Everyone always asks me… “Touly, what exactly do you do?”. My name is Batouly Fatoumata Camara.
I am a Muslim woman and first-gen Guinean. I am also a native New Yorker.
I am a daughter, a sister, a friend, a mentee, a mentor, a fighter, a believer, an advocate.
By the time I was 12, I thought my highest achievement in life would be becoming a wife and a mother to ten kids. Then, sports came into my life and nothing was the same. This is not to brag.
All the things that followed are for the 12-year old Batouly…
I quickly learned history lessons instead of fun facts and I realized that in the big city you have to grow up fast. But I had a great time.
I got two oldest siblings who taught me so much and my mother was active in our lives. She knew that her kids were born in the States but she wanted to raise us like we were in Guinea.
That’s really what it felt like growing up and it’s not easy to succeed something like that in America.
Both my parents decided to come to the USA in the early 90’s, in search of a better life.
Initially, when they left Guinea they travelled to France and from Europe they ended up in New York.
At the time, my father who loved school and he was a doctor with a double PHD and he loved working in the medical field, came to America in search of new opportunities.
My mother was a college student, an activist and she loved travelling. She was kind to everyone around her and she had her own shop, a boutique of African antiques in Harlem.
This was like a second home, as family members, something like a dozen of relatives, worked there!
My parents were very courageous to come to New York without speaking the language and adopt to the US lifestyle.
The first life lesson they taught me is to work hard. We keep underestimating how big a skill that is and I will never forget their daily efforts.
I think that the first ten years of my life I never saw my mom going to sleep or waking up in the morning. She was always up! That kind of level of passion and detail to do that every day was absolutely inspirational.
My father was always so kind. He never yelled at us and he was passionate to be a kind person. He would greet everyone in the streets -like the feeling I got playing basketball in Spain– and in the US this kindness is not usual.
Mom and dad were strict, but he was a fun person and allow us to go out, visit museums and parks. My mother was more frightened and terrified at the world out there.
She wanted us to go to school, in midtown Manhattan, get educated and stay safe. We got to get back home right on time. Sports became my kind of freedom. Then basketball came up. I never thought that I would end up playing professionally. I didn’t play until I was 11 years old.
I grew up and from 5’8’’ I went to 5’11’’ over a summer. I started playing in middle school, in boys’ teams and I made it to the team in the first time I played organized basketball.
I had amazing coaches and a very supportive group of guys. I was the tallest player on the team and the boys went crazy!
It was an opportunity to go outside, telling my mother that I go to practice. She was wondering why I played, but she began to understand after the encouragement from my coaches.
The pivotal moment to start dreaming about basketball was my first away trip for a game. We still laugh about that day.
We were going to Virginia, which is a seven-hour drive from New York. A lot of relatives came to see me off. My teammates were asking things like “the entire village came to see you?”.
My family members were hugging me and praying for me like I was going to the other side of the world.
But that what’s sports are doing. It allows me to travel in places where my siblings and family hadn’t.
I said to myself that sports can do many things for me and when I went to Blair Academy, a boarding school, at the age of 14 and I became more independent.
After boarding school, I received my first scholarship, so my parents understood that basketball can be a big deal for me, an opportunity to go to college and began to support me in a different way.
I went to the University of Connecticut, where I met the legendary coach Geno Auriemma. He is amazing!
I don’t need to say much about a Hall of Fame coach. I learned so many basketball and life lessons from him.
They ask me what is like playing for coach Auriemma. I say that if I ever picture Picasso creating art, that’s what’s like Geno in basketball!
He understands the game in it’s entirety, he is a great person and so, so insightful in a world where he has to lead to make better players and better persons.
Life will tell you the secrets of how to run, how to swim. He told us that it’s up to you to be aware of how fast you do these things and observe the areas around you. That is sports and that is life.
Geno Auriemma is a great coach and an amazing mentor and person!
He was one of our biggest advocates. He taught us to be competitive, which is in his nature. Saying that it’s OK to be passionate and be yourself.
He was never thinking “I am going to change myself for this” and always reminding us “don’t be just girls. Be athletes. Don’t compare yourselves to others and keep competing”.
After college I had a midway point after a knee surgery and thinking if I will continue to play the game.
Basketball became my lifelong dream. Many athletes who play for UConn want to play afterwards. My four years there were the best of my life, but I wanted to see how far I can go from there.
It’s the biggest goal and the biggest blessing of mine.
Right now, for the 2020-2021 season, I play for Bembibre in Liga Femenina in Spain, wearing a hijab.
I was nervous at the beginning. I didn’t know anyone who has played in this league before, but it’s a blessing.
Sometimes you get the stares, you feel the curiosity, but as the game goes on you forget about it. That’s what you love about basketball. The fans, the crowd start to accept it wherever you go. I often recall the time I was told that I couldn’t play pro basketball with a hijab. And I love that aspect of the game.
For me, wearing hijab has always been a journey. The press wants you to answer all the questions for it and I was asking what they were saying and reporting about it in the Spanish language.
I haven’t faced any racist or sexist incidents in Spain, as I hadn’t in the United States and I am thankful for that. Besides, of course, the curiosity in daily basis, I meet open-minded persons.
I believe basketball is a “shield” in many ways.
In 2017, I travelled to my parents’ home for the first time. It’s an experience that changed my life.
I was growing up learning so many things about Guinea and when I got there all the visions, the descriptions, the stories from my family came to life.
I hate when people say “I come from nothing”. We may come from situations that are tough, but we come from places with long history, rich culture and tradition and people who are proud of who they are.
I am proud to be a Guinean and I always wanted to do a basketball camp in my country. That was the time I decided to start the nonprofit organization called Women and Kids Empowerment (W.A.K.E.).
I felt compelled to do it. I felt it was a part of me because I knew how hard it was for me to enter sports and I was in the States. I had access, resources, opportunities.
I could only imagine how difficult it is for young girls in Africa. I remember one ambitious girl who came to me and said “I am better than you, but I need access! I need the resources to fight for my dream”.
Back in UConn we had three gyms and in Guinea there was no indoor basketball court…
I learned how sports transformed my life, how it transforms communities and how it affects the world in a positive way. I wanted to help and give back.
In W.A.K.E., our main mission is to educate and empower young girls, for academic, sports and leadership skills. To teach them to live their lives with confidence.
Sports allow you to be resilient, to work in teams’ settings. My biggest goal and dream are to lead girls in boarding schools and basketball academies and have the chance to thrive.
That is also the goal of the first child book I wrote and published, the “A Basketball Game on Wake Street”. It’s about a group of girls who come from diverse backgrounds coming together for a fun basketball game.
My inspiration came from my childhood. After I went to Guinea, to India and to France and I saw sports in different lens. The people in sports that I met were not the same that were reflected in the media.
I have seen girls with different abilities, talents, different colors and stories.
One character of the book comes from Tiana Mangakahia, a real person, player in the University of Syracuse who beat cancer. The other character is from the sister of a teammate of mine, a girl with autism. I remembered the first man with autism, Kalin Bennett, who played NCAA basketball.
This is the sport that I know, that inspires and shares stories. Books transformed my life at young age and I wanted kids to read about girls with diverse abilities and say “I want to play and dream too”.
I want to talk about people with unique abilities and no disabilities and this is my mission.
Hearing the news that my name is in the “Forbes 30 Under 30” list I was shocked! It’s a list for 30 people or entrepreneurs under the age of 30, with significant social contribution and influence.
I love the list every year that comes out and I beat the deadline by a little bit. I prayed for it.
Before they inform me, I came home from practice, connected to the internet and my cell phone couldn’t stop ringing for messages.
I looked at the date, the December 1st, 2020 and I knew it wasn’t a special occasion or something.
People start calling me to congratulate. As an athlete, you used to put your head down and work hard and you keep going. There are moments that you sit down, you look up and you can breathe.
You say “wow!”. You say to yourself how thankful you are for this moment. You see the list and you think how honored you feel and what a privilege it is!
You see NBA star, Ben Simmons, you see Arielle Chambers, a producer for Bleacher Report. You see amazing people in sports and life and I feel so humbled and honored to be in this list.
This reward makes you feel more confident for the work you do. It allows you to connect with other people in the States that do great work and helps you to share ideas.
It allows us to speak in a bigger platform and in a new way.
That happened with the Billie Jean King Youth Award in the ESPYs too. All that says is that you can do it all! That’s the message to young women out there.
We often limit ourselves but we are limitless!
As athletes we must use our voice. I always say that if I have a voice, I ‘ll use it for all those who haven’t, because I know what sports did for me.
I want people to look at my life and my basketball journey and say “she was a girl that went for it! She used her platform, long or short, for a better cause.
”To help those around her who haven’t the same access, but can have the same ability to dream”.
All we need is a small beat of hope that can transform your world.
I was always very determined, from the days in boarding school. I had a strict schedule, they were taking our phones during classes and practice.
That was a very specific structure that led us to college. That helps you realize that time is precious.
I remember one day, in my freshman year, coach Geno came to practice and said “how you do one thing is how you do everything”. I thought that you can do things differently.
But the overall emphasis was the same thing that Kobe Bryant used to say. Insisting that “when you have the energy to do this you have the energy to do that”, in the right way. There are no excuses like you are tired or lack of time…
You get to the point where everybody say that we all have the same 24 hours in a day and the main thing is how you prefer to use them.
As a kid, we didn’t watch TV. I grew up in this way and I don’t have a TV here in Spain. I always knew how important time is.
Every second counts and that’s how I try to live my life.
One of the things I love about myself is that I am easily inspired, by anything and everything.
I am inspired by walking the street and see a woman cleaning her shop. I am inspired by people who show up every single day to do what they want to do.
I am inspired by the girls back in Guinea who told me “we need this opportunity”. This is what keeps me going, to make “W.A.K.E.” program better for them. I am inspired by anyone in his own journey and purpose. People who just follow the work, the path that they love, who follow their passion.
Women in sports and in basketball have more opportunities. I know many will disagree with me. But we have more, because we carry so many titles, so many “identities”, like working girls or mothers.
Stats show that the opportunities are more for men, but it’s not always about numbers.
If you jump to a gym here in Spain and watch girls practicing, you will see that they are more focused, because they know that this is probably the only time they got to prove themselves and develop their game.
They know they don’t have the luxury of time and they will give the best they got. Men have more chances, but we are now creating more opportunities in unique ways.
Opportunities are many times exactly how you make it for yourself.
The same thing applies for social media. You have access and you can make it what you want. You can be who you want to be.
And for me, creating my social media accounts, I had three fundamental principles. The first is that everyone who follows must feel encouraged. The second is to know about women empowerment and the third to know about sport and education.
That was and still is my social media mission.
There are a lot of people that just take what they are given in social media. I want to point and highlight the good in the world.
It’s so interesting to see how much our lives are addicted, intentionally or not…
Trying to set a good example for young women, though, can sometimes be “heavy” or a terrifying feeling.
You know that kids don’t forget. There are things I say to kids and they send messages telling “do you remember saying that?”. I don’t, but it affects them. Anything you say to kids affects them. I hope I do it in a positive way to inspire them.
Aside from that, I had amazing role models and they didn’t shy away from being examples, mentors and someone I can lean on.
It’s terrifying but I don’t find it a weight or a burden in my shoulders. It feels like an excellent opportunity to connect to young girls, so they can feel like they got an older sister who encourages them to pursue their dreams.
There is this process of considering the meaning of sports or life destiny. I look at my childhood and there are so many pieces which added up to who I am and what I am doing today.
I always wanted to inspire and empower women and support them in sports. You can choose the time you come to it, accept what life has to offer you.
That’s a big struggle in life. Facing where you are and where you want to be, who you want to be. It takes ability to say “this is what I see for my life” and be brave enough to step in to that and see what the world has to offer you.
It is so important and we are in a such unique space, globally. You see soccer players in all over the world standing up in a way they didn’t.
It comes from the past. There are history lessons for this. The Billie Jean Kings of the world, the “Battle of the Sexes”, the Muhammad Alis of the world. Nelson Mandela used sports to transform the world.
But now, through social media we see that in a new way. Sports are a microcosm for the universe that we live in.
We got a world in the court, but we have another one off the court, with a community, a family, friends, a country that we represent.
Sports help us communicate, sports unite and that’s so powerful. It’s amazing what athletes can do and stand for these days and leading a revolution for change.
The first page in by book is a message to young girls and I feel this so deeply in my heart. It’s that we have everything we need to win.
Sometimes we stop ourselves because we think we don’t have enough. We ask ourselves “who is in my support group? What can we do?”.
An then we have that extraordinary empowerment and groups of young women and leaders who are confident in what they got and that’s enough.
I say to these women that they are worthy, they are amazing and they have all they need to win and succeed.
My next dream is to build a school in Guinea. Sometimes I hear the bell, see the girls walking from the class, I imagine all that.
Because I know firsthand my parents came here for us, to have a better education. And I know how education changes lives.
I am also aware of what sports did for me, creating skills, creating dreams, creating opportunities and bringing so much joy to my life.
I would love to open a school in Africa, where girls can come and flourish. That would be my lifelong dream.
Batouly Camara is a professional basketball player for Bembibre in Spain, the founder of the nonprofit organization “Women And Kids Empowerment” (“W.A.K.E.”), an author and an International Public Speaker.
Editor: George Adamopoulos
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