By Ted Avgerinos, Board Member BMIS
Little did I know when I told Sebastian and Mathon that I would like to join them in their next trip to South Sudan that it would become the experience of a life time. Sebastian, Mathon and I left Rochester on Friday, January 6th to a very warm send-off from BMIS board members. That same day we departed from Dulles International Airport for a 13 hour flight to Addis Ababba, Ethiopia and my first steps in Africa. Two hours after we arrived we were on our way to Juba, South Sudan. My African adventure started two minutes off the ramp in Juba when I started taking my first pictures at the airport. I was quickly approached my two security guards who demanded my camera for shooting pictures in a security area. Of course Sebastian and Mathon came to my rescue and explained who we were and why we were in South Sudan. Fortunately they believed us and we were allowed to go on our way.
As if we were not tired enough when we arrived, Sebastian had promised his friend that we would attend their wedding on the day of our arrival. After 48 hours of little sleep we went to the wedding reception only to discover that it became two hours of toasting the bride and groom by local politicians. I learned that when a South Sudanese politician has a microphone in his hand, you had better be prepared for a long speech.
Our journey continued with a flight to Wau and a difficult ride to the city of Kuajok. Along the way I began to get a real feel for living in the bush. People walked for miles everywhere, while cows and goats walked wherever they wanted. I also could not help but notice the ravages of war, from destroyed buildings to ground craters. In Kuajok we met Sebastian’s uncle Majok, Minister of Finance for Warrap State. He and his wife provided us with warm hospitality. In Kuajok we had our first meeting with our contractor, Atem Ring. It turned out that Ring was not quite ready for us and promised us that he would have all the documentation we needed upon our return to Kuajok.
The next day we left for the village of Wunrock, another three hour ride over some quite bumpy dirt roads. Again the sights were the same, people walking for miles, cattle and goats grazing and walking everywhere, bombed out buildings and ground craters. Along the way we were fortunate to come upon a school that was in session. We stopped to say hello to the staff and take pictures. By the time we arrived in Wunrock, nighttime was falling and how we negotiated the pot holes is still a mystery to me.
We stayed at the ACF Compound (a French NGO dedicated to relieving world hunger). Our home for the next two weeks was a large tent, an outdoor kitchen, outdoor shower, and outhouse-all the basics. Fortunately the compound was also equipped with a generator so we had electricity three times per day and internet capability when the electricity was operating. It was via the internet that I communicated with the rest of the world. We also had the ability to use cell phones in Wunrock and stay in touch with folks back home.
On our first day we spent the morning talking to the school and regional administrators. They were all very excited that we had come from America to help them re-build their first school. We also let them know that there was an entire team back in Rochester that was supporting this mission. Two days later we arrived at the Ajoung School site to distribute books, pencils, pens and playground balls to the children. When we arrived the school children had obviously rehearsed a welcoming song for us. To see them all in their uniforms singing to us was touching. Sebastian, Mathon and I all had an opportunity to teach mini-lessons intermixed with a volleyball game. We also brought along our cameras and tripods and took individual pictures of all the students. We were treated to lunch and a few rounds of welcoming speeches. At the end of the afternoon we were exhausted but knew that we had touched many lives that day.
Three days later we returned to the Ajoung School site for our groundbreaking ceremony. It turned out to be an incredibly emotional day for everyone. After about two hours waiting for our ride in a pick-up truck, we finally arrived. There were about 250 people waiting for us including local politicians, school administrators, teachers, parents and students. We even had the local police present to provide security. After Sebastian, Mathon and I gave our speeches we sat and listened to two hours of additional speeches from all the local dignitaries. With the formalities completed, a ceremonial groundbreaking took place. We only had four shovels and umpteen dignitaries who wanted to be in the picture. In the end it all worked out- we had our picture. Local women in ceremonial dress then danced for about 45 minutes in the hot sun to express their pride and appreciation.
We spent one more day with the Ajoung students where we presented them with their own photographs. (I had brought a mini printer with me). We then took pictures of children receiving their first photos.
Some of our time in Mayen-Abun was family time. We spent two of our days visiting both Sebastian’s and Mathon’s families. Both families were very honored that we came to spend time with them. I also observed the burial sites of Sebastian’s younger sister and father, both killed by the northern militias during the civil war. In addition, I also saw where Mathon’s mother was buried as the result of the war. These days were very emotional for all.
On our way back to Kuajok we again met with our contractor and finalized our negotiations for a new school. We celebrated with a luncheon. Mathon and I then headed back to Juba and then home to the U.S. on January 29th where we were warmly greeted by our BMIS colleagues and my very patient and supportive wife, Debbie.
My impressions: I couldn’t help but notice all the children no matter where I was in South Sudan who referred to me as the “Kuwaja” or the white guy in Arabic. The simple truth is that there is no tourism in South Sudan. Only people with visas are allowed in the country. So to see anyone with white skin is a rarity. It only speaks to the need to be sure that those of us who were fortunate to be in country need to tell the story. The Dinka are especially thankful for any and all help. The poverty I witnessed was at times overwhelming, but these are a very proud and resourceful people. While I was there, I probably took over 600 pictures and that was still not enough to document my experience. I told as many people as possible that the reason I was taking all the pictures was to let as many people outside South Sudan know what they were enduring. Yes, it was the experience of a lifetime!
By Sebastian Maroundit, Co-founder of Building Minds In Sudan
On December 16, 2010 I boarded a United States Airline to East Africa, via Nairobi, Kenya to join my mother during Southern Sudan’s Referendum vote. The plane arrived at Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta airport on December 17 at 11:30 pm East African time. At the airport, there were three boys, including my younger brother whom I had never met before in my life, and two cousins. Cyer Maroundit, my brother, who was born after I was separated from my family, cried emotionally as did I. He said that he couldn’t believe his eyes to finally see his brother who helps him get an education in Kenya. I spent three days with him and then I boarded another plane to Juba, the Capital of Southern Sudan. I arrived at Juba airport, which was one of the busy airports by then due to many Referendum witnesses flying in from Western countries and other parts of the world. I waited in Juba for four days because the planes to Wau were all booked before my arrival.
On December 24th, I boarded a plane to Wau, the regional capital of Bhar El Ghazal. I was then given a car by the State Government to go to the village to join my mother, Aluel Mayom. There were many celebrations, prayers and rallies for a peaceful Referendum.
On January 2nd, I was able to hold a meeting with the community discussing the progress made by Building Minds In Sudan, Inc. as well as announcing the BMIS Representatives that I appointed on the ground. They include James Bol Adiang, former deputy governor, as BMIS Representative to Warrap State located in Kuajok, Chan Mator Chan, currently employed by Southern Sudan’s ruling party SPLM, as our Rep in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan, and Makuach Agoth as our brick project manager.
Five days after meeting the community, I left for the State capital to attend the rallies made by the State leadership to prepare for voting and then on January 8th I came back to my mother so I could witness her voting. My mother was so happy, and indeed very emotional, she said, “I cannot believe that I am voting to end slavery, end war and be free.” At 2:00 am, six hours before the polling station could open, my mother arrived at the polling areas hoping to be the first to vote. Instead, she ended up number 51 in line because others were already there before midnight with the same hope to vote first.
After meeting with the interest group, which included members of the community, the Village Chief, and the State leadership, and then witnessing the outcome of Southern Sudan's referendum, I acknowledge that Building Minds in Sudan's plan to build a school in Mayen Abun will now go smoothly without fear of war in that region. Thanks to the United States and the world community for encouraging Sudan's parties to accept the people of Southern Sudan Sudan’s choice to be an independent nation.