Years ago, when Dorothy Okatch was getting her start as a basketball referee in the Namibian Basketball Federation, a towering player took issue with a foul she called against him.
The player strode up to Okatch, brought his face inches away from hers and yelled about the call. She briefly considered backing away or shouting back. But then Okatch, who stands 5’6″, called a technical foul, the penalty for unsportsmanlike behavior.
It was a memorable call for both Okatch and the player, whom she still referees regularly.
“He still looks at me,” says Okatch, who is 32, “and says, ‘You know, you’re still the only referee who has ever given me a technical foul. Every other ref I do that to, they let me get away with it.'”
Indeed, little slips past Okatch on the basketball court. Her discerning eye and fair-minded approach have caught the attention not only of players but also of basketball officials both inside and outside her adopted home country of Botswana. Last year, she became the country’s first referee certified by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA).
A standout shooting guard and small forward herself, Okatch first tried refereeing in 2002 as a high school student in Namibia, which borders Botswana. Stopping by a game between two high school teams, she noticed that the students were making their own calls.
“I’m thinking, how are we going to develop basketball in this country if this is what is happening in high school?” she recalls. “I just got a whistle, and I just started blowing it. I liked it so much, I went back the next weekend and the next weekend.”
At the time, Okatch was playing in Namibia’s semiprofessional women’s league. With her coach’s enthusiastic support, she continued refereeing high school games and started officiating men’s games as well.
“From there, I just fell in love with reffing,” she says. She started finding tournaments in southern Africa and traveling to Swaziland and South Africa, on her own dime, to officiate. In 2013, she paid her way to Zimbabwe and passed what is known as a zonal clinic, a major conditioning and rules test held by FIBA. Less than a year later, in a FIBA clinic in Madagascar, she was certified as an international basketball referee.
Despite Okatch’s success as an official and a player — she currently plays for the Police Ladies, a team in the Botswana Basketball Association’s Senior Women’s League — basketball remains just a hobby. Okatch works as leadership coordinator for Stepping Stones International, a Botswana nonprofit organization that aims to connect young people with work and educational opportunities. Okatch works with participants between the ages of 15 to 26, placing some of them in jobs and guiding others as they build their own businesses.
In addition to her work at the organization, Okatch is completing a master’s degree in social work from the University of Botswana.
Her interest in social work comes from her early experiences in her adopted country, she says. Born in Uganda, Okatch and her family fled political violence, arriving in Botswana when she was four. After her father died in 1990, she and her five siblings spent four difficult years in a refugee camp in their new country. Okatch returned to the family’s living space many nights to find her widowed mother crying.
“I went through hell and back, but I can now can be responsible for changing the life of somebody so they don’t have to go through what I went through,” she says. “It might not be changing the life of a refugee, but somebody else has got their own issues they’re going through and feels there is nobody. And I want to be that person they can talk to and confide in and who can help them shape their future.”
A 2015 Mandela Washington Fellow, Okatch attended the Young African Leaders Initiative Summit and Town Hall this summer in Washington, D.C. The conference followed a six-week business and entrepreneurship program Okatch completed at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
Okatch says her time in Wisconsin will help her as she mentors young entrepreneurs through Stepping Stones International. She also managed to do research in Wisconsin to strengthen her plan for her own social entrepreneurship venture: Okatch hopes to some day open a residential treatment facility for alcoholism.
“At the end of the day, their families are getting messed up by this, and we don’t have a place that can really assist them,” she says, of Botswanans struggling with alcoholism. “The ones that can afford it are being sent to South Africa for treatment. What about those [families] who cannot afford to treat [a member]?”
As she develops this plan, Okatch says her experiences as a basketball referee are helping. She describes herself as naturally shy and says officiating has made her more assertive.
“When I blow my whistle, people are going to listen to me,” she says. “It shows me that when I take a stand in life, people are going to stop and listen to me. I shouldn’t just let them walk all over me; I should have a whistle in life, to stop the whole commotion around me and make my call on what’s going to happen next.”