Dorothy Okatch

Okatch turns her trials into triumphs

WHEN Dorothy Okatch experienced some of the darkest moments in her life, the basketball court was the space where she found refuge and solace. Apart from getting peace of mind from the game,  the Botswana referee has become a prominent official on the continent and is achieving grand milestones.

Okatch, who comes from a basketball family, experienced life’s trials at an early age. She lost both parents at different stages of her youth. The loss of her father, drastically changed life for her and her family. Also learning about the family’s refugee status in their adopted country from her late mother exacerbated their struggle in Botswana.

“I did not know we were refugees until I got to junior secondary school. My dad started a job at the University of Botswana. For the first few years, we lived comfortably. We had a good place to stay. My dad was a lecturer, and I guess he made good money,” said Uganda-born Okatch, who spoke to The Big Tip Off via Zoom two weeks ago. “When my dad passed away, my mom had to take care of six kids, so things changed. We moved to a refugee camp. ‘I asked myself why we were moving to this place?’ At the time, it still did not click that we were refugees. It was when I got to high school that my mom explained the situation of our lives.”

Dorothy Okatch
Botswana referee Dorothy Okatch has overcome adversity in life. Pictures: The BTO

Following her mother’s explanation of the family’s refugee status, Okatch, who arrived in Botswana 1987, would later learn that not all in the Southern African country would be welcoming.

“At the time, it was not an issue for me. That’s until my school teacher began talking about refugees. Then the teacher asked if anyone in class was a refugee? I innocently lifted my hand, and most of my classmates laughed, and from that time, everyone treated me differently,” said 39-year-old Okatch. “Then everyone in the class started calling me a refugee. It sunk in that it sucks not being from here. It sucks how I am viewed differently from everyone else. I was talked about as someone who had fled to Botswana to stay alive.

“It changed my perspective of things. How I interacted with people, what I said and did. After that incident with the teacher, my experience was hell. I wished I had not raised my hand and felt the teacher had tricked me.”

Okatch, who presently works as head of an NGO in Botswana, would see her fortunes and that of her sister change, when they moved to a new school.

“My sister and I got a scholarship through a church in Canada to attend a private school (in Botswana). At that school, most of us were from other countries, and so I had a much better experience in that environment” said Okatch. Okatch has since then felt more integrated into the Botswana society, and now considers herself a patriot. 

Looking back at the loss of both parents, the situation seemed perilous for Okatch, especially when she had completed high school and transitioning to university. Luckily she would be a beneficiary of scholarship for refugees that enabled her to study outside of Botswana. 

“I lost my dad when I was seven-years-old and at 16 my mom passed away. So, here I was, a refugee in Botswana. I had just finished high school and awaiting my results. Things began to pile up and I asked myself what the hell I was gonna do?, said Okatch. “I could not get a job or do anything else because of my refugee status. Fortunately, I got a scholarship through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to go and study at the University of Namibia. ” 

Namibia presented a fresh start for Okatch, it was also where she immersed herself more and more into basketball. She served in the basketball structures at the University and it was where her journey into refereeing began.

“Given what I was dealing with, I almost got a nervous breakdown and when things were crazy, I would find myself at the basketball court. I also served on the basketball executive committee at the university. My life revolved around basketball. Anyone could tell you ‘Dorothy lives and eats basketball’. If you were looking for me, the basketball court is where you would find me,” said Okatch, who holds a Masters degree in Social Work.

She described how the road to officiating began.

“My journey into refereeing started in 2002 when I was in my second year. Some friends and I went to a place called UN Plaza, where a high school game was being played. It was heart-breaking to see some of the kids not playing but refereeing games. I saw it as unfair to them as they did not know how to be unbiased in games. I also doubt they were familiar with the rules of the game,” said the University of Namibia alumni. “My friends and I decided to step in, and I loved it so much that I came every weekend. I just enjoyed giving those kids a fair game.”


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Okatch’s quality of being impartial had impressed Namibian basketball official, Charles Nyambe, leading to her getting an invite for a referee’s training course and officiating in her first major game.

“Namibian official’s chairperson invited me to a referees clinic. Under his watch, I would go on to referee my first men’s game: Rebels versus Tomahawks, something that terrified me. This is the biggest game in Namibia. Charles was there to remind me I was a fair referee and to not be afraid of making the right call,” said Okatch. “That is where the love and passion for refereeing began for me. Namibia gave me my first whistle. That country groomed me as a referee.”

Having grown in her role as a referee, Okatch was ready to take another leap, that of becoming an international referee. However, achieving that goal would be complicated. On her first attempt whilst in Namibia, Okatch faced issues not only with her not being a Namibian citizen but also she learnt that she was pregnant.

“In 2010, Charles nominated me to attend a zonal (Southern Africa) referees clinic. I was supposed to go as a Namibian referee, although I was not a citizen. It was a controversial issue, as you can imagine,” said Okatch. “I had to pay my costs, and I was okay with that. As I prepared myself and tried to get fit, I realised I was out of breath. It was then that I discovered I was pregnant and so I could not go that year.”

Dorothy Okatch
Dorothy Okatch dreams of officiating at major FIBA tournaments.

In 2014, Okatch, who had since returned to Botswana two years earlier, attended another zonal referees clinic in Zimbabwe. She again had to pay out of her own pocket as the Botswana federation could not afford to send her.

“The Botswana association told me they did not have money to pay for the trip to Zimbabwe. I told them I could pay for myself, and so I went to Zimbabwe for the zonal licensing, and I aced it,” said Okatch, who would later go on to become Botswana’s first internationally recognised referee. “Eight months later, there was a call for referees with zonal licences to upgrade to the international level. Fortunately, I was able to go to Madagascar for the licencing, and in 2015 I got it. I was the first referee in Botswana to get an international license.”

She added: “It was one of the best feelings I have ever had since my involvement in basketball. I used to check online daily to see if my name was on the list, and the day my name appeared, I screamed and cried. Finally, Botswana had an international referee.”

Okatch, who also holds a 3-on-3 refereeing licence has officiated at some top international tournaments. Her career highlights include refereeing at: the 2019 Women’s AfroBasket, the Basketball Africa League (BAL) and the Special Olympics World Games (Abu Dhabi in 2019).

“My highlight tournament was getting to referee the final in my first AfroBasket. Also, officiating both the women’s and men’s 3X3 finals tournament in Uganda. The names of the officials for finals had not been released, and when I got called to do the women’s final, I was chuffed with myself. It was an indication of how good I was at my job. I then got to referee the men’s final, which again boosted my confidence and trust in myself,” said Okatch. ” Also with the Special Olympics World Games, I had never officiated on the global stage. That was really special for me because it reminded me why I was a referee. It reminded me the importance of compassion and fairness when you referee. These athletes want to compete and enjoy their sport and being able to provide that platform made me happy.”

Okatch now looks forward to officiating at the Commonwealth Games in July in Birmingham, England. She also aspires to referee at a FIBA junior or senior World Cup.

“I am excited and look forward to officiate at the 3X3 tournament because it’s yet another higher level of competition. I would love to officiate a FIBA world championship tournament, whether the junior or senior competition,” concluded Okatch.

Okatch has a lot to look forward to as a referee. The sacrifices she has made to grow in the sport she loves have paid off and in the process, she has changed the trajectory of her life. It may not always be smooth sailing but she has learnt how to turn trials into triumphs.

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