Friday, March 03, 2006

Dreaming the Motherland: A Student in Africa

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The city of Durban on the east coast of South Africa.

Not many people know a lot about the port city of Durban, in South Africa, but then again, South Africa itself is quite confusing and mysterious to people who have never visited there. Talking with Liz Andrews was intruiging because of her intuition and her power of introspection. Liz was able to analyze and process many layers of her impressions and encounters from her study abroad experience in Africa, and it changed her as a person.

Dreaming the Motherland: A Student in Africa

Liz Andrews has discovered Africa. Her journey began in the South African port city of Durban and ended half a year later in Soweto, where she received a grant to study attitudes on HIV/AIDS in the Black township. Experiences – with her host families, her fellow students and people in the various ethnic communities changed her view of herself and awakened a new awareness of her own spirituality.

Andrews, who completed her study abroad experience during her senior year at Wesleyan University, organized her program through the School for International Training (SIT). She earned a full semester’s credit for her field study project from Wesleyan, which also arranged her travel, food, lodging and program expenses. Her academic credits did not apply to her American Studies major, but Andrews said that her experience in South Africa gave her even more insight into the American social justice issues she had been immersed in for years at Wesleyan.

“I was really interested in going to Africa for personal reasons, and also to be a ‘world citizen’,” Andrews said. “I feel obligated to travel and learn as much as I can about the world and share those experiences.”

Years ago, studying abroad meant a semester or summer in France, Spain, Germany, Italy or England for wealthy or upper class students who were fortunate enough to have the resources to indulge their interests. Oddly enough, this typically Euro-centric college tradition never really included an idea that there was a whole world of cultures and philosophies that were profoundly different.

Today, African American students who want to see the world can study in Africa, with all the weighty encounters, subtleties and complexities that could entail. For an African American student in Africa, study abroad inevitably means much more than completing term paper assignments and writing reports. A trip to the “Motherland” is an intense, almost revelatory experience, and is bound to touch on personal questions and emotions that transcend classrooms and ivory towers.

African studies have changed dramatically, along with the development of new educational opportunities. We have gone from pushing universities to create Afro-American studies courses to establishing legitimate departments and re-evaluating what a degree in African American studies might mean in our fast-changing world. Study in Africa has also become more feasible because tuition costs have risen to the point that travel and room and board fees can be accommodated in one semester’s college expenses.

I experienced a sign of these changes when I ran into a White student from Purdue University who was doing an internship at a community computer education center in Dobsonville, Soweto. It was strange enough that I met this White American in Soweto, but I was even more surprised when I learned that this nerdy-looking dude had no real interest in computer science but was majoring in African American studies. I knew from experience that it is not unusual for White Americans to take an academic interest in Africa, but I couldn’t help thinking that this young, easy-going college student and his motivations reflected a deeper generational change among Americans. As rap and hip hop blend into advertising and broader pop culture trends in language, music and fashion, suburban culture is evolving with an influence that Cornel West describes as the “Afro-Americanization of America’s youth.”

African American students are also seeing more opportunities and more ways to experience Africa than their parents could ever have imagined. They see rich possibilities for learning, self-examination and building a sense of identity and connectedness in a world where globalization is inevitably creating new ties between Africa and the Diaspora.

Andrews chose Durban because Johannesburg seemed too overwhelming, “like going to live in New York City, but in country you’ve never been in before.” She was also fascinated with its large Indian community, which was brought to South Africa to labor in the sugarcane fields in much the same way that African slaves were brought to work in the Americas. Moreover, the trip was a roots experience, allowing her to explore her ties to Africa through her father’s African American heritage. Her mother, who is adopted, is of racially mixed but unknown ancestry.

Andrews has a curly, auburn red Afro and reddish-brown complexion, with a kind-hearted smile and compassionate, emotional eyes. Andrews’ voice rose with energy as she described a turning point when she visited Wentworth, a mixed-race “Coloured” township near Durban where she felt an immediate connection. Andrews originally planned to do her research project on water delivery in a rural African village – she suddenly changed her mind and decided it was more important to be in Wentworth.

“We had been in South Africa for two and a half months at that point, but I had never had much interaction with groups of ‘Coloured’ people. When I got there I was blown away,” Andrews explained. “All of these people looked like me, and so many things about them reminded me of Latinos in this country, their position in society, their attitudes and so on.”

Her research project – which she undertook during the last three weeks of her stay – involved developing a needs assessment for Women of Wentworth, an non-governmental organization that empowers women through education, training, counseling and job placement. Throughout the week Andrews left her North Durban beachfront apartment, headed into downtown Durban and caught communal “combis” – rickety old vans that typically stuffed 12- 15 passengers and served as an informal public transport system for Africans and Coloureds since the beginning of the apartheid era.

Women of Wentworth had funding to open a community center, and Andrews’ task was to find out what programs, services and activities the Wentworth community would like to see in the center.

Andrews said Wentworth seemed like a déjà vu of ghettos in America, with similar pathologies and social patterns.

“The one thing people said they wanted the most was a place for their kids to go,” Andrews pointed out, explaining that many people felt their youth needed positive alternatives to dangerous distractions like gang violence and crime. “The Wentworth community is similar to any township ghetto community anywhere in the world, in that there is a lot of prostitution, drugs, alcoholism and violence.”

Andrews said she was amazed at the power of African American images and ideals of beauty in South Africa.

“When you first drive into Soweto you drive around this round-about and there is a three-sided billboard and on all three sides it has Dark ‘N Lovely,” she said. “This is ‘Harlem’ of South Africa and the first thing I see is straighten your hair? It was very interesting. Now that I’ve been there, it makes a lot of sense. But beforehand, there was no one to tell me things like that.”

The issue of African American media images and stereotypes arose again later in conversations she had with her Zulu “home-stay” family in suburban Durban, where she lived for six weeks. The head of the family was the spokesperson for the African National Congress (ANC) in KwaZulu Natal province. They lived in a beautiful house, in an exclusive neighborhood, with a swimming pool and a Mercedes. The 16 year-old son loved rap music, and the lyrics.

“He idolized Black American rappers, which is a pretty common thing, I think,” she explained. “He was always going around saying, ‘Nigga, blah, blah, blah’ and I would tell him ‘that’s not really a cool word to say – I definitely don’t say that.”

Andrews continued, with a hint of exasperation. “He thought that was a really cool thing to do, and that was how you were cool as a Black person. I told him that’s a really horrible word, and he was like, ‘I understand what you’re saying, but I’m still going to us it.’”

Andrews also noticed that a lot of parents and older-generation Africans hated rap and hip-hop, and they had formed negative views of African American culture as a result.

“I didn’t realize how internationally powerful anything that we put out there is. The media is a very tricky thing. It’s an amazing resource as far as progress, and technology goes,” Andrews said. “It’s amazing that we can reach one another in so many ways, so quickly. But it also means that everything and anything that we put out there is going to influence on the world. Not just whoever you want it to influence, or whoever you think it’s going to influence, but it could potentially be seen by millions of people.”

Andrews found grappling with media images, perceptions and identity difficult in more ways than one. The dissonance surrounding her earliest experiences in Soweto motivated her to apply for a research grant and to experience the community in a more intimate, authentic way. The sanitized “half-day” Soweto tour organized by SIT seemed very distant and was decidedly uncomfortable, she said.

“For the most part I felt very disconnected and almost oppressive, because we were there on this air-conditioned tour bus and we were looking at people who live in Soweto, who are not benefiting financially from us having access to their lives and their community.” Andrews explained. “So I really wanted to go to the community in a more responsible way – not that doing research is always or by any means the most responsible thing – but I wanted to be more engaging with people.”

Andrews’ return to Soweto opened her eyes to a new way of thinking. Her research focused on HIV/AIDS education for high school students, evaluating their struggles, feelings, ideas and attitudes towards the spread of the disease. South Africa has one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world, with some estimates indicating that as much 20 percent of the adult population is living with the virus.

Andrews was surprised to find that despite generally successful dissemination of information about AIDS, many were still unwilling to use condoms and practice safe sex.

“The one thing that struck me the most was this idea that they’re going to die anyway, so it doesn’t really matter,” Andrews pointed out. “People will say, ’I might get shot today. I might get hijacked tomorrow. I might get stabbed. I might get robbed. A lot of things can happen to me. You’re telling me I might die 10 or 12 years down the line – who cares?”

Andrews found this attitude was hard to accept, but when she tried to put herself in their shoes, she couldn’t help concluding that there was certain strange logic, and although she didn’t condone it, she felt she understood the young Sowetans. Nonetheless, their attitudes also reflected something of Soweto’s history of deprivation and a subsequent devaluing of life.

Throughout her Africa experience, Andrews moved between different people and communities that were far removed from her own background, yet she found ways to identify with and understand them. In South Africa, people commonly speak about the African ideal of Ubuntu, a feeling of oneness and community that is intrinsic to African culture. Ultimately, study abroad in Africa gave Andrews her own personal experience of Ubuntu that transformed her feelings about herself and her outlook on life.

“Being in Africa helped me realized on a personal and societal level, how much power I have. And just how important it is to make every decision in your life a good one,” Andrews says. “Selling yourself out in any way influences the world. Selling your people out is really detrimental to everyone. It’s like the whole idea of Ubuntu – interconnectedness – everything you do effects everyone else.”

It was a powerful, life changing realization. What more can a college student expect from a study abroad program in this daunting new world of global possibilities?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Lost Boys of Sudan: Searching for Peace

One of the "lost boys" of Sudan carrying supplies at Kakuma Refugee Camp.

The “Lost Boys of Sudan” is truly an incredible story. It’s a story about war, cruelty, suffering, endurance, faith and deliverance. In our global village, somehow, the things that happen to James Manyror and Michael Deng are more and more everyone’s responsibility. Meeting James and Michael was an inspiration - the distance they’ve traveled, physically, mentally and spiritually is unbelievable. The world is changing and evolving at a breakneck pace, and some people, like James and Michael, are caught up in the vortex. They should be a reminder to us that while mass events are often beyond of our control, individual lives do matter, and we should do what we can to make a difference.

"Lost Boys" of Sudan: Searching for Peace

In the Western mind, the name “Sudan” denotes a land and a region, as much as a modern nation-state. Extending below the Sahel grasslands on the southern edge of the Sahara, from the “French Sudan” (Mali) east to the Red Sea, the Sudan is a region rich with connotations and images. It is a land of profound history; a place where the mystery of ancient Egypt and Nubia, the pyramids, the great desert and the rest of the African continent all converge. Sudan is also known for the most beautiful shades and darkest hues of the African race; it is also a land where the racial mystery of what is “black,” and what is “African” and what is “Arab” is so fine as to be indistinguishable, yet full of violence, separation and warfare.

How does a place of such beauty and history become rife with conflict and suffering? Over the last 20 years Africa’s largest geographical nation has also become home to its most protracted and brutal war. More than 2 million people have been killed and another 4 million displaced in a civil war where accusations of genocide, ethnic cleansing, slavery and crude horrors abound--horrors that are nearly impossible to conceive behind Western TVs, computer screens and the conveniences of modern living.

Most recently, Darfur has commanded world attention, as the combined attacks of the Sudanese military and the Janjaweed militia have bombed, killed, raped and pillaged, carrying out a scorched earth policy that has decimated the livelihood of peaceful, agrarian people. As hundreds of thousands have been driven to destitution and starvation, many world leaders, aid organizations and human rights groups have called for international intervention.

It seems that these massive conflicts, tragedies and displacements have their own special names and places in the history of the African continent. There is the Maaf or the great crisis of slavery; the Mfecane or Defacane, the vast destruction and migrations of tribal groups in the wake of Shaka Zulu’s ruthless expansion; and now a new Diaspora of African Sudanese seeking refuge from continent’s latest conquerors.

But even before we began to hear about the problems of Darfur, another extraordinary saga of suffering was emerging from the Sudanese north-south conflict. The desert of Sudan and Egypt has been a land of epic migrations and the scene of biblical exile and deliverance—and it seems that in our modern times we have witnessed a new mythical tale in the sad story of the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”

In 1987, the Sudanese government—in coordination with loosely organized militias—intensified its bombing raids and attack on towns and villages the southern region, killing adults and raping and enslaving women and young girls. Thousands of the male children from these pastoral regions were typically herd boys who tended goats and cattle on the outskirts of their villages and by chance survived the devastation. Suddenly homeless orphans, these boys gradually coalesced into larger and larger groups seeking to escape the violence and possible enslavement or conscription. Ranging from about 5 years old to 13 or 14, the wandering bands of “lost boys” had no idea of the terrifying ordeal that lay ahead of them. Originally some 26,000 (according to UN estimates), less than half would survive the agonizing journey on foot that would eventually cover nearly 1,000 miles of desert and months and years of wandering from one village or temporary refugee camp to another.

Dogged by hunger and thirst, the Lost Boys ate leaves and wild berries and sucked water from mud and desert plants to stay alive. Sometimes the pain was overwhelming and some of the boys just collapsed to the ground from exhaustion, or slowly lagged behind, becoming easy prey for lions. When the smallest boys were in too much pain to walk, some of the older boys would pick them up and carry them on their shoulders. Sometimes the Red Cross helicopters dropped food and supplies to them, but aid organizations were unable to land because of the fierce fighting in the region. For the most part, the Lost Boys were on their own.

The boys walked for several months across southern Sudan and into Ethiopia, where they lived for three years in various refugee camps. But fate was not on their side, as Ethiopian insurgents staged a coup d’etat in 1991 and the rebel military forces chased the boys out. In their desperate attempt to escape Ethiopia, many of the Lost Boys drown in the River Gilo, or were eaten by crocodiles or shot.

For more than a year the boys walked back into Sudan, and then south to Kenya, where they finally found relative stability at Kakuma Refugee camp in 1992. Over the past 10 years Kakuma has grown into one of the world’s largest refugee camps and is now home to more than 80,000 dispossessed people from Somalia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Congo, in addition to the Lost Boys and other Sudanese. While Kakuma provides some security and basic health and educational services for the boys, it is a desolate environment of sweltering 100-degree desert heat, tin-roof mud slab homes and pit toilets. The refugees are unable to cultivate their own crops, and must rely on a low-calorie one meal per day food ration. But the Lost Boys at Kakuma were grateful for their survival, and are eager to take advantage of primary education classes and English lessons in hopes of a better life.

James Manyror knows firsthand about the terrifying experience of the Lost Boys. But sitting in his comfortable Aurora apartment, with his 49ers jersey, baggy jeans and basketball sneakers and the TV blaring ESPN NBA highlights, you would never guess that he was among the thousands who made that harrowing journey through the desert. Manyror looks like an ordinary African American teenager or hip-hop kid. His dimpled smile and easy going laugh show no signs of someone who lost his innocence and childhood in the Lost Boys’ ordeal. If you ask him about the past, he’s eager to tell his story and share his amazement where life has taken him.

“Life was really a struggle. When I think back then, it looks like a nightmare—you can’t figure out where you are. You can’t imagine that year,” Manyror said, as his voice suddenly becomes animated. “I never thought that I could sit here. on a couch like this, in a place like this and go to school. We really struggled and we didn’t know where we would end up.

“Sometimes trying to explain it is really difficult. There was no food some days; there was no water some days; sometimes you are sick and you don’t know if you’re going to stay alive.”

Manyror’s roommate Michael Deng is also a Lost Boy from Paireng, the same village that Manyror was also born in. They come from an isolated rural area with no electricity, no TV or radio, no running water. The two boys made the long journey together in allied groups, and have a very deep bond and friendship; they came to Denver together from Kakuma in 2001. In four years they've gone from learning how to use can openers and telephones to attending college and mastering the look and feel of American youth. Deng is more introspective and reserved, but with his fly shirt. crisp pants, handsome boots and smooth haircut, he looks ready to hit Pierre’s Supper Club or the Casbah on the prowl. But when he speaks, Deng appears serious and thoughtful, carefully considering his words.

“You can’t imagine it,” Deng answers ponderously, replying to my question about his experience during the war years. He speaks slowly and shakes his head in disbelief. “I can’t explain it. It would take an entire year or two years. It was such a large history that you cannot cover it in one day.”

Manyror then proceeds to describe the general events of their great trek. The government attacks in 1987, their escape to Ethiopia, being chased out of Ethiopia back into Sudan, and finally walking all the way across the Kenyan border to Kakuma. He said they had nothing when they left Paireng, but sometimes people would give them supplies along the way. Language was often a barrier and at times they could only communicate with hand gestures; sometimes villagers were openly hostile. One of his worst experiences happened when they were leaving Ethiopia and a local gang opened fire on them.

“After we left Pinchalla, when we were in Kopita, we were attacked by local villagers—it was a very tragic attack. One of my friends was killed that night—oh man, I was so scared,” Manyror said with a tremble in his voice, adding that he had many nightmares long after the event. “They started shooting at night. Nobody saw them come up to us.”

Deng seemed calmer and less traumatized by the attack, and explained that the villagers were “shooting randomly” and those who happened to remain prone, close to the ground, survived; the unfortunate boys who stood up and ran were killed. Manyror was terribly shaken by the loss of his close friend, who they buried later that day.

“I think it was his day to go,” Manyror shrugged.

When I asked both young men about the roots of the conflict and the perceived racial differences between the Sudanese Arabs and Africans, Deng let go a bitter, sarcastic laugh, again shaking his head in disbelief. Manyror however, was more inclined to discuss the political context.

“When you say you don’t see a (racial) difference between (the Sudanese) Arabs and Africans, you are right. But political differences play a role. It comes to religion—the Arabs think that they are Moslem, and the others are infidels,” Manyror pointed out, explaining that the Arab government has imposed Islamic fundamentalist Sharia law and controls job opportunities and economic development. “Some who are a little lighter think they are separate from the south, but it is heritage that is the biggest difference.”

Deng and Manyror are from the Dinka tribe, the largest ethnic group in Sudan, and they both hail from the Ruweng clan of the Dinka. Like many of the Lost Boys, both young men are not quite sure of their ages or birthdays. Manyror says he was born in 1979, and was 12 or 13 by the time they made it to Kakuma in 1992. Deng says he was born in 1980.

True to his solemnity and contemplative character, Deng speaks of becoming a priest or pastor. He works during the day at Safeway and takes theology courses from the Catholic Church at night. Manyror works as a Certified Nursing Assistant—he studied nursing at Aurora Community College—and intends to transfer to a university to earn his Bachelor degree. Both young men say they are so busy with school and work that they have very little time for TV, movies web surfing or other kinds of youth entertainment.

Manyror returned to Kakuma for two months in April and May of 2005, and he has now become consumed with a vision of starting an organization to help other Lost Boys at Kakuma. There is a continuing influx of refugees from Sudan, and after talking with Kakuma officials and local church groups, Manyror would like to assist in a project to construct 10 dormitory buildings and 10 classrooms for some 200 young orphans who are now semi-permanent residents at the camp. Like Manyror and Deng, the orphans will receive some education, and many of them may be resettled in the United States, Great Britain, Australia and other countries. Manyror calls his organizations the Sudanese American Orphaned Rehabilitation Organization (SAORO) and has applied for tax-exempt status as a non-profit. The organization launched its web site—www.saoro.org—in March.

Manyror is very excited about the prospects for SAORO and he believes he is in a position to make a difference for Kakuma, which he describes as a “horrible”—if relatively safe and secure—place. He hopes more Americans will learn about the crisis in Sudan and will help the plight of Sudanese refugees.

“People in the United States hear all kinds of stories in the news—good stories and bad stories. If they don’t hear these stories, they won’t know what is happening.” Manyror explained, saying he believes “people of goodwill” can help the Lost Boys. “I think for me, not to get this story out, is not an option.”