UA Little Rock Athlete Raising Funds to Rebuild Parents’ Home in Mali

The basketball player has launched a crowdfunding campaign to help her family in West Africa.

University of Arkansas at Little Rock basketball player Salimatou Kourouma celebrates on the court
UA Little Rock student-athlete Salimatou Kourouma was named to the Sun Belt’s All-Tournament Team in 2022. Photos courtesy of UA Little Rock.

University of Arkansas at Little Rock basketball player Salimatou Kourouma is returning to her home country of Mali for the first time in five years. When she visits the west African country to renew her visa this month, she hopes to share stories of her time in the United States as well as money collected through a GoFundMe account to help her parents rebuild the home they lost in a severe storm in 2019.

Being away from home has not been easy, but Kourouma has stayed connected with family by calling them once or twice a week. Despite the regular communication, her mother chose not to reveal the severity of the damage to their home until last September. Kourouma was angry her parents would keep such a secret, but her mother argued she didn’t want her daughter to worry.

“[She said] you’re still in school and I didn’t want to bother you,” Kourouma said. “Just focus on your school and do your basketball.”

Kourouma wanted to help, but her visa has strict regulations when it comes to employment. After a friend told her about GoFundMe, Kourouma decided to give it a try.

“I was like okay, I don’t have a choice now because I’m not working and so I just have to give [it]  to God and create the page,” she says. 

Income is limited for Kourouma’s family back in Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world. Her father works in a small bodega selling juice and soda while her mother does not have a job. Her uncle has given her parents a house for shelter for now, but Kourouma will have to stay with her married older sister when she returns to Mali because her old room was destroyed in the storm. 

It’s common for student-athletes to endure stress as they juggle academics and sports, but the extra anxiety about her family has been a lot for Kourouma whose resilience has impressed UA Little Rock staff.

“She got this information in September so it was weighing on her all season and despite that, she still went out, she was an all-conference performer on the court, she was all-tournament, she really racked up a lot of awards, she was one of the nation’s highest leading scorers and she’s been through a lot here in the United States,” says Patrick Walsh, associate director of communications for UA Little Rock athletics. 

Kourouma discovered her love of basketball at the age of 11. In 2017, she left her hometown of Kati to come to the U.S. to pursue her dream of one day playing professionally.

“I just love playing it,” she says. “It’s so fun and it’s like if I’m playing it, I feel safe.”

University of Arkansas at Little Rock basketball player Salimatou Kourouma takes a shot on the court

The path to competing on a university team has been a winding and challenging one. After first spending some time in Arizona, Kourouma played for Life Prep Academy in Wichita, Kan., where she earned all-state honors. 

A torn ACL forced her to sit out her freshman year at Grayson College in Denison, Texas, but she took to the court during the 2020-21 season where she was the league’s Newcomer of the Year and earned first team all-conference honors. She averaged 18.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, scoring 30 or more points in five games. 

While being recruited by UA Little Rock, staff texted regularly to ask how she was doing and what she needed, which made Kourouma feel like they really cared. They treated her like family  and that influenced her decision to move to Arkansas.

“I was like okay, I think this is going to be home for me,” she says.

Now 22 years old, Kourouma arrived on the Little Rock campus last August. The 5’11” forward recently wrapped up her first season with the Trojans during which she was named to the Sun Belt’s All-Tournament Team. She scored 72 points during three tournament games, second only to MVP Starr Jacobs. She averaged 24 points and 6 rebounds in the tournament, scoring more than 20 points in all three games. It was Little Rock’s 14th appearance in the semifinals in the last 15 years. 

Kourouma is grateful for all the support she’s received on and off the court in her new home. She’s particularly thankful for the financial contributions she’s received in support of her parents’ efforts to rebuild their home in Mali.

“I just want to thank people a lot because this is not easy at all,” she says. “I know people are working for money for themselves too — they have problems too — but they’re helping me right now so I cannot stop thanking [them] enough.”

Kourouma leaves for Mali on May 12. She plans to stay in Africa for about a month before returning to the states and preparing for the start of her season as a redshirt junior at UA Little Rock.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.