It has been five years since the last time Isaac Ondekane has seen his family in the Democratic Republic of The Congo. Ondekane describes home as a place where it is sunny every day, the low being 70’s on a “rainy day” and a place full of culture, great food and of course, his family. He tries to maintain consistent contact with them but finds it difficult due to the eight-hour time difference between the United States and the Congo. As we fall asleep, their day is barely starting.
Ondekane has lived in many places including Nairobi, Kenya where he was born, the Congo, Central Africa, Spain, Paris, Colorado and finally Kansas. He made his move to America in 2015 to follow his new dream of playing basketball. He was living with his uncle in Aurora, Colorado at the time, which is an hour away from his high school. He and his best friend played on the same basketball team, and one day they offered him a place to stay so that he was closer to his school.
“They were like, you know, if you ever just want to come stay with us you can,” Ondekane said. ‘“We don’t mind you know you can move with us, and we can take care of it’ [they said to me].”
That same family, which is his host family, see Ondekane on holidays or breaks. He has not visited his family in the Congo in so long because of the cost to travel and having a tight schedule in the off-season makes it difficult to find the time. Because of this, he is thankful to still have a place and family here in the United States to call home.
“The thing people don’t understand about basketball is that off-season is the most important season,” Ondekane said.
Ondekane stands at 6’8 and a half, wears a size 17 in shoes and speaks three different languages: English, French and Lingala, his native language. Currently a sophomore and center for the Butler Grizzlies basketball team, Ondekane expects to keep growing a few more inches within the next few years. He anticipates the Grizzlies will have a great season as they are ranked No. 2, which is one of the highest rankings the basketball program has seen.
Before playing basketball, Ondekane played soccer. One day, he turned on the TV to watch Lebron James dunk on Iguodala in the NBA finals and decided to pursue basketball instead.
Ondekane came to Butler because of one of the coaches and he trusted him.
Ondekane misses the Congolese weather and food. In the Congo, the weather is consistently warm, an average day is 100 degrees and it rarely is cloudy or rainy. When he moved to Kansas, he found the weather to be dry and humid.
“There’s nothing going on, but it’s very quiet and very peaceful,” Ondekane said. “There’s nobody around.”
For Ondekane, the weather really affects one’s mood, and with how much change in weather occurs in Kansas, mood swings are bound to happen. The weather also comes at a price, being 6’8 he says is “overrated”. Ondekane must order his clothes and shoes online where sometimes they still are not long or big enough. His peers find it confusing that he wears what we would think are winter or fall clothes in the summer.
“I lived in Africa all my life, so my body is just used to taking heat,” Ondekane said “Not in a weird way, but if you ever come close to me, you’ll feel I’m always warm.”
When it comes to food, the animals in the Congo are not fed to become bigger, they simply are fed or eat their natural food. When coming to America, he could taste the processing that goes on in American food compared to the Congo.
“You can tell somethings been done to them,” Ondekane said.
One of his favorite meals here is his host’s grandma’s Hispanic enchiladas in Colorado.
Ondekane also misses the Congolese culture. Although he has tried to fit in and Americanize himself, he says his culture runs too deep and that Americans are simply too free. No matter how hard he has tried to fit in, he says he just cannot.
“In America, it’s all about freedom,” Ondekane said “It’s all about you’re free to make your own choices; everything you do is for you. What we are taught is everything you do is for your communities, for your God; it’s for your families, for your name, but over here it’s all about individuality.”
After Butler, Ondekane plans to attend a four-year university where he is planning on getting a degree in psychology to become a therapist. From Ondekane, he feels he is is good at talking to people, relating to them and helping them figure different situations out.
“I think I can help people figure things out for themselves since I’ve been able to find ways to figure out things within myself,” Ondekane said.
Another short-term goal he has in mind is simple staying sane in such a crazy world.
“The world is crazy, and I try not to fall into how crazy the world gets,” Ondekane said. “I’m just keeping myself in a stable place, so I remember who I am, remember my values and my principles and morals, so I can keep myself together, instead of falling apart like everybody else.”