‘Lord of the Flies vs. Lost Boys of Sudan’ An Exclusive Interview with Jacob Atem, Lost boy & Ph.D.

‘Lord of the Flies vs. Lost Boys of Sudan’ 
An Exclusive Interview with Jacob Atem, Lost boy & Ph.D. Student

By Richard C Close

Golding’s book, Lord of the Flies (which is required reading of millions of youth in the western world), is perhaps the greatest literary lie in western education’s history. Now that a few cages have been rattled, let’s challenge the well established, authoritarian, colonial ideals against the experiential backdrop of one of the real life Lost Boys of the Sudan.

The premise of Lord of the Flies is that when the superior authority is removed, the more primitive nature of man (in this case wealthy boys) will take over with false religion, bullying, power struggles, and finally savagery. Also, keep in mind that this work was written 1952, when South African apartheid was in full swing. This is also written before the Martin Luther King, Jr. American social revolution. The premise of this mindset was that without sound western government authority, we are lost and primitive. But is that really true?

In 1968, 400,000 hippies went to Woodstock, NY for three days of music. The authorities were intimidated by their lack of faith in humans, so they stayed away. The results were: no crimes and two babies. Not to mention that when the U.S. revolted against colonial authority, democracy proved to be the model of the future. If anything, when people rule collaboratively, they seem to have peace. When authority gets too powerful, there is war and chaos.

There is evidence that human nature wants to share and be loved. Let’s reflect on our invention of the global collaborative Internet. Applications like Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia should all be uncensored madness and savage. Yet the reverse is true. Perhaps our true nature is people collaborating with people in a fabric of loving one another that creates peace.  Perhaps the transcendental truth to Lord of the Flies is that it represents more about how colonial power brokers act than about the people they rule.

The second undercurrent of the Lord of the Flies myth is that religions facilitate the separation of power, struggle and persecution.  While there can be some truth to this in radicalized religions, in contrast, armies of peace building individuals maintain long term clinics, schools, orphanages, farms, microeconomics, and leadership training around the world. Major reconciliation and peace efforts by religious people have been achieved in Rwanda, South Africa and the U.S. by extensive Christian values, methods and leaders, not a pig head on a stick.

The evidence that the fictional story of Lord of the Flies is a heinous colonial lie is to be found in the ongoing story of the Lost Boys of Sudan. It is true that the UN did step in to help them after a year of wandering from the 1983 - 2005 genocide. They buried over 5,000 of their friends and family in a 1,000 mile trek to safety.  However, the real story of the Lost Boys is how they live today, carrying the burdens of genocide, abandonment and institutionalized racism. Without adult leadership, these young children worked collaboratively as a team using Old Testament tribal rules for a year in the wilderness. Enduring unthinkable suffering, they walked with grit, grace and mercy. The story of the Lost Boys ironically endures after the religious and political persecution in Southern Sudan and into the U.S. for a second wave of classism, racism and literacy challenges to succeed. Their ongoing story speaks mountains of human capacity to press on against injustice.

One of the Lost Boys, Jacob Atem, I first met three years ago in a UN Head Quarters Literacy Conference. We sat side by side listening to dignitaries take credit for their global programs. It seems to me it was the boys whose faith and love for one another that took them one more step at a time was to take all the credit. Both of us knew these programs are needed but how one survives abuse from anything run deeper than statistics.  Time and again I meet people traumatized by the horrors of life turn into remarkable souls. How do they do it? It is one thing to provide shelter from the cold, another to heal a shattered heart.

Yes, the funding and the UN program are essential. But the real story of survival transcends any program's glossy brochure. The real story is about how human nature finds meaning and purpose in helping one another.

Becoming a ‘Lost boy of Sudan’ http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxUF-Jacob-Atem-A-Journey

In 1983 -2005, a civil war drove an estimated twenty thousand young boys from their families and villages in Southern Sudan. Eight-year-old Jacob looked around the Gilo River bank. Behind him, bullets rained from AK-47s shot by men in military uniforms. In front of him, crocodiles waited along the bank with open jaws as thousands of young boys ran toward the water.

More than 20,000 boys started walking towards Ethiopia. Most no more than six or seven years old, fled to escape death or life in slavery or induction in the Northern army. They walked a thousand miles through lion and crocodile country, eating mud to stave off thirst and starvation. Wandering for years, half of them died before reaching the Kenyan refugee camp, Kakuma. The survivors of this tragic exodus became known to the world as the “Lost Boys of Sudan (Lost Boys of Sudan).”

Jacob’s tale of personal tragedy and the value of true friendship

“When I was about six years old my parents were killed by Northern Sudanese Arab militias waging war on Southern Sudan. They entered my village killing men and kidnapping the women and children before burning our homes to the ground.  That day, I lost my father and several of my siblings. One of my sisters was carried away and to this day is thought to be a slave to an Arab Sudanese family in the north.”

“But I was lucky.  Early that morning, I had left with my older cousin, Michael, to take our goats and cows to pasture.  When we heard the attack and saw the smoke coming from our burning village, we ran into a nearby forest to hide.  For three days, we remained in the forest alone, scared, and hungry.”

“The northern forces were constantly following us, so we often hid during the day and walked through the dangerous dark of the night.  We were also in danger from the attack of lions.  To protect ourselves when we rested, we made a timetable and decided who would sleep while the other was awake. ”

When we arrived in the U.S., my cousin Michael went to Nevada and I went to Michigan.

For more information see National Geographic Documentary “God Grew Tired of Us.”

The road to becoming a Ph.D. Candidate

Interview Part 2: Institutional Persecution and Individual Angels

On 11th November, Richard Close interviewed Jacob on his experiences within the education systems. Having arrived in the U.S. at age 15, Jacob is now pursuing a PhD at State University Florida focusing on global health.

Q. Did you feel there was a gap between the curriculum and the emotional experiences you had?

Jacob: “Oh, yes, definitely. It was separate. My little education started in Kenya, so when you do the studies there, the system has pros and cons. In Kenya, you do not have a lot of exams. You only have one big exam at the end of the year. When you come to America, there is a test every two weeks, yet you barely speak English. So you are now trying to catch up with English as a Second Language and you are unable to study the rest of the curriculum, because you get bogged down with English as a Second Language.”

“For example, I was 15 when I came to this country, so I was put in grade 9 as a freshman by age and not by the level of my education. In U.S. law, once you are 18, you graduate from high school. But that does not translate well from African society, especially from where we came from. You might be just getting into High School at 18 when you are immigrating to the U.S.”

“This was a challenge for many (Lost Boys of the Sudan). But I was lucky and had a chance to catch up in three years. But now there is a law that a person must have four years of English to graduate in the states. What do you do if you are a refugee at the age of 17? You’re left with only two years to study English! The story was, it was difficult to study.”

 Q: Did the school curriculum deny that the individual is going through any pain or trauma at all. How did the school handle you? Did you get special counselling? Or was it sink or swim?

Jacob: “It was sink or swim. And there was differences in culture getting used to the children in the U.S. here, they did not get it. They may have different trauma (in U.S. like children of alcoholics) like I have, but they do not get it (what Jacob was dealing with).

“For example, I was the only minority in my school, and it was interesting, the words they were using. They are very offensive. 'You are from Africa, you are terrible.' Yeah it was difficult, the kids calling you names. And I think that is where the differences came from.”

“My experience (in the wilderness) wanted to drive me. My experience wanted to educate me, because we used to say in the lost boys that 'education is our mother and father.' The experience I went through made me what I am today.”

“Many people here take education for granted, especially our age, and over there it is opportunity we do not have, that it is a good thing we have in America, were you have the opportunity. You do not have to walk ten miles to a school. Here it is a matter of sitting on a bus on your behind.”

 Q. You had people help you along the way. Tell me about mentoring and people encouraging you?

Jacob. “From my foster family because I was a ward of the state so my foster parents were key. You are right what we have in life we don’t appreciate. Particularly, parents and teachers that take time and listen to you. That is the big difference. I have met from high school to college PhD students that really care personally with you and really put you under their wings to exceed to the next levels. There were a few individual teachers that sat for hours.”

“I feel bad for high school because there is no curriculum that says “Hey this person came from Africa.” This is how we (faculty) are supposed to treat him. No. it is not clear cut. I remember I used to have a lot of questions in class but it became too much. It might be a simple word I want to know, but it seem like everyone in the class knew it because they grew up in this culture. If I asked, people would say “Don’t you know that? We learned it in middle school and elementary school.” I would say “You don’t know my background. I did not have to learn that.”

“So I had to cut back on the questions because I would feel like I am stupid. If I don’t ask then I am not doing justice for myself, not learning (reflective pause).”

‘There were individual teachers who would spend an enormous time after school programs. The program would go from 8 am to 2:30. The teachers would stay because they loved you and care for you there is patience. So people really. I was blessed in high school and college. Even now I have had to change my PhD because I do not have a mentor. How can you do a PhD without a mentor?”

My dear friend Jacob does carry the horror of the past in him however he also carries the love and compassion of many who helped along the way. There are few I can think of that could justify anger toward social injustice more than him. Yet his ability to see how the nature of the human also is to reaches out save and heal one another. This intrinsic nature to love and work together is the real nature of who we areas humans. We have so much to learn of our mother Africa and what our true nature really is.

From Jacob’s interview, it is easy to see how young men of colour are “pushouts” of the educational system. Yet he also highlights the need for caring teachers or mentors to step in and supplement what our industrial “No rich child left behind” curriculums fail to deliver, the human’s nature to love one another.

Richard Close is the developer of the Global Learning Framework, consultant, learning strategist, speaker and author. Richardclose.blogspot.com. Currently Jacob is pursuing his PhD in Health Services at the University of Florida.

By Richard Close and Frank Kamau

How to help. Jacob work in Southern Sudan

In 2008, Jacob Atem and Lual Deng founded the Southern Sudan Health Care Organization (SSHCO), a non-profit organisation aimed at establishing a safer Southern Sudan through health care and education. Watch Jacob’s video story at http://goo.gl/BgxmMA.

Currently, SSHCO is a registered Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) with the South Sudanese Government and is authorized to operate in Health Services with the Government of South Sudan (GOSS). SSHCO currently has one clinic operating and serving the people of South Sudan in the village of Maar in the state of Jonglie, just north of Bor.

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