I love to write. For some years I enjoyed a life that enabled the solitude I needed to read, write, and reflect daily. My children were grown but had not yet reproduced, so I didn’t have the lovely distraction of grandchildren. After a business career, I had the good fortune to pursue my creative instincts. I earned an MFA in Creative Writing and wrote two full length books – a novel and a memoir. I did some drawing and quilting in this leisure time, attended writing workshops and traveled. I envisioned publishing one of the two full-length books I had written, but I met a Lost Boy of Sudan who wanted to help orphans in the village he escaped in 1987 when he was ten. My life and priorities began to change, though I didn’t anticipate how dramatic the change would be and the real estate it would claim in my heart and soul.
On my first trip to Uganda, Kenya, and southern Sudan in 2007 with Joseph Akol Makeer, I saw things and heard things and felt things that were completely unfamiliar. Though I knew a lot about orphanages (in Siberia) and orphans (three adopted daughters and a first husband who’d been adopted from Japan – all four of them at age ten and up), I didn’t have first-hand experience with Africa or with countries embroiled in internal conflict, and I had never observed the devastating poverty and suffering that results when there is no infrastructure to provide basic services to people in need.
It wasn’t until Joseph returned to southern Sudan in 2009 to use his NDSU degree in Criminal Justice to help his suffering homeland that I realized he wouldn’t be able to continue speaking and raising funds in the U.S nor manage the program on the ground in southern Sudan. In the fall of 2010, I returned on my own to Duk Payuel in Jonglei State. Joseph and I had made a commitment to his community and to ours in Fargo, and I felt responsible to determine if what we had hoped to do – help orphans get an education – was feasible.
The village welcomed me. I had the good fortune to once again be hosted by the JDF Lost Boys Clinic where I shared a green army tent with Tom Dannon, the first of several former peace corps workers who managed their grant reporting requirements and other things. The clinic staff offered me food, camaraderie, Internet access and an occasional Coca Cola. One nurse, Abraham Ring, and another community leader at the time, Gideon Duot, became my guides in reviewing possible sites for the ASAH School for Orphaned Girls. We discussed fencing the land to claim it and building tukuls as that housing would be affordable – built by local workers with the local mud and thatch and timbers.
In 2007, I had met Ring at JDF and Joseph had interviewed Gideon’s father, also Gideon Duot, for our documentary. Old Gideon was the first teacher in Duk County and, now in his nineties, he has somehow survived all the conflicts that have plagued his country. On every visit I have made since that first one, I have made it a point to go to his house to greet him. On my last visit to Duk Payuel in June of 2013, he beat me to it, walking slowly with his cane through the hot sun from his tukul near the clinic to welcome me. This stroll would have taken him more than 20 minutes. I heard from his son he is now living in Juba. Though last week I passed through Juba on my way to pick up new students in Bor, I did not have time to try and find him for a visit. I hope to have another chance in the future.
The good news is that Joseph has been very successful in South Sudan, from his first job there before independence to his current position as Coordinator for NGOs and the UN working in South Sudan. In this role he helps the NGOs understand where the needs are – food shortages, health risks, nutritional deficiencies, and determine which organizations might be able to provide aid. He is vehemently against corruption, misuse of funds and supplies, and he is working reduce the suffering of his people, no matter their tribe. The better news is that we have him back on our team to provide assistance and local oversight of our program to the ASAH board.
This work has challenged me emotionally, physically, socially, culturally, and financially. It has worried my family. A bacterial infection I caught in Kenya in 2014 landed me in a Nairobi hospital for seven days. I keep doing it because I love the people I have come to know in South Sudan. I keep doing it because I was there when people were first returning to the homes they fled years earlier. I keep doing it because I was there when the people of southern Sudanese voted to secede from Sudan, and I was there on Independence Day, July 9, 2011. I keep doing it because 34 ASAH girls depend on ASAH for their education. I keep doing it in spite of the war that displaced our staff and students and resulted in abandonment of our boarding school in Duk Payuel, Jonglei State., our staff located our students, transported them across the border to Uganda, rented a facility to house them, and enrolled them in local schools. Without ASAH, these girls would be living marginal lives in refugee camps. And I keep doing it because I said I would.
The leisure time I once had is harder to come by. There are many tasks related to running a nonprofit. I’m the first to admit that some of them would be better performed by a more organized and detail-minded person than myself. I’m more random and creative, and I sometimes grit my teeth when I see the tasks before me and recognize how much time they will take. What suffers is the writing which is the way I communicate to those who follow our progress. I’ve hardly blogged this year, though at the end of 2013 I happily posted one titled “Writing Again” and believed it to be true. I am amiss in reviewing the thousands of photos I have taken of our students to send pictures to their sponsors. and to post on Facebook. If you are reading this and you didn’t get one last year – now you know why. I vow to do better in the future.
P.S. Here in Uganda, I have intermittent access to slow Internet. I was unable to load a photo to this blog. We are also so busy there has been little time to manage these communications. I will try to catch up over the next days and weeks.