Mayom’s Long Walk
From the horrors of war to the struggle for an education, ‘Lost Boy’ Mayom Bol Achuk continues his journey at Calvin
By Myrna DeVries Anderson '00

Mayom Bol Ackuk

The Dinkas invest great significance in a name.

A child born into one of the Dinka tribal communities of southern Sudan might bear the name of a parent or grandfather or of a famous person. The child may be named for a special event in the family or even for a significant cow, a cow that was part of a family dowry. Mayom Bol Achuk, the 13th of 19 children in his family, got his first name, which means “red,” after a bull that was paid as a dowry for his aunt. “At the time I was born,” he said, “that bull was sacrificed to the family god.”

When Mayom was just a boy of 4, his family embraced Christianity and abandoned the family god, Banydeng. “I have two siblings after me,” he went on. “These two children die. My parents said, ‘We don’t see any reason to keep this god, and we sacrifice our cows to him, and the children keep dying.’ So they got rid of him.”

Mayom, raised, as were the boys of his age, to follow his family’s cattle, grew attached to one particular song that celebrated his family’s newfound faith:

Days has come, days has arrive to judge the believers!

How will it be for nonbeliever?

Shadrach, Abednego and Meshach have overcome the fire of temptation. …

He sang it in Dinka as he followed the cattle. “Even my parents,” he said, “when I’m not there, they would hear me singing this song.” His signature song is why when Mayom was baptized he was given the Christian name “Meshach.” His father raised him to care for the family, and his mother, the first of four wives, destined him for the church, but in 1987, when 6-year-old Mayom (Meshach) Bol Achuk heard the gunfire, he ran away with other boys his age. “We just followed the path of footprints,” he said.

Sudan Destabilization
Several factors lent themselves to the destabilization of southern Sudan over the last 20 years. One was the commencement of construction in 1980 of the Jonglei Canal, which would divert the Nile River to bypass the Sudd — the largest swamp in the world, located in southern Sudan — to deliver water to Egypt. Another was the discovery of oil in that region in 1981. These events, involving both the natural resources and ecology of the Sudan, aggravated tensions between the predominately Arab north of the country and the Christian and animist south.

Islamization was a third flashpoint for north-south tensions, explained Johnathan Bascom, a Calvin professor of geology, geography and environmental studies: “In 1983, then-President Nimeiri announced sharia law for Sudan. In the late 1980s, Sudan formally became a theocratic Muslim state. The significance of this,” said Bascom, who has used three Fulbright grants to live and work in Sudan and neighboring Eritrea, “was that the new government intensified commitment to impose sharia law in the south.”

Sharia, or Islamic law, dissolves any line between religion and the state: The tenets of Islam govern all. To newly Christian Mayom and his family, sharia law meant something sinister: “For the laws to be Islamic, everyone in this country should be Muslim,” he said. Civil war broke out in Sudan in 1983, and soon escalated. Northern soldiers attacked southern villages and cattle camps, killing the inhabitants. When he left home in 1987, Mayom joined more than 200,000 natives of southern Sudan who fled their country. Caught between the Islamic government soldiers of the north and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), in which their parents, brothers and neighbors fought, the young cattle herders escaped together across southern Sudan. They became the Lost Boys.

On the Run
Mayom said that as he ran, he sang: “Days has come, days has arrive to judge the believers! / How will it be for nonbeliever? …”

There is a shared trajectory in many of the stories told by the now famous Lost Boys of the Sudan. They first ran east to Ethiopia, directed by members of the SPLA they met en route. When war broke out in Ethiopia, they ran back to Sudan and then to Kenya, to Kakuma refugee camp.

There is also a shared quality to the stories: nightmarish. “You would run only at night,” Mayom said of his journey. “Night is safe for you.” They walked on burnt and scarred feet for hours at a time. Starving, they resorted to eating wild food and sucking the water out of mud puddles. When they crossed rivers, many drowned or were eaten by crocodiles. The boys were in constant danger from lions and hyenas.

“If you sit under the tree by yourself, you would be eaten by wild animals. If you’re walking as a group and a lion attacked, people would run away, crying, and knock you down, and that was the end of your life,” Mayom said. “It happened a lot.” The boys were also hunted by cannibals. “When you are attacked by a lion, you will hear crying coming back to you,” he explained, “but if there are cannibals, you will hear this kind of crying.” He produced a high-pitched whine of a person whose face and throat have been injured.

“If you sit under the tree by yourself, you would be eaten by wild animals. If you’re walking as a group and a lion attacked, people would run away, crying, and knock you down, and that was the end of your life.” — Mayom Bol Achuk

Northern troops were also on the lookout for the boys. “If the soldiers had one bullet, they were instructed to kill the boy instead of old men or women,” Mayom said. “They said Dinka boy’s life is like a poisonous snake.” The boy, went the reasoning, could grow up to strike back.

Even sleep was not safe. More than once, Mayom lay down next to a friend and woke up to find him dead. “We would never see that person anymore,” he said. “That was the end of his life. We would be told to go. No time to bury. We just left them like that.”

Faced with so many ways to die, Mayom prayed that his death, should he die on the journey, would come from a bullet: “I don’t need my friend to remember me crying. … I wanted something to take my life in seconds and not even realize what happened.”

Some of the Lost Boys took months to reach the refugee camps in Ethiopia, but because Mayom was from a village in southeastern Sudan, he arrived in the Fugnido camp a month after he set out. It was while living in Ethiopia that Mayom encountered John Garang, a founder of the SPLA and leader in the fight for a unified Sudan. Garang, a Dinka and a Christian, had left his country during the earlier Sudanese civil war of the 1960s to pursue an education in America.

A trained soldier with a Ph.D. in economics, Garang warned the Lost Boys against joining the Sudanese conflict. “Whenever he came out of Sudan to Ethiopia, he never left without seeing us,” Mayom remembered. “Also he would tell us, ‘I don’t want you to fight. I don’t want you to fight for now. But your war is education … .’ He told us, ‘You are the future of this country.’”

After four years in Fugnido, war broke out in Ethiopia, and the Lost Boys ran again, Mayom among them. By then, the conflict in Sudan had prompted the largest forced displacement of people in African history — more than one-half million refugees in adjacent countries and 4.5 million more southerners, who had been forced to leave home in search of safety elsewhere within Sudan. After three months of another horrible journey, Mayom reached Kakuma camp, home to thousands of refugees from several African countries. There he lingered for a decade, enduring the dangers and privations of the camp, until the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees decided to recommend 4,000 of the Lost Boys (who gained the moniker from refugee workers) for resettlement in various U.S. cities. Mayom learned he would be living in a place called Grand Rapids, Michigan.

A New Life
He arrived in December of 2000. “We didn’t know we were going into very cold weather,” he said, “and we went outside.” It was not the Grand Rapids of his imagination.

“We were shown pictures of very green environments,” he said. “When I asked if there was crocodiles and hippopotamus in Lake Michigan, and they said, ‘No,’ I said, ‘I will be swimming forever in Lake Michigan!’ Then I went there in winter, and people were walking on the ice.” For the next three months, Mayom rarely ventured out of the Wyoming apartment he shared with several other Lost Boys.

Mayom Achuk with his roommates Jeremy Hodges (l.) and Ben VeltmanThe educational landscape also looked bleak at first to the transplanted Sudanese. Told they were too old for high school and would have to study for four years before going to college, they went on an educational strike. The “boys” walked out of the learning center (“We left pencils and everything”) and negotiated through caseworkers to take pre-General Educational Development (GED) exams. Half passed, Mayom among them. He passed the GED a few months later and on May 7, 2001, a scant five months after his arrival in the United States, he enrolled at Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC).

Laurie Tibble, supervisor of the Refugee Unaccompanied Minors Foster Care Program at Bethany Christian Services, recognizes a rare passion for education in the Sudanese she has resettled here. “They always said, ‘I lost my mother and father, but education is now my mother and my father,’” Tibble said. “Of those who have gone through our program, 90 percent of them have gone to college. They’ll study day and night.”

Mayom said he and the other former Lost Boys owe it to their family and friends, especially those who lost their lives in the war, not to settle for a minimum-wage job or a high school diploma. “The people back home say they are expecting that we are like long-distance hunters,” he said. “When you go hunting in the back yard, you will only kill deer. But if you go in the middle of the forest, a very long distance, hunting a long distance, they will kill elephants, giraffe, buffalo, lions. Those are the long-distance hunters. That’s what John Garang was telling us. He said, ‘You are the future of this country. … You will defend the country and you will tend the other generations. You keep going to school.’”

“When I get accepted some of my friends said, ‘Mayom, you cannot make it at Calvin,’ and I thought it was good to try and challenge myself. Because never try, never know.” — Mayom Bol Achuk

Mayom had heard of Calvin College from the Calvin students who had visited that first winter, teaching the new arrivals to cook pizza and, despite their misgivings, hot dogs. (“Sudanese don’t eat the meat of dogs,” Mayom explained.) Armed with an associate’s degree from GRCC, he applied. “When I get accepted some of my friends said, ‘Mayom, you cannot make it at Calvin,’” he said, “and I thought it was good to try and challenge myself. Because never try, never know.”

He began Calvin on Feb. 29, 2004, majoring in economics and international development. “Assignments are always, like, terrible,” he said. “Even here at Calvin, I don’t have enough time to socialize. I struggle for my life: doing assignments, go to work, study, get assignments done, go to work, and that’s all.”

And the people back in Sudan who inspire the Lost Boys with so much drive also inspire them with a certain amount of survivors’ guilt, said Tibble: “They get phone calls from Africa, ‘Hey brother. What are you doing? Send me money. How can you do this to your people?’ That’s very difficult for them — very, very, difficult.”

Indeed Mayom, who won’t touch alcohol, drugs, cigarettes or even watch television, has allowed himself only one vice: “The big problem was the telephone. Whatever minutes I had, I used calling people, even calling people in Africa. I was addicted to the phone.” He also e-mailed incessantly, searching for news of his family, and slowly he got some. Mayom has spoken with three of his seven sisters. Two others are dead. His mother and one sister who spent much of the civil war ministering to soldiers are now ordained ministers. His father and four of his 11 brothers are also dead, killed in the war. His youngest brother is afflicted with trypanosomiasis or “sleeping sickness,” one of the diseases that has made a comeback in southern Sudan during the long destabilization. (Until this brother became too sick to study, Mayom supported him at school.) He found a niece, the daughter of his oldest brother, in California. And after multiple e-mails and letters went astray, in August 2005, he spoke to that brother, Gabriel Choi Achuk, an SPLA soldier who is living in an Ethiopian camp.

More Online

Read more about the "Lost Boys."

View a slide show by Calvin alum Ryan Spencer Reed, a documentary photojournalist. Ryan recently spent time photographing the people of Sudan.

Calvin's student population includes more than 300 international students.

The Future
Mayom, who thinks he is older than his stated age of 25, will graduate this year, and he tentatively plans to join the U.S. Air Force. Though he long planned to go on to seminary, he is worried about liberal trends he sees in the Episcopalian Church. America, despite the opportunities it offers, seems to him a perilous landscape of a different kind. “Freedom is too much in America; it is more than 100 percent,” he said. “There’s not value. There’s no standards. It’s whatever you want to do. That’s why I’m confused.”

“When they came over here, there was a sense of a clean slate, of them pulling themselves up by the bootstraps,” Bascom said of the Lost Boys. Recently, however, he has heard reports that made them sound less than triumphant, stories of alcoholism and petty theft. “Mayom seems to be one who’s stayed the course,” he added.

Singing about Meshach still helps. “I never forget this song, because most of my name and my life is tied to it,” Mayom said. “I will never forget it, and I will teach it to my children. … This song is the torch of my life — like flashlight — that guide me through the difficulties of my life.”

In late July 2005, two weeks after being elected vice president of Sudan, John Garang was killed in a helicopter crash.

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Rebecca Deng recalls her childhood as a ‘Lost Girl’

“When I was little, after church on Sunday I asked my dad, ‘Why do you say love your enemies like that and then you go to war and fight?’ He looked at my face and said, ‘I have to fight when I have to protect the people I love. When I feel my faith is being taken away, I have to fight that.’ When it comes to protecting people you love and your faith,” concludes Rebecca Deng, “you have to fight.”

Rebecca DengRebecca, a Calvin sophomore majoring in social work and international development, is one of Sudan’s small number of Lost Girls, the female counterparts to the young Dinka and Nuer men who were orphaned and displaced by the Sudanese civil war. She is the daughter of an Episcopalian pastor who fought in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. When the time came for her family to run from government forces to Ethiopia, Rebecca was so young that she was carried by others. Like the Lost Boys, Rebecca’s family fled Ethiopia when war broke out there. Her mother died en route to Kenya. Rebecca was 6.

“I just followed some people,” she said. “It was just this crowd of people walking together. It was night and no electricity. Fell asleep walking. Later I would find myself laying down and wake up and see people walking. And I would walk. And people would see me and give me something to eat or drink.”

She lived with an uncle in Kenya and in the Kakuma refugee camp for years. Even though the school in the camp was a pitiful affair, she said, she managed to get a high school education. “The only place I felt peace was going to church,” she said. “On Tuesday was women’s night. I was little, so I beat a drum for them. I loved listening to them talk about being a woman, motherhood, what makes a woman a woman. See, I didn’t have mom. I felt like I was getting free knowledge that my mom couldn’t give me.”

In 1997, Rebecca learned that her father (who had remarried) had been killed. On Nov. 6, 2000, she was relocated to Holland, Mich., where she lived with her foster parents, Lennis and Rachel Baggech. She attended Holland Christian High School and entered Calvin in the fall of 2004. Though she loves her foster family, she misses her homeland. “I would love to go back, but school is what I need to do first now,” she said. “If I didn’t finish my school, I feel like I would go empty-handed. I would rather go back when I can help them rather than going back and not being able to do anything.”

She is proud, Rebecca said, to bear the name of a man who is still so well respected by the surviving Sudanese. “I didn’t know much about him, but when I’m in my community, people ask, ‘What’s your name?’ And I say, ‘Rebecca Deng,’ and they say, ‘Your dad was a very great man. He was a caring person. He cared about others. He cared so much.’”

Her experiences have given Rebecca empathy with persecuted persons, including her Savior. “I just love him so much,” she said. “He was innocent and people mistreat him. Going through that made me want to know more about him and be his follower.”

Rebecca told part of her story recently in the DVD Faith Lessons: Walk as Jesus Walked (Zondervan/Focus on the Family), a tour of Turkey hosted by Ray Vander Laan, her high school Bible teacher. In a cave in Cappadocia, she tells the tour group about living through a church bombing and other horrors. “What I would ask of you,” she tells the group, “is that don’t forget your Christian body that is suffering. Don’t forget.”

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Prayer for Sudan

In the fall of 2005, Calvin communication arts and sciences professor Linda Welker revised Prayer for Sudan, a drama created in spring 2004 by her community-based drama class, and took it on the road: to venues in Grand Rapids, Holland, Kalamazoo, Wyoming and Ypsilanti in Michigan and to Taylor University in Indiana.

Prayer for Sudan, performed again by Welker’s class, was created from hours of interviews with local Sudanese, among them Calvin students Mayom Bol Achuk and Mayen Wol. The narratives are enlivened by music and a slide show of photographs by Ryan Spencer Reed ’02. The drama also includes a question-and-answer period, featuring local Sudanese leaders.

Audience members typically have very emotional responses to the drama, Welker said. “People are moved to say things like, ‘I didn’t know about this. I didn’t know the depth of the suffering,’” she said. “They ask how they can help, how they can become involved. They want to know what the government is doing about it. Those themes run through every performance.”

Through her experiences creating the show, Welker has forged strong bonds with the Sudanese community in Grand Rapids, particularly in her role as a communing member of Sudanese Christ Lutheran Church. Matthew Riak, the pastor of the church, often participates in Prayer for Sudan. “I’ve been traveling with Linda a lot,” said Riak, himself a Lost Boy and the founder of Sudan Christian School for Orphans in Gospel Village, Sudan. “Though I don’t have time, I try to travel with her. She is doing a wonderful thing, to get the word out, which is what we’re trying to do.”