A Lost Boy of Sudan, Joseph Akol Makeer, arrived in my home town of Fargo, North Dakota in 2003. Orphaned by the war in southern Sudan, Joseph took over the task of raising his younger sisters and a nephew when they arrived at Kakuma Refugee camp in northern Kenya. He brought them to Fargo, enrolled them in school and attended NDSU where he earned a degree in criminal justice. While there, he began to write about his experiences. Professor of English Mary Pull encouraged him to expand it and, his memoir, “From Africa to America, The Journey of a Lost Boy of Sudan,” was published in 2008.
When I met Joseph in 2007, he told me he wanted to help orphans in Duk Payuel, the village he had escaped in 1987 as a 10-year-old. This was the trek that began his life as a Lost Boy. Now peace had returned to the country. He knew that American people liked movies, and he believed that if he made a movie where Americans could see and learn about his people, their suffering, and their hope for a better future with education for their children, that people seeing this would want to help. Joseph’s story moved me, and I wanted to help make this film. A few years earlier, I had left a successful business career to pursue creative interests. While earning an MFA in Creative Writing, I made a few short films, and I worked with people experienced in filmmaking. I asked Greg Carlson, now Professor of Film Studies at Concordia College, to help produce. He brought in Matt McGregor to do our videography and editing. Joseph asked Kevin Brooks, an English Professor at NDSU who had mentored and helped him, to join us. Also joining the team – Dayna DelVal, now head of the Arts Partnership in Fargo, who had worked with Joseph as a college professor and with me on a pageant for a nearby community.
We began filming Joseph’s life in Fargo, but we dreamed of traveling to Africa to film these displaced people who had returned to their villages when peace returned. Dr. James Carlson helped with early funding of film and editing equipment. Margie Bailly enabled us to bring the movie, “God Grew Tired of Us,” to the Fargo Theatre to raise money to fund the travel. A featured Lost Boy in this award-winning documentary and the author of a memoir by the same name is John Dau, a childhood friend of Joseph’s. John and Joseph grew up together in the village of Duk Payuel. They fled separately but reunited with thousands of young boys in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. This was where an aid worker dubbed these unaccompanied boys, The Lost Boys, after Peter Pan’s boy followers. When war hit Ethiopia, The Lost Boys were on the run again, ending up eventually at the Kenyan border. The international community, including the US, prevailed upon Kenya to allow them to cross into Kenya, and Kakuma Refugee camp was born. More than 180,000 refugees from various countries still live there.
Kevin Brooks, Matt McGregor, and I made the trip with John Dau and Joseph from Nairobi, Kenya on AIM Air (Africa Inland Missions) traveling in a small Cessna Caravan to Kakuma to meet friends, family, and the refugee community from Duk. John Dau’s humanitarian efforts to build a clinic in Duk enabled our hosting in UNHCR housing.
From the Lokichoggio airport near Kakuma we flew to Duk Payuel, landing on a small airstrip outside the village – an oasis of lush trees and tukuls (adobe thatched huts) surrounded by dry sandy land. Had we traveled a few months earlier, that sandy land would have been flooded during the heavy rainy season from May to November.
The community had gathered at the airstrip to welcome us, and we were greeted with cheers and songs and hugs and handshakes. Women carried our suitcases and supplies on their heads, and we walked through the community, greeting people along the way. One little boy touched my arm. Joseph overheard him telling his friends, in Dinka, “If you touch them, a little of the white wipes off.”
We pitched our tents between the containers that had carried materials to build the clinic from the US. Each evening the clinic staff shared food and conversation with us under the star-filled sky. More stars than I had ever seen before.