welterweight title over Thomas Dulorme in Arlington, Texas last April Bud returned to those same African nations with Nollette.
"I told Jamie I would like to go back."
He says locals told him, "We have a lot of people that come and tell us they're going to come back and never do. For you to come back means a lot to us."
"Just the little things mean a lot to people with so little, and so I guess that's why I'm here," Bud told an assembly of Ugandans in June.
None of this may have happened if he and Nollettte didn't reconnect. Their bond transcends his black urban and her white suburban background. He supports Pipeline's work and she raises funds for his B&B Boxing Academy in North O.
His first Africa trip never made the news because he didn't publicize it. His June 1 through 12 trip is a different matter.
What about Africa drew this streetwise athlete to go twice in 10 months when so much is coming at him in terms of requests and appearances, on top of training and family obligations?
Beyond the cool machismo, he has a sweet, soft side and burning curiosity. "He really listens to what people say," Nollette notes. "He wants to understand things."
His pensive nature gets overshadowed by his mischievous teasing, incessant horseplay and coarse language.
This father of four is easy around children, who gravitate to him. He supports anything, here or in Africa, that gets youth off the streets.
He gives money to family, friends, homies and complete strangers. In 2014 he so bonded with Pipeline's Uganda guide, Apollo Karaguba, that he flew him to America to watch his Nov. fight in Omaha.
"When I met Apollo I felt like I've been knowing him for years. I just liked the vibe I got. He's a nice guy, he's caring. He took real good care of us while we were out there."
Bud says paying his way "was my turn to show him my heart."
He respects Nollette enough he let her form an advisory committee for his business affairs as his fame and fortune grow.
Even with a lifelong desire to see "the motherland" and a fascination with African wildlife, it took Nollette reentering his life for him to go.
"Certain opportunities don't come every day. She goes all the time and I trust her."
His fondness for her goes back to when they were at Skinner. "She was one of the only teachers that really cared. She would talk to me."
He needed empathy, he says, because "I got kicked out of school so much – a fight here, a fight there, I just always had that chip on my shoulder." He says she took the time to find out why he acted out.
Catching the vision
Boxing eventually superseded school.
"I used to fall asleep studying boxing."
Meanwhile, Nollette moved to Phoenix. On a 2007 church mission trip to Uganda she found her calling to do service there.
"It really impacted me," she says. "I've always had a heart for kids and
I always had an interest in Africa."
She went several times.
"There's not really anything that can prepare you for it. The volume of people. The overwhelming poverty. Driving for hours and seeing all the want. I didn't know what possibly could be done because everything seemed so daunting.
"But once I had a chance to go into some villages I started to see things that gave me hope. I was absolutely amazed at the generosity and spirit of these people – their hospitality and kindness, their gratitude. You go there expecting to serve and after you're there you walk away feeling like you've been given a lot more. I was hooked."
Bud got hooked, too, or as ex-pats say in Africa, "caught the vision."
"I was very touched by the people and how gracious and humble and thankful they were about everything that came towards them. I had a great time with great people. I experienced some great things."
Coming to Africa i:
For this second trip via KLM Delta he brought girlfriend Alindra "Esha" Person, who's the mother of his children. Joseph Sutter of Omaha and myself tagged along, Julia Brown of Phoenix joined us in Detroit and Scott Katskee, a native Omahan living in Los Angeles, added to our ranks in Amsterdam. Nollette arrived in Uganda a day early and met us in Entebbe, where Bud and Apollo enjoyed a warm reunion.
The next seven days in Uganda, which endured civil war only a decade ago, were a blur made foggier by jet lag and itinerary overload. Dividing our time between Kampala and rural areas we saw much.
Roadside shanties. Open market vendors. Christian schools, clinics, worship places. Vast, wild, lush open landscapes. Every shade of green vegetation contrasted with red dirt and blue-white-orange skies. Immense Lake Victoria. Crossing the storied Nile by bridge and boat.
The press of people. Folks variously balancing fruit or other items on their head. Unregulated, congested street traffic. Everything open overnight. Boda bodas (motor bikes) jutting amid cars, trucks, buses, pedestrians. One morning our group, sans me, rode aback boda bodas just for the thrill. I suggested to Bud Top Rank wouldn't like him risking injury, and he bristled, "I run my life, you feel me? Ain't nobody tell me what to do, nobody. Not even my mom or my dad."
Ubiquitous Jerry cans – plastic yellow motor oil containers reused to carry and store water – carted by men, women, children, sometimes in long queues. "All waiting on water, that's crazy," Bud commented.
Stark contrasts of open slums and gated communities near each other. Mud huts with thatched roofs in the bush.
Long drives on unpaved roads rattled our bodies and mini-bus.
Whenever delays occurred it reminded us schedules don't mean much there. Bud calls it TIA (This is Africa). "Just live in the moment…go with the flow," he advised.
In a country where development's piecemeal, Apollo says, "We're not there yet, but we're somewhere."
Africans engaged in social action say they've all overcome struggles to raise themselves and their countrymen. "I was one of the lucky few to get out (of the slums)," Apollo says. They want partners from the developed world, but not at the expense of autonomy.
Many good works there are done by faith-based groups. Apollo works for Watoto Child Care Ministries, whose campus we toured. Three resident boys close to Nollette bonded with Bud on his last trip. The boys joined us for dinner one night.
We spent a day with Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, whose vocational work with exploited females has won acclaim. Last year Nollette produced a video showing Bud training Sister for a mock fight with Stephen Colbert. This time, Nollette, Bud and Co. outfitted a dormitory for her girls in Atiak, where Pipeline built a well. Bud played music the girls danced to. They honored us with a traditional dinner and dance.
We toured Pastor Ben Kibumba's Come Let's Dance (CLD) community development organization. Bud and others gave out jerseys to kids.
Nakavuma Mercy directs CLD's Thread of Life empowerment program for single moms in Kampala's Katanga slum.
We met Patricia at Bless a Child, which serves cancer-stricken kids in Kampala, and Moses, who's opening a second site in Gulu. We met young entrepreneurs Charles Mugabi and Richard Kirabira, whose Connect Enterprise and Chicken City Farms, respectively, are part of a creative class Pipeline partners with.
"One of the things I see is that you have a lot of young people with strong leadership skills and I want to be able to come alongside them and support them in their efforts," Nollette says.
Apollo says Uganda needs new leadership that's corruption-free and focused on good resource stewardship.
Nollette says she offers "a pipeline to connect people in the States with opportunities and projects in Africa that are really trying to make a difference in their communities."
It's all about leveraging relationships and expertise for maximum affect.
We met ex-pats living and work there: Todd Ellingson with City of Joy and Maggie Josiah with African Hospitality Institute.
Josiah offered this advice:
"A lot of times, especially we Americans come over thinking we have all the answers and we know how to fix all the problems, and really we don't need to fix any of the African problems. They will fix them themselves in their own time. But come over and listen and learn from them. The Africans have so much to teach us about joy when we have very little, they have so much to teach us about what it really means to live in community, what it means to live the abundant life..."
Hail, hail, The Champ is here
Having a world champ visit proved a big deal to Ugandans, who take their boxing seriously. The nation's sports ministry feted Bud like visiting royalty at a meeting and press conference. He gained extra cred revealing he's friends with two Ugandan fighters in the U.S., Ismail Muwendo and Sharif Bogere.
"I want to come back with Ismail."
Ministry official Mindra Celestino appealed to Bud "to be our ambassador for Uganda." Celestino listed a litany of needs.
"Whatever I can do to help, I'd like to help out," Bud said. "I'm currently helping out Ismail. He fought on the undercard of my last fight. We're building him up."
Bud won over officials, media and boxers with his honesty and generosity, signing t-shits and gloves, posing for pics, sharing his highlight video and delivering an inspirational message.
"For me coming up was kind of hard. You've got gangs, you've got drugs, you've got violence. I got into a lot of things and I just felt like boxing took me to another place in my life where I could get away from all the negativity. I got shot in my head in 2008 hanging out with the wrong crowd. At that time I knew I just wanted to do more with my life, so I started really pursuing my boxing career.
"I had a lot of days I wanted to quit. For you boxers out there this ain't no easy sport. It's hard, taking those punches. You might be in the best shape of your life, but mentally if you're not in shape you're going to break down."
He emphasized how much work it takes to be great.
"Every day, any boxing I could watch, I would watch. I would take time out to study, like it was school. I would tell you to just work hard, stay dedicated, give your all every time you go in there and who knows maybe you can be the next champion of the world."
He referred to the passion, discipline and motivation necessary to carry you past exhaustion or complacency.
"There's going to be days you want to quit. Those are the days you've got to work the hardest. I never was given anything. I was one of those kids they said was never going to make it – I used that as an opportunity to prove them wrong."
We did take time out to enjoy the outdoors, hiking to the top of Murchison Falls and going on safari at Paraa game preserve. I brought up the rear on the hike and Bud hung back to encourage me: "I've got you, Leo…you can do it." On safari his fondest wish of seeing big cats was fulfilled when we came across two lion prides. He earlier spotted a rare leopard perched on a cliff.
Into Africa II:
Uganda still swam in our heads after flying into Kigali, Rwanda, a city less teeming than Kampala. Despite only a generation removed from genocide, urban Rwanda's more developed than Uganda. There are even some street lights and stop signs, plus more Western-style construction. In the rural reaches, it's a sprawling complex of hills and valleys unlike Uganda's flatlands.
Our guide, Christophe Mbonyingabo, reunited with Bud at the airport.
Just as Bud was mistaken for Ugandan, Rwandans mistook him for one of theirs, too. He delighted in it, especially when residents tried engaging him in their language and he begged off, "I'm American."
In both countries, access to clean water is a daily challenge.
"Whether you're passionate about women or children or health or education, once a village gets access to clean drinking water, this very basic need, it just changes everything," says Nollette. "If a village gets a well it all of a sudden gets a school, a clinic, some agriculture."
We met young men hoping to make a difference when they complete their U.S. studies. Another, Olivier, lost his entire family in the genocide but has gone on to become a physician.
As Bud put it, we were "happy to meet new friends, new faces."
Like the work Apollo does in Uganda, Christophe works to heal people in Rwanda. The eastern Congo native needed healing himself after losing his father and two brothers to violence there. He credits being spiritually saved with his founding CARSA (Christian Action for Reconciliation and Social Assistance), which counsels genocide survivors and perpetrators to find forgiveness. We met a man and woman – he was complicit in her husband's murder and stole from her – who've come to a serene coexistence. They now share a cow.
All of us expressed awe at this turning-the-other-cheek model.
"They love each other, too, that's the crazy part," says Bud, though Christophe said not every survivor forgives and not every perpetrator makes amends.
Bud summed it up with, "Life's about choices."
We met a survivor widow for whom Pipeline's building a new home.
Bud caught up with two boys he met last year. He nearly caused a riot when the gifts he gave and the backflips he performed were spent and a crowd of kids clamored for more.
On the drive into the hills, the stunning vistas resembled Calif. or Mediterranean wine country. It's a sensory explosion of nature's verdant, colorful abundance and folks plodding the roadsides on foot and bike, selling wares, hauling bundles, Jerry cans,. you name it.
Upon hiking into a pygmy village, a young woman, Agnes, impressed on us residents' extreme poverty. Their subsistence living and limited water source pose problems. She shared aspirations to finish school. The villagers danced for us. Our group returned the favor. Then Scott Katskee played Pharrell's "Happy" and everyone got jiggy.
Seeing so much disparity, Bud observed. "Money can't make you happy, but it can make you comfortable."
A sobering experience came at the genocide memorial in Kigali, where brutal killings of unimaginable scale are graphically documented.
Group dynamics and shooting the bull
The bleakness we sometimes glimpsed was counteracted by fun, whether playing with children or giving away things. Music helped,
At various junctures, different members of our group acted as the bus DJ. Bud played a mix of hip hop and rap but proved he also knows old-school soul and R&B, though singing's definitely not a second career. Photography may be, as he showed a flair for taking stills and videos.
In this device-dependent bunch, much time was spent texting, posting and finding wi-fi and hot spot connections.
On the many long hauls by bus or land cruiser, conversation ranged from music to movies to gun control to wildlife to sports. Apparel entrepreneur Scott Katskee entertained us with tales of China and southeast Asia travel and friendships with noted athletes and actors.
Bud gave insight into a tell Thomas Dulorme revealed at the weigh-in of their April fight.
"When you're that close you can feel the tension. I could see it in his face. He was trying too hard. If you're trying too hard you're nervous. If he's intimidated that means he's more worried about me than I am about him. I won it right there."
Our group made a gorilla trek, minus me. Even Bud said it was "hard" trudging uphill in mud and through thick brush. He rated "chilling with the gorillas" his "number one" highlight, though there were anxious moments. He got within arm's reach of a baby gorilla only to have the mama cross her arms and grunt. "That's when I was like, OK, I better back off." A silverback charged.
Back home, Bud's fond of fishing and driving fast. He has a collection of vehicles and (legal) firearms. He and Esha feel blessed the mixed northwest Omaha neighborhood they live in has welcomed them.
Nollette correctly predicted we'd "become a little family and get to know each other really well." She was our mother, chaperone, referee and teacher. Her cousin Joseph Sutter, an athlete, became like a little brother to Bud, whom he already idolized. When the pair wrestled or sparred she warned them to take it easy.
"Stop babying him," Bud said. "I'm not going to hurt him. I'm just going to rough him up. You know how boys play."
Like all great athletes Bud's hyper competitive – "I don't like to lose at nothing," he said – and he didn't like getting taken down by Suetter.
Once, when Bud got testy with Nollette. Christophe chastised him, "I hope you remember she's your teacher." Bud played peacemaker when things got tense, saying, "Can't we all get along? We're supposed to be a family." We were and he was a big reason why. "What would y'all do without me? I'm the life of the party," he boasted.
Out of Africa…for now
As The Champ matures, there's no telling where he'll wind up next, though Africa's a safe bet. When I mentioned he feels at home there, he said, "It IS home. I'm AFRICAN-American. It's where a lot of my people come from historically down the line of my ancestors. Damn, I love this place. I'm just thankful I'm able to do the things I'm able to do. I can help people and it fills my heart."
Our last night in Africa Christophe and Nollette implored us not to forget what we'd seen. Fat chance.
Recapping the journey, Bud said, "That was tight."
Bud may next fight in Oct. or Feb., likely in Omaha again.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.com.