By James Alic Garang
“Come in, Dr. Garang,” Professor Boyce, one of my committee members told me when I was standing outside the economics department conference room waiting for my dissertation defense result. As soon as I came in, I exchanged pleasantries with other members. Professor Heintz shook my hand. Professor Ndikumana said, “Welcome to the club of Ph.D.s.”
I successfully defended my dissertation on March 12, 2014 at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. That news, widely shared through various South Sudanese forums, brought congratulatory messages. Compliments streamed in online, by phone, and on Facebook. Many who have known me from primary and secondary school days in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya through the University of Utah said this day was inevitably coming.
Nonetheless, when reflecting on how this personal achievement came about, I realized that many people around the world were involved in helping out. “It takes a village to raise a child,” said Hillary Clinton, paraphrasing an African proverb. I have realized that it takes a world to educate a student.
Therefore, I want to express my appreciation for my benefactors, from refugee camps in Africa to different colleges in North America. I could not have done it without a number of people who generously extended a helping hand to assist me. As such, this realization of an academic dream belongs to them, my family, and the nation.
After our cattle were taken at gunpoint in 1985 at Malek Ubur, I trekked to Ethiopia with other young people who later became known as the “Lost of Boys of Sudan.” Walking three months on foot after leaving my home village in Aweil, I depended on the enduring sympathies and sharing philosophy of nameless South Sudanese villagers en route to Ethiopia. Upon arriving in Ethiopia and for the next four years through 1991, United Nations agencies took on the daunting tasks of supplying our necessities, including notebooks for my first grade in 1988.
Many in the SPLA Red Army in Pinyudo refugee camp in Ethiopia were trained in 1989, but because of their young age, the majority did not join in combat. While it was one thing to train soldiers for the liberation under the “New Sudan Philosophy,” our leaders were also forward-looking, emphasizing that young people in the refugee camps should hold a “pen in the right hand and gun in the left hand.” Particularly, I am grateful to the SPLM/A leaders such as Dr. John Garang and General Pieng Deng for challenging us “Jesh El Ahmer” to cast our pen in a positive light during our formative years.
I appreciate my teachers, including the late Ustaz Gar Gar, Ariath Amol, and Okindah Wereh, who taught me in primary school in Ethiopia through secondary school in Kenya, for providing an important foundation and instructing me through various grade levels. I credit them for helping me to see that the sky is the limit.
South Sudanese communities in Kakuma, Salt Lake City and New England were also supportive. Through providing altruistic pieces of advice, elders emphasized that we should work hard in school because we were, according to Dr. John, “the seeds” for the New Sudan, which is now the Republic of South Sudan following the successful referendum on January 9, 2011. I am saddened that the country is currently experiencing an internal crisis, thus disappointing expectations.
Expectations have been disappointed in so many ways, including corruption of epic proportions, and little development to show despite huge oil wealth. The greatest disappointment of all is that too much blood has lamentably been spilled in Juba and other areas such as Bor, Malakal and Bentiu, among others. To avoid further tearing our country part and to stop the continued loss of innocent lives, it is imperative that our leaders, especially the government and rebels, should wholeheartedly embrace the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)-led peace talks going in Addis Ababa and resolve their differences politically. As President Salva Kiir has judiciously shown before the referendum through invoking the “big tent” philosophy, peace cannot come from without but rather from within.
I equally appreciate my colleagues for encouraging me to aim higher, and my wife Maria Ayak for caring for our adorable kids while I was tucked away finishing this degree.
Finally, I am deeply indebted to many American friends in Salt Lake City and Amherst for helping out, from paying for college textbooks to filling out financial aid forms to helping out with my rental housing search to helping me prepare for graduate school.
This narrative brings me to the larger theme that I hope to underscore. We are not an island unto ourselves whether in times of joy or sorrow. When we count our blessings, it is inevitable to find that quite a number of people have played a role in it. Taking my educational path as an example, South Sudanese nationals on my way to Ethiopia, Ethiopians in Pinyudo Refugee Camp, Kenyans in Kakuma Camp and Americans in Utah, Amherst and elsewhere contributed to my progress along the path I have now completed.
In summary, just as it takes a village to raise a child, I am convinced it equally takes a world to educate a student through various programs provided to those in need, especially to the young people in refugee camps throughout the world. Because we are part of a larger human family, many Good Samaritans have done and continue to do their utmost in contributing to making this world a better place for all to live, especially for the least fortunate among us.
James Alic Garang, formerly one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, holds a Ph.D. from UMass Amherst. He is reachable at email@example.com.