It seemed like a typical day in the New Bell neighborhood, a historic district in Cameroon’s economic capital of Douala. Motorcycle taxis hummed through the streets, construction workers pounded away at steel and cement, and street vendors worked hard to sell their products. But everything seemed to stop when a white luxury SUV pulled up, and a face recognizable to everyone in this neighborhood emerged.
CNN was with football legend Samuel Eto’o when he last visited his hometown in February, before the coronavirus pandemic forced countries around the world into lockdown. Many of New Bell’s residents filled the streets as word spread that the international superstar had returned home. One woman, dressed only in a bath towel, hastily hopped out the shower to greet him – not wanting to miss her chance.
“People come out massively because I bring a feeling of happiness, hope,” Eto’o said, through a translator. “I hope God Almighty still allows me to share that feeling with them.”
Chants of Eto’o’s name began sounding in the streets and although large crowds began to form, everyone respectfully gave him his space. At one point, they even formed a human chain to allow Eto’o to walk through the blocks and visit some of his loved ones.
“I grew up in the hands of people you saw,” he said. “Some are my paternal uncles, and others are elders in the neighborhood who took care of me in my teens; who would advise me because they felt I had something and I could get out.”
He then pointed out a landmark his hometown is unfortunately known for. “If we go a little further, we will see that the Central Prison is nearby. It seemed more likely that I would end up in that prison.”
A legacy beyond football
Samuel Eto’o avoided prison. Instead, at the age of 16, he went to Europe to begin what would become a long and successful international football career, spanning more than two decades. He won the African Player of the Year award four times and helped Cameroon win its first ever gold medal at the 2000 Olympics.
The man who once teamed with other greats such as Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho at Barcelona became famous for his play on the field, but here in Cameroon, he’s regarded for more than just his sporting prowess.
The next morning, on a misty football pitch in Douala, Eto’o stood on the sideline watching a group of young players at work. He couldn’t help but pull one to the side. “I explained just how he should position himself when he plays,” Eto’o said. “How he can have the advantage over his opponent with the right body position.”
Here at the Kadji Sports Academy, the same academy Eto’o once attended, players are fortunate to get advice from their hometown hero. But Eto’o does more than just offer mentorship. Through the foundation that he started in 2006, Eto’o has also funded the development and training for many of Cameroon’s promising young footballers.
“We tried to create dreams,” Eto’o explained, naming a number of former academy players who now play for European teams.
Tchokote Gassi Christian hopes to join that list. He is one of the aspiring pro footballers receiving funding from the foundation. “I was not born to a wealthy family, so it was often difficult to come back from training and find a meal ready to help me recuperate … I no longer have this problem.” Christian said. “In some countries, they are not so lucky as to have someone like Papa Samuel who helps young people to be able to follow their dreams.”
‘The best goal we have scored’
Later that day, Eto’o made another stop. In a small room he was sitting next to a new mother and holding her tiny baby. The premature infant was receiving care at a place that is one of Eto’o’s proudest achievements. With a smile on his face, Eto’o said, “I think the best goal we have scored with the foundation has been the Samuel Eto’o Pavilion at the Lacquintinie Hospital.”
It’s a 48-bed children’s ward in Douala’s largest public hospital that was built and fully equipped by his foundation in 2017.
Children and babies can get much needed emergency and specialty care. As is the case in much of Sub-Saharan Africa, Cameroonian children under five die at a rate almost double the world average, according to World Bank data.
“I think that is the purpose of my life,” Eto’o said. “To contribute to the development of our society by helping the state and Cameroonians to have a building where people can come and say ‘here we can go home in good health.’”
In addition to the hospital and training academy, Eto’s foundation has funded and created projects to support education, health, and community development, including orphanages, scholarships and road construction.
“Our history should be written by us, and through us,” Eto’o said. “Do not wait for others to come and do what we ourselves can do instead.”
Working to combat Covid-19
A few months later, in April, reports surfaced that French doctors had proposed testing a potential Covid-19 treatment in Africa. Samuel Eto’o, who has been outspoken about racism in football, was among many well-known Africans who condemned that thinking, calling the comments “colonialism,” and expressing his frustration on social media.
Although he’s confined to his home in Paris during the pandemic, he has deployed his foundation to deliver “Stop Covid-19” kits that contain masks, soap, rice, water and other items to help people in Cameroon stay home and stay sanitized.
According to foundation director Patrick Mbiele Happi, kits were delivered to 50,000 families across the four cities affected most – including Douala, Eto’o’s hometown. The foundation also distributed 22,000 washable masks to motorbike and taxi drivers, according to Happi.
While the world was a different place when Eto’o was back in Cameroon, he still spoke about facing adversity in his country head-on. “I like challenges and I especially like success,” the football legend said. “So for me, motivation is: I am done here, what do I do tomorrow? What do I need to do? There is a new challenge, so I am all in.”
Andrea Smith and Briana Duggan contributed to this story.