PHILADELPHIA -- Every day, every week, every month, the plaintive letters come to him, from the Sudan, where his people are starving. Manute Bol is a millionaire basketball player with the Philadelphia 76ers, and it is the way of his Dinka tribe for those with money and food to help those without. But his $1.3 million salary is not enough. Five hundred times that much is needed to fill the empty stomachs.
Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, is swollen with southerners who have come north to the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile to find food and respite from the 7-year-old civil war. Bol, a Dinka tribesman from the southern village of Turalei, has 70 relatives who have relocated in the capital aunts, uncles, cousins, three stepbrothers, two stepsisters, his mother-in-law. Much of Bol's considerable salary goes to them. But, he says, it is not nearly enough.
He bought a house in Khartoum for $100,000 and estimates that 35 to 40 members of his extended family have moved in. They crowd into the four bedrooms and spill into the living room, sleeping where they can. They are Dinkas, and they are used to being in the wide-open, living off subsistence farming and cowherding. Now they are cramped, living on top of each other in the city, scrounging for food.
"It's a bad situation; he's not happy with the way things are going over there," said Bol's teammate, Charles Barkley. "I tell him, 'Hey, there's nothing you can do about it.' "
Still, Bol tries. Each month, he pays the water bill and the electricity for his relatives. In August, he forwarded $10,000 for food and clothing and medicine.
Last year, while playing with the Golden State Warriors, he even made a one-shot try at playing the California lottery, intending to send the instant millions home to feed the hungry.
"I love to help," he said, "but my money is not enough. Food is very expensive. Sometimes, even if you have money for food you cannot buy it. The Red Cross will give them some food and blankets, but it is not enough. My people just sit there. There are no jobs."
Civil war and drought have put Africa's largest country on the cusp of its third famine in six years. Experts estimate that 8 million to 11 million of the Sudan's 25 million people are at the risk of starvation. Summer rains came late and stopped early this year. Fighting between the Islamic fundamentalist government and rebel forces has disrupted farming in the south. Sorghum, the main staple, is scarce in many places. The gap between what is needed in grain to nourish the hungry and what is available has reached more than a million tons.
Over the last three years, Bol has spent $300,000 to keep his relatives from going hungry, he and his agent estimate. This summer, he sent $10,000 to his younger sister, Abuk, who is living with her husband and three children, having fled the fighting in 1983. Manute has not seen her since.
He has sent another $10,000 to an uncle in Nairobi, Kenya, who is aiding the Sudanese rebels, called the Sudan People's Liberation Army. In the summers of 1987, '88 and '89, Bol returned to the Sudan himself, each time carrying huge amounts of cash. Forty thousand dollars one trip, $50,000 on another, he said. His agent cautioned him to be discreet, but how could he not give? Some of the money, he gave to friends and relatives. Some of the money, he gave to people on the streets who recognized him and came up to him. Some of the money, he handed to the desperate sick and dying in the tattered camps of displaced people.
"Sometimes they don't have to ask," he said. "If you see they need medicine and you have something in your hand, you just have to give it up."
After the 1988-89 NBA season, Bol visited the makeshift camps around Khartoum with a camera crew from San Francisco to draw international attention to the shriveled, impoverished lives of his countrymen.
"I was crying, the way it was looking," he said. "It was looking terrible. People were hungry. Nobody had a place to live. You come to America and then go back there and everybody looks skinny. Everybody looks sick."
Because he is a basketball player in America, Bol said, his countrymen think he must make $3 million or $4 million a year. They want more than he has to give. True, he will make a comfortable salary of $1.3 million again this year. But even if he gave every cent of that, it would be only a drop in the bucket for a hopelessly famished country. Plus, he has his own family to support, his wife, Atong, and two young children, Abuk, who is 2, and Madut, who is 1 1/2 months.
"I have to buy a house in America and raise my two kids," Bol said. "I have to think of that. For the last three years in a row, I have not been able to save any money. Every day, every week, every month, I get letters from there. But I do not have enough money in the bank."