Offering a helping hand to Sudan's `Lost Boys'

April 13, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

SEVEN YEARS ago, I met a tall, lanky Dinka from the southern Sudanese province of Bahr al-Ghazal in a refugee camp called Lokichokio in northern Kenya.

Standing a good 6 feet, 5 inches - his estimate, not mine - John Mangok told me why he had joined the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, the organization fighting the fundamentalist Islamic government of Sudan.

"Because of the obvious discrimination of the Arabs against our people," Mangok said. "[The Arabs] want our land and the extermination of the Dinka people."

Dinkas are the dominant tribe in Bahr al-Ghazal. They are from the region that has been at war with the Arabs of northern Sudan since 1983. Dinkas are not Arab. They are black African and either Christians or animists.

After Sudan's first 16-year civil war between blacks of the south vs. Arabs of the north ended in 1972, the Dinkas and other black African tribes in the south enjoyed a bit of autonomy. It didn't last, which is one of several reasons the 1983 war broke out.

"The [southern Sudanese] who are now fighting are those who were educated during that period [of autonomy]," Mangok said. "We are enlightened to know the aims of the Arabs for our people."

Mangok had succinctly summed up why education was so important to his people. I don't know what became of him. But I do know where his cousin, former National Basketball Association basketball player Manute Bol, will be 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Bol - more than a foot taller than his cousin - will be speaking in the Baker Memorial Chapel on the campus of the college formerly known as Western Maryland. It's called McDaniel College these days.

"He'll probably talk about his time in the NBA and his transition from the Sudan to the United States," said Zephia Bryant, McDaniel's director of multicultural services. "But I'm sure he's going to talk about his Ring True Foundation."

The Ring True Foundation seeks to help Sudan's "Lost Boys," the lads who roamed East Africa after escaping the civil war and slave raids of the Sudan.

Bol's professional basketball days are long over. Some consider him an athletic also-ran now and emitted hoots of derision when he squared off on Celebrity Boxing against retired National Football League star William "The Refrigerator" Perry.

But listen to Bol's own words about why he appeared on Celebrity Boxing and what the Ring True Foundation is about:

"People have asked me, `Why are you doing this crazy thing?' I guess climbing into the ring with `The Fridge' is pretty crazy. But it's because we live in a crazy world that I am doing this. A crazy world where little boys as young as 6 or 7 spent years walking across the face of Africa looking for safety. Young boys whose families were butchered in a long, hideous civil war. Boys who escaped death in their homes but found it in other places.

"They saw friends killed by lions and crocodiles. But they survived. They encountered bad people who would sell them into slavery. But they survived. Eventually they came to a United Nations refugee camp in Kenya. They were safe at last. But they were not home. Not yet.

"The world has come to call them `the Lost Boys of Sudan.' And it is for them that I do this crazy thing. The money I earn tonight will go to the Ring True Foundation, which is committed to helping provide the Lost Boys with money for college. They are young men now, living in America, eager to learn and to make their way in the world.

"When they were in Africa, they used to say `Education is our mother and father.' These Lost Boys treasure education more than any of us can know. And it is my goal in life to help them get the education they seek. They have no mothers or fathers to help them. We must be their mothers and fathers. I thank the organizers of this event [Celebrity Boxing] for helping me to help them. Even if it is a crazy thing to do."

Let that saying - "Education is our mother and father" - stick in your mind. Bol isn't using hyperbole or making that up. The Dinkas really believe it. When retired Sun reporter Gil Lewthwaite and I were in Bahr al-Ghazal, the Dinkas pleaded with Americans to send them books and magazines.

I remember a 16-year-old boy named Gobir, who wanted only one thing from his distant African-American cousin: a pen. His school had neither pens nor notebooks. Could I help him?

Now, thanks to perhaps the most famous Dinka in the world, maybe we all can.

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