Rebecca McKinsey | Staff Writer
Bol Malual remembers dodging crocodiles when he was a child.
The water-dwelling predators were just one of the threats he faced on his journey as one of the thousands of Lost Boys of Sudan.
“The river was really deep and full of crocodiles, but when you heard the machine guns, you jumped in the river,” Malual said as he recalled the journey that took him and many others from Sudan to Ethiopia to Kenya. He spoke about his journey in a Special Studies presentation Saturday afternoon at Hultquist Center. “You just jumped in and swam very fast. You just did it.”
Malual was born in the Sudanese village of Aweng; although he does not know his exact age, he estimated he is about 25 or 26 years old.
“All I could hope for when I was with my family was to grow up taking care of the cattle,” Malual said. “That was the job for the boys. You never dreamed of anything else.”
However, when civil war broke and troops began attacking villages in Southern Sudan, more than 20,000 young boys left Sudan and walked more than 1,000 miles. Malual said his older brother shook him awake one day and told him to run.
Although many boys died along the way, Malual said, the journey that took the group out of Sudan and through Ethiopia eventually landed them in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.
Malual’s group was the first to settle in that area, and for several months, the boys lived outside with no shelter other than what little clothing they had and blankets to cover themselves.
Once the United Nations provided huts for the Lost Boys living at the refugee camp and began to bring food and water, the boys had to carefully ration their meals. Every 14 days, each boy received 15 kilograms of maize flour, some cooking oil and one cup of beans, Malual said. If one person didn’t get to the food on time, he had to depend on the those around him to share food for the next two weeks.
“Sharing was what kept us together, pushed us together,” Malual said. “We didn’t have enough, but we shared everything. If I didn’t receive my ration one day, my friend would call me when it was time to eat.”
After about 10 years in the refugee camp, during which Malual studied and was dubbed “The Memorizer,” he and thousands of others were brought to the U.S. by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Malual, then a teenager, found a job. Although the large bulk of his salary went toward rent for an apartment he almost never saw, Malual took on extra hours and began to save money. One of his first goals, once he received his high school diploma — his Kenyan refugee camp education wasn’t recognized in the U.S. — was to buy a car so he could drive to college.
After almost five years of saving, he was able to pay in cash for a car that cost him $8,500 and left him with $96 to spare. He chose to spend the money on the car from the onset so that he didn’t have to worry about making car payments if he ever lost his job.
Although Malual had learned his family in Sudan was still alive, he had no way of going home to see them until a chance meeting with Deanna Charles, one of the founders of an organization called Friends of the Lost Boys. After Charles got to know Malual, she coordinated with church groups to do what Malual said would have been impossible otherwise — send him on a visit to his village in Sudan.
“After I met (Charles) and told her my story, what she told me was, ‘You’re going to go home,’” Malual said. “And they gave me a ticket. I was so happy; I couldn’t believe it.”
Malual’s visit home wasn’t easy. He had been gone for almost 20 years, and his family didn’t know what to expect — and he saw changes in them as well.
“When they looked at me, they said, ‘This can’t be.’ I’d changed a lot,” Malual said. “And when I went to bed, I would think, ‘Is this the wrong family?’”
Malual, whose father is the village leader of Aweng, said he recalled that everyone in the village seemed to know his name and want to speak with him during his visit.
“People would come and want to greet me while I was brushing my teeth,” he said.
Although he said there were many changes, some of the village’s characteristics had remained the same, and returning to his childhood home brought back fond memories.
One of his favorite memories, Malual said, was getting up early each day with his siblings to collect coconuts. They had to stick to a tight schedule — if they were ever late, the monkeys that ran free around the village would take the fruits for themselves.
“They would run around, holding the coconuts and teasing and laughing at us,” Malual said.
His brother, who had been the one to tell Malual to run as a child, had remained in the village.
“My brother told me, ‘When I told you to run, I didn’t mean to run forever,’” Malual said.
Malual said it was difficult for him to leave Aweng after his visit, and it was difficult for his family to let him go. However, he described America as his second home and said he couldn’t imagine leaving it.
His visit to Sudan, though, inspired a new goal — one day, he hopes to return to his village with medical and teaching supplies.
“It is good when you grow up around your family; you feel happy and you feel like you have a life,” Malual said. “When they’re not there, no matter how happy you are in a single moment, you’re still thinking about them. It was really special to go back and reunite with my family. It gave me a good feeling and a good hope.”
Malual recently received an associate’s degree from Richland College in Dallas and hopes to eventually receive an R.N. degree and a pharmacy technician license. He will take the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board this summer and has already applied to two nursing schools.
“I like to learn. It is personal for me,” Malual said. “I’ve been given the chance to come to America, and I have to use it wisely. Education is something I take seriously.”
Despite the work he is doing and the roots he is placing in the U.S., Malual said he still strongly identifies with Sudan.
After years of fighting, Southern Sudan will secede July 9.
“Right now, we have a hope for our country because next week, we’re going to mark our independence,” Malual said.
Friends of the Lost Boys
Soon after she met Malual, Charles helped start Friends of the Lost Boys, an organization that provides support for the Lost Boys who live in the Dallas area.
She recalled one Lost Boy who was located in the Fort Worth, Texas, area and went to the police asking to be put in jail since he had not eaten in two weeks. The police contacted Friends of the Lost Boys, and the organization found the man a place to stay.
In addition to providing financial support for the Dallas-area Lost Boys as needed, the organization also provides them with what many of them have been missing for years, Charles said — a family.
Although the organization’s official term for people like Charles is a “mentor,” she said she considers herself Malual’s adoptive mother.
“He calls me his American mother,” Charles said. “He gives me Mother’s Day presents. They’re part of the family. We help them when they need help.”
When she met Malual, Charles said it was difficult to believe some of the things he had never experienced — having an umbrella or swimsuit, going to a movie, eating in a restaurant or receiving a birthday present.
His lifestyle has lent itself to selflessness, Charles said. She sent Malual back to Sudan for his visit with a duffel bag full of clothes, and he returned with nothing; he had given everything away.
“Of all the Lost Boys, Bol’s story is so incredible to me because he’s had no help along the way,” Charles said.
One Lost Boy
Malual’s story inspired one Chautauquan to share the tale in a different way.
Nancy Hahn, who has written children’s books through the Ethiopian Embassy, heard about Malual’s life and decided to turn it into a book — the first children’s book to be written about the history of the Lost Boys.
One Lost Boy, which will be published by the Africa World Press and should be released this summer, will tell the story of Malual’s life for an audience of children ages 2 to 8.
The book’s illustrations are oil paintings created by Hamid Ayoub, a well-known Sudanese artist.
“The illustrations are otherworldly,” said Hahn, who has been visiting Chautauqua since she was a child.
Hanh hopes to have Malual return to Chautauqua later this summer for a signing once the book is released.
“Learning Bol’s story was an inspiration,” she said. “He is an inspiration.”