Manute Bol and Bishop Taban

As South Sudan heads toward becoming an independent state, let us not forget those who suffered only a few years ago and others like Manute Bol and Bishop Taban who tried to relieve that suffering. Below is an incident that took place in 1991, described in Courageous Journey, Walking the Lost Boys Path from the Sudan to America. The orphaned children have been chased from their refugee camp in Ethiopia at gunpoint when a new regime came to that country. They are now stuck in Sudan for nearly a year, awaiting a new camp in Kakuma, Kenya.


Manute Bol (center), Ayuel (left), Beny (right)

[Building an airstrip] was a massive undertaking. More than 10,000 had settled in the camp, some had built tukuls, but all were slowly starving to death on a diet of boiled grass and leaves. Each group was assigned a stretch of the airstrip to build. As the teachers directed, the able-bodied cleared away the brush and small trees, brought sand from the riverbank, mixed it with mud and spread it over the surface. Weak as they were, Ayuel, Beny and their friends labored with enthusiasm . . . .
Miraculously, the airstrip lay finished and ready in only two days!
Every day, the thousands of refugees sat by their tukuls and scanned the skies. They had worked hard to make a food delivery possible, but, after a few days, disappointment and hopelessness set in. At the end of a week of waiting, the voice of Mr. Pieng, the beloved Director of their old camp in Panyido, came over a microphone. “We’ve spotted a small plane approaching from the east. We believe it contains supplies . . . .”
Mr. Pieng’s amplified voice came louder and clearer this time: “We have just received word by radio that two very important people are on board this plane: the famous Sudanese Catholic Bishop Paride Taban. . . .” Applause rose from the crowd.
. . . . “And all of you have heard about the tallest Dinka ever, Manute Bol, who now lives in the United States of America and plays NBA basketball for the Washington Bullets.”
If they didn’t know much about Manute Bol, everyone at least knew the song about the tallest man in the world and the shortest man. The boys shouted his name and began singing “Manute, not Majok, stayed in Wau. . . .”
The white plane, with a huge red cross painted on the side, touched down and smoothly glided across the new runway, its roar drowning out the song. When it finally came to a stop and the motor cut off, everyone stood in hushed silence, waiting for the door to open. Though weak from hunger like everyone else, Ayuel felt a ripple of excitement. They were worth important people coming to see them. And bringing food . . . .
The workers began unloading the cargo while khawaja, two white men and one woman, stepped out carrying huge cameras over their shoulders. The boys stared in wonder. After a few minutes the revered Bishop Taban appeared . . . . Behind the bishop a very, very tall man, wearing a Washington Bullets jersey, emerged, bending down his seven-foot, seven-inch frame and waving, as he followed the Bishop down the steps.

Bishop Taban

Bishop Taban took the microphone and said, “Good afternoon. I am. . . .” His voice choked and he broke down in sobs. Finally, gaining his composure, he said softly, “You poor children. May God have mercy on us all.” . . . . The Bishop continued, crying and praying for several minutes, then talked directly to the crowd. “I did not know the horrible conditions you were in. I didn’t know there were so many of you. We have brought enough for each of you to have a small amount. Your teachers will see to that. But I will arrange for you to receive more. Peace and God’s blessings upon you.” He stretched out his hands over the crowd and handed the microphone to the basketball star.
“Hello. My name is Manute Bol. I play basketball on a team in the United States of America.” The boys clapped and cheered. “But I grew up just like you in a small town in Sudan, herding goats. I never had a chance to go to school, and like many of you, my future did not look so good. I started playing basketball and a coach seemed to think I was good at it. Basketball opened a door for me. But I have never forgotten my country, its people, and its problems.
“I support the cause of the rebels. Many of my relatives are leaders in the SPLA. They are fighting for you so that someday you will have schools, safe churches, homes free from violence, lots of cattle and a place where you will never again go hungry.”
The boys quietly applauded as they eyed the bags and boxes being stacked at different locations.
“I am working for you, to convince the United States that they need to do more to help, to intervene in this genocide where nearly two million southern Sudanese have already perished. Many more, like you, are displaced. Such things should not be. I have talked to dozens of American congressmen, warning them of Muslim extremists who may some day come to their own doorstep. I beg them to intervene. But right now they are busy with their own war in the Gulf, against Iraq.”
“The Americans are in a war?” Ayuel said, amazed that rich and educated people would have to fight wars.
“I guess they are,” said Madau. “I’m so hungry.”
Manute glanced toward the unloading of the cargo, and quickly finished his remarks. The crowd cheered and applauded him loudly. The Bishop ended with a short prayer. Respectful applause followed. All who had come climbed back into the plane, last of all the photojournalists who took one more camera sweep around the crowd and caught the two celebrities waving goodbye.
“Hope they show the pictures to the American congressmen,” [Beny] said as they queued up for their food allotment.

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