'It feels like solitary jail' - Kenyan basketball star stuck in Algeria

By Lynne WachiraBBC Sport Africa
Ariel Okal
Okal had only just signed for US Setif when coronavirus first hit Algeria

Kenya national basketball team power forward Ariel Okal has told BBC Sport Africa that being caught up by the coronavirus pandemic in a foreign country "feels like being in a solitary jail''.

The Kenyan international had only arrived in Algeria late in January after joining top league side US Setif.

But having only just started with the team, the league - and indeed the country - went into lockdown. Okal was unable to return to Kenya, so was, and remains, trapped in a country he did not know.

Setif is among the regions of Algeria where the government has imposed an 0700 to 1900 curfew with limited movements during the day and gatherings of more than two people banned.

"I live alone and it gets really lonely here," Okal told BBC Sport Africa.

"The internet is the my only companion here - it's my everything. When I moved in here I was welcomed with cake by my neighbours; now I do not even see them.

"I am stuck in the house 24/7 and that can be depressing. My club arranges for my supplies to be delivered but I really miss eating out.''

Strong debut

Ariel Okal
Okal had a strong start individually, though his team lost his first two games

Okal had strong individual performances in his first games - he bagged 18 points in his debut match, a 69-50 defeat to TRA Draria - but Algeria's Youth and Sports minister suspended all sport in the country from 16 March, when Okal had only played four times.

With Okal on an initial six-month contract, he fears he might have already played his last game for the team.

"It's scary to think I might have played my last game at the beginning of my last match," he said.

"I hope that the club and myself will reach an amicable solution. I still have unfinished business here."

He added he has not had any discussions with his club about his contract, but that he had not been asked to take a pay cut.

"There is still hope that maybe there is a little chance that play might resume before July, but I think the situation in Algeria is getting worse by the day," he said.

"Hopes of normality returning dwindle each day.

"I feel wasted not playing basketball, I was just starting to figure out Setif. Fans and players received me so well, it felt like home from the moment I arrived."

He also reflected that he has been embraced by the people of Setif and has already seen how much the lockdown has transformed the city, which is some 270km from Algiers.

"I am 6'9 tall with dreadlocks so I really stand out here," he said.

"I already had so many fans around my neighbourhood taking pictures with me. Now it's a ghost town and all I see is people peeping through their windows. There are police and ambulances passing while the sanitation department makes regular announcements with loudspeakers.

"It can get depressing.''

Improvised workout

Streets of Setif
Okal is stuck indoors in Setif - he shared this picture of the streets with the BBC

Okal now spends his time watching his past games while trying to stay away from the coronavirus negativity.

But he admitted that staying mentally well is a difficult challenge when alone in a new city.

"My family back home - especially my mother - are worried about me and my sister, who plays basketball in the US," he said.

"I have to stay safe for my mum. We have a daily health check-in to our family WhatsApp group. Even slight headaches have to be disclosed."

Like many other athletes, Okal now has the challenge of keeping fit whilst confined to a small space indoors.

In his case, he is using a broomstick with two 5.5 litre bottles on each end as makeshift weights.

"It's going to be very tough to get back in shape - this is the longest I have gone without playing or just going out to jog," he said.

"I am making do with an indoor work out routine. I try to do as may lifts as possible, I do low ankle squats, burbees and lots of push ups for core training.

"We have to try and stay fit by all means amidst the chaos. We have to overcome.''