Trip of a Lifetime

A Trip of a Lifetime Doesn't Need to Come to an End

Essay by Kevin Brooks

When I told friends and family members I was going to southern Sudan as part of a documentary film crew and humanitarian aid project, many asked me in different ways, "Do you think this trip will change your life?" I always answered with confidence, "no." I was just hoping to survive the trip without getting sick, shot at, killed in a plane crash, or stranded in a remote Sudanese village. I was pretty sure the trip would be memorable, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, but not life changing.

Of course I was wrong.

The life changes, however, are not as monumental as that phrase seems to suggest. I am not a religious person, so I think people were subtly asking me if they thought I might find God on the trip. I did not. Nor have I changed my job or political views, left my family, started looking for jobs in Africa, or made any other major life upheavals one might imagine. My life has changed in more subtle ways: I have expanded my circle of friends, new doors are now open to me, and new paths are visible.

I'll come back to those changes, but first, let me tell you my story.

In the summer of 2005, I met Joseph Akol Makeer, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Fargo resident since 2003, and North Dakota State University student since 2004. Joseph had been asked by World Magazine to write an article about John Garang's significance to the Lost Boys of Sudan and the larger Sudanese community in America. Garang was a military and political hero to most of the southern Sudanese, but he was killed in a helicopter accident July 31, 2005. Joseph was contacted to write this piece because he was already working on his memoir, From Africa to America, but his writing coach, NDSU's Center for Writers Director Mary Pull, was not on campus that day. I was, and my chance meeting with Joseph began the life transformation that I resisted for the next two and a half years. Joseph would stop by my office every once in a while for help with things like tying a tie, or to get a little bit of academic advising; I was pretty sure I could do more, but I was nervous about getting overly involved. I didn't know how much help he needed or wanted, so I simply responded, and was not proactive.

Joseph decided to take English 120 from me in the summer of 2006. I feared that might be the end of our friendship. His English is good, but the demands of that class, condensed in a four-week semester, forced me out of the role of friend and into the role of teacher-evaluator. He did get an opportunity to write about contemporary challenges facing the Sudanese, I continued to learn more about him and Sudan, but it took a while for the visits to resume after that class ended.

In the summer of 2007, I noticed that a handful of Lost Boys were working on documentary film projects, and some of them were starting to go back to Sudan, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement having been signed in 2005, shortly before Garang's death. I jokingly said to Joseph, "Now that you have written a book, why don't you make a film?" Later that summer, he invited me to the film crew's first meeting. Joseph has a great sense of humor, but I am learning that I need to be more careful about the jests I make.

By October, our group, now called African Soul, American Heart, had organized a fundraiser and put together travel plans for Joseph and a crew of three. At this point, I was not planning to go (see the list of my fears in paragraph 1), but on November 10, one month before take off, one crew member backed out and I was asked to fill his spot. Somehow I stuffed those fears (and a host of others) down and said "yes." I regretted that decision for the next 30 days, but when the plane left Fargo that cold December morning, my fears melted away. My only lingering concern: I might have a life-changing experience

And of course I did.

Nairobi, where we started and ended the trip, is a bizarre blend of modern post-industrial wealth and extreme poverty. While we shot some footage in Uhuru Park, Nairobi's equivalent of Central Park, a boy of about 12 approached us. He didn't ask for food or change, he asked if we would pay for him to go to school.

You don't forget a panhandling like that easily.

To get to Joseph's remote village in Sudan, we had to charter a plane, and we had to catch that chartered flight in Lokichoggio, Kenya, the United Nation's and World Food Program's base of operations in northwestern Kenya serving Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda. Lokichoggio is a tiny shantytown home to the Turkana tribe and a few companies providing modern accommodations for aid workers and people like our small crew. We stayed in the ridiculously named "Hotel California." Unlike the Eagles' lyrics, we could leave, but leaving meant confronting the poverty and subsistence life of the Turkana walking miles and miles in scorching heat carrying bundles of wood for building or cooking while UN vehicles and planes drive and fly around them. As individuals, we generally feel helpless when confronted with the world's problems; seeing the enormous UN efforts just to keep people alive, even as those around them struggled mightily to make it on their own, amazed and saddened me.

Before heading into Sudan, we spent two days at the Kakuma UN Refugee Camp, home to Sudanese refugees like Joseph since 1992. Kakuma provides an even sharper clash of wealth and poverty than Nairobi, because on the surface we saw only poverty, but inside a dirt-floored restaurant we found a satellite TV broadcasting Premier League Soccer, and among the little shops of Kakuma are solar powered Internet cafés. Africa increasingly has access to cell phones, satellite TVs, and the Internet, but that is because the infrastructure to support this wireless culture has encircled the globe; what's still so sorely lacking in Kakuma and much of eastern Africa is infrastructure on the ground: good roads, clean water, schools and health facilities. Kakuma has roads, but they are not good; the camp has schools, but the students have few options for employment or college once they graduate; the health facilities provide basic care, but function primarily as a stop gap measure to the central problem of malnutrition. Again we witnessed the UN making a Herculean effort to barely meet the basic needs of the 60,000 inhabi-tants. On the surface, Kakuma seems to provide the Sudanese and other refugees with a safe haven and a modicum of services; to live there for 5 years, 10 years, or 17 years would take more stamina and mental stability than most of us could muster.

Duk Payuel, Sudan, Joseph's home village, was very much an African village. A modern clinic (modern meaning cement floor and tin roof) was constructed in May of 2007 thanks to the fundraising efforts of Joseph's cousin, John Dau, and a church in upstate New York. The clinic staff had a satellite phone and a laptop, but the generator ran for only one hour per day. The villagers themselves lived without electricity; there was no Internet café in this one-shop village; young girls and women still pound sorghum (a grain) all day to make the family's single meal. All buildings are mud, grass or tree branches; all roads are dirt. The county's lone vehicle takes one hour to travel a distance that can be walked in two hours. These places were like nothing I had ever seen or experienced, so in that sense my world was significantly expanded, but it is the people I met who have changed my life, and they are the ones who keep this journey in motion for me.

As much as I had done with Joseph leading up to the trip, I always felt as if I was just helping a friend. In Nairobi, we began to meet more cousins and friends, and I began to realize that the project was not about helping Joseph, but about helping a village, and to some extent, a fledgling country. I had a long talk with Philip Leek, a young man about Joseph's age, son of the governor of Jonglei state. I learned that he was frustrated to still be in school at the age of 30, his education having been interrupted so many times by the civil war in Sudan, but he was optimistic about the South's future, if the North would let it separate in 2011. I met Sam Deng in Duk Payuel, Sudan. He was jovial and outgoing, a tall handsome man in his thirties wearing a bright red shirt. By late afternoon on the second day, he was somber and pulled me aside. He asked if I could help him get into an American university. He told me that he had completed high school in Uganda after he left Kakuma; he started teaching there, and could have been a headmaster, but he returned to Sudan after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005 to help with the rebuilding. Like Joseph, he cares for his own family, four orphaned children from his extended family, and he works for the county government, earning about 500 Sudanese Pounds ($250) a month. Deng is doing good, important work in southern Sudan, but he senses that he could do more with an education degree from the United States. The young men and women of southern Sudan desperately want their country and their children to escape the cycle of war, poverty and famine. Too many have died, they say, for them to not get things right this time.

Coming into contact with people like this has not done much to change my day-to-day life, but my problems and challenges have been put in a whole new perspective. My circle of friends is much wider than I ever could have imagined, my connections to the world much more diverse than my upbringing in rural Manitoba prepared me for.

In Kakuma, a new and different door opened. Kakuma was established at first to hold 10,000 Lost Boys, but 17 years later it is a sprawling camp housing at times close to 100,000 refugees from nine different countries. After our crew toured the Kakuma Hospital, a young Congolese refugee jumped in the UN van we were taking back to the UN compound. He had just been getting shots and tests so he could attend the United States International University in Nairobi, starting in January 2008. His family has lived in Kakuma since 1999, unable to work regularly or make much of a living, but they had managed to save enough money to send their oldest son, Martin, to university for a semester. I told him that North Dakota State University had a generous multicultural scholarship that helped Joseph through school, and that if he were interested in applying, I'd be glad to help him out. I didn't know that international students were not eligible; when I returned to NDSU, I learned that there was very little I could do for him, short of paying for his education. Keeping him in school at USIU is cheaper than bringing him to NDSU, so for now, we try to patch together funding semester by semester. We exchange e-mails two or three times a week; he tells me about his classes (very challenging!), we work on scholarship essays and submit them to these slightly strange memorial foundations, I learn about his life, and learn about the plight of the Congolese. The Rwandan genocide of 1994, I have learned, was only the beginning of a multi-country war that spilled over into the Congo, and Africa's second largest country has become the battleground to various national and ethnic clashes. Six million have died since 1999; the Congo vies with Sudan and Somalia for the ignominious title of "greatest humanitarian disaster of the 21st century." I now exchange e-mails with Martin's father, too, who is leading the family through the process of resettlement. As the Sudanese return home from Kakuma, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has given up on peace in the eastern Congo and has turned its efforts to resettling the displaced Congolese. I send e-mails to the UNHCR employees I met in Kakuma lobbying for help; I ask my family in Canada if any of them would be willing to help me sponsor the Buhendwa family, because the Canadian government permits private sponsorship, but the United States government does not. This is the way my life has changed: regular e-mail contact with Africa and the UNHCR, learning about the day-to-day life of refugees, recognizing that with some effort, but surprisingly little effort, I can help one individual, and perhaps one family, move from the purgatory of long-term encampment to a college education and eventual resettlement in the United States, Canada or Australia.

My life also has changed in a host of fairly trivial ways:

All roads, of course, do not lead to Africa. I still like to golf, curl and play Yu-Gi-Oh with my son; our family still takes vacations; we hang out with our friends; I will still be working at NDSU for many, many years. I do need to be careful not to overextend myself on the African Soul, American Heart project, or in my attempts to help the Buhendwas, and yet at the same time, I still hear the words of John Dau, Joseph's cousin, words he spoke when he came to Fargo to help our initial fundraising efforts: "The American people have done much to help the Sudanese, but you can do more." So when I started to look around Fargo this summer, wondering if I could do more, I realized that many faint paths, even in this city, do lead to Africa. Through the volunteer agency Giving + Learning, I met a Somali couple, just a little bit older than me, who resettled to Fargo in April 2007. Their English is very limited; they still seek assistance from others in the Somali community when they shop for groceries or do other basic tasks. The husband is in a wheelchair, partially paralyzed by 15 bullets he took as a child, 10 of them to the head. We made an immediate connection because I took a map and showed them where I had been; they told me their history through the map - forced out of the Ogaden Desert in Ethiopia, into a Red Cross hospital in Mogadishu, then eventually to Da Daab, the refugee camp in eastern Kenya that is twice the size of Kakuma, before arriving in Fargo. Because of this connection, I am beginning to understand the failed state of Somali, its complicated history, and I am hearing the same story I have heard from the Sudanese and the Congolese: the citizens of these countries simply want to live in peace, raise their families, educate themselves and their children, and make the most of their lives.

My life has changed because I can now see these opportunities to give and learn, and because I am not overwhelmed by the helplessness of the geopolitical conflicts. When people say, "It is hard to know where to start helping," I say, "It doesn't matter, just start helping." I have not yet gone to a Save Darfur rally, or been part of any other public demonstration; those are good and necessary acts, and they address systemic problems, but I think it is also important to try and provide small scale, personal support. Few of us are likely to contribute to the political solution of the ongoing crises in the eastern states of the Congo, the western state of Darfur in Sudan, or the failed state of Somali, but we can work with others to build an orphanage or school, help young men and women get an education, or smooth the transitions to North American life for a few families.

Many people in Fargo have done more than me for much longer, without having to take a trip to Africa. Many families welcomed and supported Sudanese refugees, Cardinal Glass has employed them, the public schools have worked with them, social service agencies have looked out for them. But I suspect, whether one starts by helping in Fargo or Africa, once this journey has begun, once this relationship has been established, it will be a journey for a lifetime.