Writing in the Dust

by Editors


Writing in the Dust
By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard

There is a tiny village in Southern Sudan that is experiencing a renaissance. Out of the surrounding clay a school is rising, brick by brick.

14_jpg.jpgWunlang is just south of South Darfur in Africa. As you may know, the people of Sudan have long suffered from war, poverty and injustice. In 1998 one of Wunlang’s own, Franco Majok, came to America to begin a new life. But his long journey really began more than a decade earlier.

Franco became a refugee in 1983 when civil war erupted between the northern Sudanese Government and the south. At that time all high schools were closed and their students became targets of government troops. Franco was among them, one of the few children from his village to have attended school. (His schooling was a result of his father’s foresight—his father had learned the value of education when he worked for the British after their arrival in Sudan in 1921.)

In fact, Franco attributes his very survival to his education. After leaving his village, Franco used his precious reading skills to read maps and directions in order to make his way North. There, he settled in the city of Khartoum, working in a factory by day and finishing his high schoolboywithschoolsupplies.jpg coursework by night. Then, when Khartoum itself became too dangerous—with his education—Franco was able to apply for a visa to travel to Egypt.

Franco’s education proved invaluable again in 1997 when he applied for refugee resettlement through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). When the United States approved his application he moved his wife, first child and four relatives to the Boston area.

Settling in Lynn, Franco worked a couple different jobs from 1998 until 2000 when the “Lost Boys of Sudan” began to arrive here in the U.S. (The plight of these displaced, traumetized children during the Second Sudanese War [1984-2005] has been chronicled online, in books, movies and television.) Compelled to help, Franco applied for- and was hired as a bi-lingual, bi-cultural Case Manager through Lutheran Community Services to aid these refugees in their transition.

In 2005 Franco received his U.S. citizenship, a prerequisite for acquiring a U.S. passport and the ability to travel abroad. He was soon able to make plans to return safely to his homeland when, that very same year, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed between the Government of Sudan in Khartoum and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement. For the first time in 23 years, Franco could “go home.”

After a grueling 26-and-a-half hour trip (20 ½ via plane and car, 6 by bicycle) he found that his home village of Wunlang was a community attempting to rebuild following the war, but hampered by lack of funds and infrastructure. There was little food or education available.

Particularly striking to Franco, considering his personal belief in the power of education, was that the village’s “school” consisted only of a patch of dirt under a tree. Literally. A tree served as a fair-weather shelter, sticks and dirt its only paper and pencils. As Franco saw firsthand, the children of Wunlang practiced their letters by writing in the dust. To this day, when it’s either raining, or when it’s very hot, school cannot be held at all under the tree.

Franco recalls his first experience with the village’s children back in 2005: “In my first visit to Wunlang I asked them questions in English. The 3 boys [I] asked repeated to me the same thing. They said, ‘We need blackboard, we need books.’ They also said to me: ‘We want our brother in America to help us.'”

Of primary importance in lifting up the next generation, Franco knew, would be the building of a proper school to educate the children of Wunlang. The school that Franco envisioned would be more than a building in which to learn, however, it would furthermore serve as a springboard for the whole village.

As concrete evidence of the dedication of the community to its future, a brick school with two latrines would qualify Wunlang for the U.N.’s school-lunch program—allowing hungry children to receive a meal and better focus on their studies. Furthermore, a school compound would serve as the perfect space for a health clinic, a catalyst for planting a garden and building a small cattle enclosure; eventually, if the school had foot-powered sewing machines, the children could have school uniforms, and the village would even be able to start an income-producing sewing business. In short, the school would be the first step in creating a self-sustaining village.

Right now, very few Wunlang villagers have an education, and almost none among its mothers and grandmothers. The current teachers in Wunlang represent some of the best-educated members of the village; they have the equivalent of a fifth- or sixth-grade education. Currently, they volunteer their services to the school. With financial aid, the teachers could receive further training and salaries. With support, the school could further expand its adult literacy programs. As Franco reports, the Wunlang children already understand the importance of education. “A few children told me that they want to be teachers.”

At present, the Wunlang villagers are busy making bricks in anticipation of the school building’s construction. With the funds Franco has been able to raise thus far, they have fixed the village’s broken water pump and drilled one bore-hole. These are excellent signs of progress.

Already, the only two-year-old Wunlang Project has become a role-model within the Sudanese countryside. Indeed, many local people see the momentum in Wunlang and find the hope to start their own similar projects. Franco’s past contacts from the former “Lost Boys and Girls”—now young adults who desire to give back to their homeland—are anxious to invest their time and energies into this revitalization. Looking ahead, there has already been discussion of expanding pilot adult literacy programs to nearby groups.

The refashioning of this one African village is therefore creating a splendid domino effect. News of Wunlang’s successes is spreading in the area, and now refugees are returning in large numbers. This means that even more support will be needed to accommodate them.

From refugee to reformer, Franco is now a respected voice for his people, a village elder, their “brother in America.” Franco’s passion and vision have moved many in both Africa and America; he and his colleagues have incorporated a dedicated relief organization for Wunlang: “Village Help for South Sudan, Inc.” Much more information on Franco’s efforts is available online, including a blog and contact information at www.helpwunlang.org.

Personally, the importance of responding to this call to action was underlined for me this week when my six-year-old brought home from school a book entitled “Living Together.” The tiny book introduces children to the concept of community as a “group of people who live together.” As I pointed out to my daughter, its separate categories of cities, villages and nomadic tents seem a bit outdated—for as Franco’s life’s story illustrates—in this Global Age we are all “living together.”

As we speak, future plans are even underway to bring Internet technology to the children of Wunlang! When it happens, they will be able to correspond with other children around the globe—children like mine—reflexively broadening each others’ horizons. Until that day, each of us can make a difference in their lives, sowing the seeds of friendship and hope across borders by fulfilling Franco’s mission, and recognizing the importance of educating every child, in every corner of our world.

So, as these pixels travel across countless miles, filtering into your computer, please remember the people of Wunlang (and others like them) who yearn for the chance to fully participate in our world community, and whose children deserve a bright future.

Bread and Circus contributing writer Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.

For more information, visit www.helpwunlang.org.

Photos courtesy of Village Help for South Sudan, Inc.