The death of people we consider too young to die is an everyday occurrence in South Sudan. Women die in childbirth. Babies and small children die of malnutrition. Unfriendly tribesmen kill innocent men and boys to steal the cattle they’re grazing. People of all ages succumb to malaria, TB, snakebite, and infection. Most of these causes of death are treatable, but some people are far from medical care or receive treatment too late. And sometimes the cause of death is sudden and unknown.
This is how we lost Jef – John Emerson Foss – his death sudden and unexpected. He was husband to Keiko, father to Rygo and Roshan, a brother to his many siblings, a spiritual leader, a musician, and to me and many others, Jef was a friend and colleague.
To ASAH, he was a board member, the architect who designed the plan for the ASAH school site and the buildings that have been and will soon be built there. Of course he was so much more. Loved by our students and staff in South Sudan, he will be sorely missed.
Growing up I spent my summers on Pelican Lake just down the beach from the Foss family. His sister Janet and I were the same age, and great friends during the summer season. Jef was the cute older brother who played the guitar on summer evenings at the lake, but I didn’t get to know him well until five years ago, when he approached me at a book signing for Joseph Akol Makeer, the Lost Boy who inspired the ASAH School for Orphaned Girls. The book he wrote, From Africa to America: Story of a Lost Boy of Sudan, tells of his harrowing escape from his village as a ten-year-old boy, his life in refugee camps, and his adjustment to Fargo, North Dakota as a young adult.
Jef’s wife, Keiko, had attended our first fundraising event in 2007 when we were raising money to travel to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya and to Duk Payuel, Jonglei State in Southern Sudan, the village Joseph had escaped 20 years earlier. Jef and Keiko had a mutual interest in the plight of South Sudanese refugees in our community and understood their desire to help those trying to rebuild their lives after the long civil war. At the signing, Jef casually mentioned that he was an architect and offered his services. If we needed him.
Did we need him? We dreamed of building a school in a place with roads so rough it takes six hours to travel 45 miles, and none of us were at all clear about how we might accomplish that. Jef joined our board with Keiko at his side as an unofficial member. A team, they were aligned by soul and spirit, their values shared, and they led lives where service to others was a daily practice.
A year later Jef traveled with Joseph and another board member, Ron Saeger, to Uganda to attend a conference about building orphanages and schools in Africa. From there, they traveled to the village, where Jef designed the first school plan for ASAH.
Over the next couple of years as we began to understand the culture and the needs more thoroughly, we redefined our mission to target the most vulnerable of orphans – orphaned girls. We recognized that to help them effectively, we needed a boarding school. Few girls attended school, and orphaned girls were very unlikely to go to school – kept home to fetch water and wood, to take care of smaller children, to cook, to clean. And likely to be married off at puberty for the cattle dowry they would bring the family.
ASAH’s mission is to Protect, Educate, and Empower 50 orphaned girls from all the villages in Duk County, Jonglei State in the world’s newest nation – the Republic of South Sudan. We will educate them all the way through school, so that they will have real skills and knowledge to help their new nation develop. The ASAH girls will change the world they live in.
But how would we begin with the little money we had managed to raise? People were supportive but reluctant to give sufficient funds for this seemingly-impossible project. And Joseph, college-educated at NDSU in Fargo, got a job with the government of South Sudan in 2009, which meant he was unavailable to raise money and to oversee the project in his village.
Unwilling to give up, I returned to the village on my own in 2010, and gained the support of church elders, and community leaders. The Paramount Chief donated land for our project. And with the help of locals interested in their community’s development, I learned we could get started in an affordable manner if we used traditional materials and local labor to build thatched roof adobe huts, called tukuls.
In March of 2011, I convinced Jef to return to survey our new site and design a plan that would allow ASAH to build in stages as we raised the necessary funds. Jef measured the location of each tree and placed them on the site plan with precise instructions that we preserve every possible tree for their environmental importance as shade and to the structure of the earth beneath to keep the swampy land high and secure through the root system. Trees anchor the sandy soil and keep these higher grounds from flooding during the six-month rainy season.
By July we had started an afterschool program, and 11 orphaned girls from the village joined us daily for classes. By March of 2012, we were ready to open, and I asked Jef if he would return with me to ensure our site’s integrity as we prepared for more buildings and students.
He said, “I will come if you need me.”
I said, “I need you.”
Jef suffered physically on those trips. March is the hottest month, and we were often walking through brutal sun between our compound and the local John Dau Foundation Lost Boys Clinic to use Internet and to interact with others. The food we receive there is basic – primarily beans and rice, some local greens, goat meat, powdered milk, occasionally some bread or some tasty local dishes. Some meals, like the mudfish, are particularly unappetizing. Lifting the pot lid releases an odor so noxious you might hold your breath. Jef wasn’t the type of person to complain about the food or the heat, but I could read it on his face, though he managed to smile and reassure those around him that he was fine, or feeling better.
Jef was the most generous, kind, patient and gracious man I have known. He gazed on people with smiling eyes, listened with an open mind and full attention. He was a friend to all. His tremendous love and compassion for people compelled him to use his skills to help, to teach, to comfort, and to love.
On one visit to the village, someone produced an old guitar. No one knew how to play it. Jef was able to make music with this guitar, though the neck was badly warped, and soon a crowd gathered to hear him croon and strum. Music was part of who Jef was, and he shared it singing with our ASAH girls as well.
He had tremendous attention for detail, pointing out details and situations that others might overlook. A stargazer, he taught me (and many others) the names of the constellations in the night sky. In South Sudan with no light to compete, the stars were particularly bright.
Our staff and builders worked closely with Jef. In one of our videos, he spoke with eloquence about the challenges of building in a place where much that he had learned about architecture and building in school and through his long career working in this country on many different types of projects, was useless. The limited materials and tools and low skills of the workers caused him to dig deep into his imagination as he designed for this place and for our students, a site that would be beautiful, functional, and possible, given the constraints.
In March of this year, I purchased tickets for Jef and Keiko to accompany me this coming May. Keiko has dreamed of helping in Africa since she was a girl, but this would be her first visit. The day before Jef died, he met up with me to sign the visa application so that I could send it to the Embassy of South Sudan in Washington.
When Keiko, a pillar of strength and grace, called the following day to tell me that Jef had passed, I asked her to repeat what she had said. She has a strong Japanese accent, but I understood her words the first time. I simply could not accept them. She was traveling when he died and was working on getting back to Fargo the next day. Still, as is her nature, she was worried about ASAH – could we cancel the visa application and the ticket? It took some time for that to sink in, to realize that everything had changed, that he was really gone, and that they would not be traveling with me in May.
A few hours later, Keiko called again from her son Rygo’s apartment in New York. Rygo decided that he would accompany his mother to the village to ensure that his father’s vision in South Sudan would be realized. This May Rygo will see our builders constructing the kitchen and dining complex that Jef designed – a building that will enable our cooks to have running water to prepare food and wash dishes, and where our students and staff can eat indoors at tables and chairs when the winds and rains make it impossible to eat outside.
Much as Jef’s participation in the lives and living and working spaces of so many in this country will be remembered, Jef’s legacy in South Sudan is secure, his footprint there, larger than life.