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Africa calling

Naa Sheka Riby-Williams set to play with Ghana national team

When the email came, Naa Sheka Riby-Williams thought it was some kind of joke – perhaps the type of email you receive when a Nigerian prince wants to unload upon you half of his vast fortune.

Why, she wondered, would the president of the Ghana Basketball Association be asking her – a Semiahmoo Secondary grad, budding fashion designer and former college hoops player – to suit up for the Ghana national women’s team for an upcoming tournament?

After all, it had been some time since she’d been to Ghana – which is where her fashion business is partly based – and longer still since she’d played basketball.

“It was about two months ago, and I was shocked,” explained the 26-year-old South Surrey resident, who has split her time between the Peninsula and Ghana since 2006.

Turns out, a highlight tape she had given the hoops president back in about 2007 – during one of two semesters she spent playing basketball and studying at the University of Ghana – was still circulating.

And with Ghana’s women’s team having earned just its third-ever invite to the FIBA African Championship, where the winning team earns an Olympic berth, team brass was scouring the globe for talent.

“I was really surprised to hear from them now, but I decided to go. I mean, why not?” she said.

The tournament runs Sept. 23 until Oct. 2 in Bamako, the capital city of Mali.

Suiting up for Ghana – Riby-Williams holds dual citizenship – completes an interesting path for the South Surrey resident, who, because her father was born in Ghana, decided almost on a whim to pack up and move there five years ago.

It also allows her to pay homage to her father, Charles, a hard-working mechanic whose battle with cancer – which he lost in November 2009 – was what halted his daughter’s hoop dreams in the first place.

• • •

Riby-Wiliams had always been an exceptional athlete, and she excelled on the hardcourt.

At Semiahmoo Secondary, she played on the senior team from Grade 9 until she graduated, and from there accepted a basketball scholarship to Johnson C. Smith University, a small NCAA Div. 2 school in Charlotte, N.C.

After short stint in the south – “unfortunately, things just didn’t work out,” she said – Riby-Williams returned home, where she studied nursing and played ball at Langara College.

It was after two years at Langara that Riby-Williams suddenly got the bug to travel, and “just randomly” she admitted, quit school and moved to Ghana – but not without considerable efforts to persuade her father to let her go.

“At first he was like, ‘No way, no way.’ He didn’t want me to go there. It’s a Third-World country, so you’ve got to have street smarts, and he didn’t know if I had those or not,” she explained, adding she had been to Ghana a few times as a child. “He really didn’t know me too well at the time because my parents are split up, and I lived with my mom. I had to convince him, had to literally beg him, to let me go.”

Eventually, her father caved, and off she went.

“I hated it for the first five months – it was so different,” she said.

By the second semester, Riby-Williams had become interested enough in local fashion to start her own company, West African Fashion, which is produced in Ghana and distributed to stores in the Lower Mainland.

She returned home and began taking business courses. The basketball bug returned, too.

Though she knew she’d be spending significant time in Ghana, she convinced the coach at Langara to give her a tryout.

“I said I wanted to make a comeback, and even though I’d be in Africa, I was going to train and work hard, come home and make the team,” she said.

“I ended up doing it – I made the team. But that’s when my dad got sick, and obviously that was more important than basketball, so I quit to take care of my dad.”

Riby-Williams was with her dad “right up until the end.”

And, after a few months spent recovering as best she could from the loss, she eventually returned to her business interests.

Basketball wasn’t even on the radar when the email came from the Ghana basketball president, and when she said yes to the offer, she had to quickly get into playing shape.

Earlier this summer, she spent a few weeks training with friends in Los Angeles – partly to get used to playing in a hotter environment – and this week she leaves for Africa, where she’ll meet up with her new teammates and prepare to represent her adopted country.

“I feel a really strong connection to the country. Even though I wasn’t born there (she was born at Vancouver Grace Hospital), I felt at home there – it’s still half of me,” she said.

She hopes to wear No. 8 for her new team, in honour of her father, who was born on the eighth day of November.

But regardless of her uniform number, she is excited to get the opportunity to play for her father’s country.

“I’ve called my family in Ghana – my dad has a huge family there still – and they’re all excited and super proud of me,” Riby-Williams said.

“They all said that my dad would be really proud of me, too.

“I feel like my dad is with me a lot of the time. I know he’s definitely watching out for me.”

 

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