WASHINGTON - A U.S.-based organization is carrying on the legacy of the late basketball star Manute Bol by continuing to build schools and work for reconciliation in South Sudan. The recent work comes despite South Sudan’s many struggles during its first of year of existence as a country.
Immediately as he enters the Washington offices of the U.S. aid group Sudan Sunrise, executive director Tom Prichard points to a series of pictures high up on the wall.
“We were visiting an elementary school to talk about the needs for schools in southern Sudan," he explained. "Manute was in terrible pain. He was in so much pain he had to use a wheelchair. Manute spoke seated the whole time, but when it was all over he said, ‘I want them to see how tall I am.’”
The last picture shows Prichard holding up Bol so the American schoolchildren could see the full physical range of the 2.31-meter-tall basketball defensive specialist, who played for a decade in the National Basketball Association.
An Internet video by Sudan Sunrise shows construction of a school in Bol’s hometown of Turalei in South Sudan's Warrap state. Bol, whose first name Manute means “special blessing,” also appears, explaining the humanitarian ideas that drove the last years of his life.
“I want to enable kids to go to school here, between Muslims, Darfurians, Sudanese and the other countries," the former basketball star explained. " If they live around here and want to go to school here, they can go to school here. And I think that would be the best thing that I did for my people.”
Bol died in June 2010 of acute kidney failure and other health problems, just over a year before South Sudan became an independent nation.
staff recently returned from Turalei, where they worked on a new kitchen for the school.
They have also been working on other reconciliation plans, such as a church construction project involving both Muslims and Christians in Torit in Eastern Equatoria state.
Deputy director Kody Kness explained the importance of having people from different groups work together.
“By hiring and training the local community to build these structures, these structures of peace and reconciliation, and having that design, construction and implementation of the projects be led by the communities from both sides, whether it be Christian or Muslim, or tribes or ethnic groups that traditionally have had conflict, by empowering them to come together and to work together, I think is really the best model for development and aid,” Kness said.
Sudan Sunrise also involves U.S. diaspora groups for projects such as the Jonglei Youth Peace Initiative. In the past year in Jonglei state, hundreds of people were killed and tens of thousands displaced during violence involving rival ethnic militias.
South Sudan’s first year has also been marked by militia and military attacks on its ill-defined borders with Sudan. The breakup followed more than two decades of deadly civil war, a referendum and years of difficult negotiations.
Prichard, who founded Sudan Sunrise in 2005, says there have also been many economic challenges. With reduced trade between Sudan and South Sudan, and an ongoing oil dispute between the two countries, Prichard says prices are skyrocketing.
He says a bag of cement that would cost $4 in the United States can cost up to $50 in South Sudan.
With so much bad news coming out of Sudan and South Sudan, Prichard says foreign donors are increasingly wary of contributing to aid projects. But despite these obstacles, he says there is still room for optimism.
“I think on the grassroots level, people look at things beyond their control, and yet they are determined to find a way, even if there is a war going on," noted Prichard. " They are going to make progress, and that is the thing that I see - that there is determination, there is perseverance and resiliency.”
Even if other areas have been prone to violence, he says Bol’s hometown of Turalei, scene of a deadly attack shortly before independence, is now much safer.
More than 300 students have been going to the primary school that bears Manute Bol’s name.
Sudan Sunrise still hopes to build dozens more like it across the new country, which the basketball legend never got to experience.