The name Kelenna, pronounced ka-LYNN-a, means "God be praised" in the Igbo language spoken in Nigeria, a country in West Africa. Azubuike, pronounced az-uh-BOO-key, translates to "your back is your strength."
And that, for the Warriors shooting guard, has been perhaps his closest connection to Africa. All his life, Kelenna Azubuike's association to his ethnic roots was limited to secondhand experiences — stories from his parents — and the knowledge that pure Nigerian blood flows inside him.
And his name: God be praised. Your back is your strength.
"I'm not sure what Nigeria is like. I just go off all the stories they told me," Azubuike, 24, said. "I've always wanted to go to Africa and see what it's like and experience the motherland, you know."
He got his wish earlier this month when he attended the eighth annual Leon H. Sullivan Summit in Arusha, Tanzania. The summit — an annual gathering of dignitaries from across the globe — is designed to generate discussion of and solutions for Africa's development. He didn't get to visit his parents' home country, but Tanzania, a country in East Africa, was good enough. Azubuike's parents, Kenneth and Chy, left Nigeria some three decades ago, seeking better opportunities for their children. Their oldest son, Nonzo ("God is always with me"), was the only of their four kids to breathe African air — and he was only visiting, because his parents wanted the family to
Azubuike was just a toddler when the family moved to Tulsa, Okla., still in search of better schools and opportunities. Like all of his siblings, he never learned his parents' native tongue or wore any cultural garb. His parents wanted him to blend in, not stand out. With his hip-hop influenced attire, lack of accent and University of Kentucky education, he seemed more than one generation removed from the land of his ancestors.
Except for his name: God be praised. Your back is your strength.
"It was a problem when we were kids because people would always mess up our names," Nonzo, 27, said. "Now that we're older and wiser, we appreciate our names. We're really proud of our heritage."
Organizers for the Sullivan Summit contacted the Warriors because they wanted a professional athlete as part of their group. Azubuike was the perfect fit, and he jumped at the opportunity. Sending shoes and clothes ahead of him, he met up with civil rights ambassadors such as Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young, academics from schools including George Washington and the College of the Bahamas, and representatives from global businesses such as General Electric, World Bank and San Ramon-based Chevron.
On the first day of the summit, Azubuike participated in a forum addressing the role of youth in Africa's future. He also presented his orange Warriors jersey to Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete.
After Azubuike left the summit, he got a more private dose of Africa. Through an NBA contact, he connected with the Miracle Corners of the World Youth Community Center in Arusha. There, he bought art, gave out candy to the kids, spoke to an English class and a computer class, and witnessed a dance performance.
His driver in Tanzania, a local, told him about an orphanage. So Azubuike, away from the media attention, made another detour. There he met Nora Ndowo, head of Nora Childcare Trust, who is affectionately known as Mama Nora.
Touched by the work she was doing, Azubuike gave the orphanage a couple hundred dollars out of his pocket on the spot, with a promise to send more regularly. That was enough to help cover expenses for the center, which costs about $40 a month to run, and get medicine to three children hospitalized with malaria.
Azubuike said his experience — walking on the soil of Africa, witnessing firsthand the struggles of Africans — has changed his perspective forever. The suffering reminds him of the stories he heard of his parents' hardships — tales of his mom getting water from the lake and carrying it back on her head in a pot, or his dad clearing an entire field with what amounted to a pocketknife.
"I don't think it was as bad in Nigeria (as Tanzania), but I know it was tough," Azubuike said from a hotel in Tanzania. "It's eye-opening. It's sad. It's emotional. It's all that stuff. It's a whole different lifestyle there. It's hard to even imagine growing up in a place like this. It's like our problems pale in comparison to the problems they face over here. It will just make me not take things for granted anymore. It makes me want to do more outreach like this. It's a blessing to be able to give. I feel like I want to do that more."
He will never forget his first impressions of Africa. It was hot and sticky, just as he'd imagined. He was greeted by a multitude of black faces, plastered with smiles. They sang and danced, passing out drinks to celebrate his arrival.
They couldn't have known it was his first time on African soil. They probably didn't realize he was an NBA player.
One thing they did recognize, he said, was his African name: God be praised. Your back is your strength.
Contact Marcus Thompson II at firstname.lastname@example.org.