When Roger Moute a Bidias describes Cameroon, he speaks slowly. His deep voice slips into an easy cadence, and the description of his home country doesn’t come off as a stock response to a routine inquiry. Instead, listening to Roger feels more like settling in for a story.
The way he tells it, it’s a story that begins with geography.
In the north of Cameroon, Roger says, you’ll find desert and semi-arid plains. In the east, a tropical savanna stretches all the way to the Central African Republic. Go west, you’re at the beach, and in the south, miles of rainforest dot the landscape. The vast climatic and topographical diversity has earned the country the nickname “Africa in miniature.”
“But the diversity is also in the people,” Roger says.
With Cameroon home to about 250 different ethnic groups, it isn’t hard to see what he means. Though French and English are the West African country’s official languages, approximately 24 African language groups and nearly 270 different dialects are spoken in Cameroon. Roger himself grew up in the capital city of Yaounde — an ethnically diverse, mostly French-speaking urban center with a population of approximately 2.5 million people.
It’s this diversity that makes his description of Cameroon’s sense of community that much more powerful. Roger is the son of a village chief and the youngest of eight siblings, and he remembers growing up with a sense of kinship that extended not only to his immediate family, but to the members of his community. It’s a quality that, now more than 8,000 miles away in an American culture more often known for its coolness than its warmth, he looks back on with respect.
“I have a big family, but it stretches out to like the people around you, the people around your neighborhood,” Roger, a junior forward at Cal, says. “We’re so bonded that it’s like a friendly kind of environment everywhere you go.”
For much of his life, however, Roger has had to maintain his strong ties to both his family and his home country from a distance.
At the age of 8 or 9, his siblings started moving out. His oldest brother was the first to leave, heading to Canada while Roger was still in elementary school. His other siblings would soon follow, traveling to places such as France and the United States to follow educational opportunities not afforded to the family in Cameroon. Even coming from a middle class family, there were more chances to prosper abroad than at home.
For three of his brothers, that opportunity overseas took the form of basketball. After one of his older brothers tried his hand on the court in the United States, it would be the twins, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Emmanuel Bidias a Moute, who would make their way to the highest echelons of the sport. Both saw success playing in college, and Luc eventually made it to the NBA, where he is playing for the Los Angeles Clippers in the eighth year of his career.
But despite the prevalence of basketball in his household, Roger paid little attention to the hoop outside his childhood home. Caught up with the Cameroonian love affair with soccer, he spoke to his father about maybe playing in a professional league abroad someday. A future in basketball had hardly entered his mind.
Then, one night in 2006, his family gathered together at 2 or 3 a.m. Cameroon-time, and turned on the TV.
His brother Luc was in the Final Four during his freshman season at UCLA, and little known to Roger, he was becoming a phenom to the Bruin faithful after scoring the winning basket against Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. What Roger did pick up on, however — the thousands of fans in the stands, the publicity and the excitement surrounding the game — left an impression.
“When I saw that, I was like, man, that’s pretty cool,” Roger says. “I was more impressed by seeing my brother on TV than the actual basketball, because at the time I didn’t understand anything about what was going on.”
That initial awe was eventually followed by a significant growth spurt, and for the first time, Roger thought about taking up his brothers’ pastime.
Roger joined a local club team, where he started learning the essentials of the game at age 14 — a point when most freshmen on American high school basketball teams have already been playing the sport for years. Then, when his brother Luc came to Yaounde for the first edition of Luc’s soon-to-be-annual basketball camp in the summer of 2010, his decision became clear.
Roger earned a scholarship to Montverde Academy in Florida to play basketball, and soon he, too, found himself boarding a plane to the United States.
At first, he says, adjustment to life abroad was smooth. Playing with a Cameroonian cohort that included Landry Nnoko, Michel Enanga and now-NBA player Joel Embiid at Montverde, Roger had an immediate peer group going through the same transition. Meanwhile, his brothers in the United States were always just a phone call away.
But things would more get more challenging, both on the court and culturally, when he moved to Massachusetts for his senior year of high school.
“I was in a group of teammates, and everyone else, at Notre Dame (Preparatory School), where there wasn’t another international kid, except for a very few,” Roger says. “And so I had to understand things more and, I’d say, Americanize myself.”
Despite the cultural adjustment and higher demands from him minute-wise, Roger was determined to excel and prove that he could play at the college level. Eventually, he achieved that goal, receiving a basketball scholarship from Cal for the fall of 2013. He committed just a few days after visiting.
At Cal, however, some of the lingering consequences of starting to learn the game late would come back to haunt him. While his defense was always up to speed, his shooting needed work, and as a result, he has spent the majority of his time at Cal on the bench. In his freshman year, he averaged just fewer than six minutes per game.
It’s only been through hours on the court — as well as advice from and constant conversation with his brothers — that he has seen incremental progress.
This fall, he began gradually working his way into the Bears’ rotation, primarily as a defensive specialist, as head coach Cuonzo Martin toyed with the team’s lineup. And though Roger’s role has diminished as the season developed, it’s a not a testament to any drop off in his performance. If anything, his offense has improved — progress he’s quick to attribute not just to his own resilience, but also to his family’s support.
“The reason I’m still pushing and I’m still going and working is because of my family and my brothers, because they’ve all been through it,” Roger says.
When Roger describes UC Berkeley, he speaks quickly. His eyes light up and his words follow each other rapidly, in the way they might when someone talks about a place they’re still figuring out.
Like his home country, one of the first things he’ll tell you about is the campus’s diversity. He likes how he can walk around and hear a couple words of Portuguese, and a couple of words of Chinese. It reminds him of Montverde, and the international community that softened his transition to the United States. There might not be the same sense of community he felt in Yaounde, but he says he’s found his niche within this diverse new home.
“The culture I’m coming from, you definitely sense the difference,” Roger says. “But here I’ve kind of found a family within my teammates, and I’ve found a family among my friends outside of basketball.”
Many of his teammates would agree. In huddles, Roger is known as one of the players best able to motivate the group, and while it’s rare, his teammates say that sometimes he’ll even break into a couple of dance moves to get the team going.
“He always says wise words to keep us together, to keep our heads when we run into adversity,” says teammate Kameron Rooks. “He always brings us back up.”
But just as his network has expanded and grown in the United States, many of his siblings are returning home.
His brother Emmanuel was the most recent one to go back to Cameroon, and he says another of his sisters has returned to Yaounde as well. Roger says it’s part of the strong family culture not just to take what you can from the opportunities offered to you, but to then give back. He could see himself doing the same.
“We feel for each other. It doesn’t mean that because I’m in the states now that I forgot what the kids in my neighborhood go through,” Roger says. “So we know the struggle and we know what’s going on back home. So if you have the opportunity to change things, you know, why not?”
Dani Jo Coony covers men’s basketball. Contact her at [email protected].