I saw a newborn baby
with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
Bob Dylan, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall
Unfortunately Bob Dylan’s words suit the life of Manyang Reath Kher too well. But chatting to him you wouldn’t think it, speaking in his strangely compelling Virginian -Sudanese drawl, he tells you about how great the world is and that his coffee is the greatest coffee in it. His coffee is 734 Coffee. The name is more than a number. 7˚N 34˚E are the geographical coordinates for Gambela, a region in Ethiopia where over 200,000 displaced South Sudanese citizens now live after fleeing war, atrocities, drought, and famine in South Sudan. And it is where Manyang, from the age of three, survived for thirteen years. 734 Coffee is about building a brighter future for the displaced mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters of Sudan; it is harvested by growers right in the Gambela region, whom Manyang ensures are all refugees and after it is brought to the US, 80% of proceeds go right back to scholarships and education programs for refugees in South Sudan.
And people are taking notice, Manyang was recently endorsed by Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, that’s some shortening of the degree of separation. I first asked myself, how did this happen? Then I got to know him and the answer is Manyang Reath Kher is how it happened. The man’s a force of nature, a survivor as tough as they come. Manyang is one of the Sudanese Lost Boys, refugees who represent the world’s newest nation, its warring tribes and incredible culture. To a significant degree, he forms a spearhead for a widening and diffuse movement. He tells me, “Things are going to change, they got to change.” He says that a lot. After some time in his company, you believe him. He is at the forefront of #RedefineRefugees and #HumanityHelpingSudanProject, movements that seek for refugees to be defined in terms of what they can do, rather than where they have come from. Manyang stresses that we need to focus on business, get people in South Sudan to be entrepreneurs – “people with business, don’t want to go to war, peace comes in many different ways, I don’t want to fight someone who I trade with”, he says.
Manyang was orphaned at the age of three, possessing nothing but a picture of his father. That was it, alone in his little pajamas and a picture of his Dad in his tiny hand, my God. This is a story about a hero. A real hero. Born in Akobo, Sudan to a warrior father, who was a representative of the poor, the downtrodden, the soon to be dispossessed. Our hero, Manyang Reath Kher knows little of his family, his heritage, his early life; for at the age of three, Sudan was plummeted into hell and he plunged with it into an Erebus of monsters, bloodthirsty soldiers, plagues, famines and brutal refugee camps. Manyang, somehow and without a Virgil clawed his way through nine circles of hell, I don’t know how, for he was just an infant when the Apocalypse exploded. Over the course of a few weeks, we sat together and he told me his story, he began by saying –
“This is my story of how I lived from the age of three, in and out of war, one of the Lost Generation. It is a description of the need for freedom and how to value it above all. It is the assessment of how to become a man when there is no one left to show a boy how to be one. It is the example of community and how a tribe, how a group of people or even just a group of boys can learn how to take care of one another. It might even be an example to anyone who lives for themselves alone, of how to live for others in a highly competitive world.”
Our best memories are usually within our childhoods, when the world is tiny and innocence gigantic; Manyang possesses the terrible tragedy of not having one. Cruelly, he can barely tease out any, the few he can, are as precious as painite.
“My father would wake me in the mornings. He would tease me that the moon had come to get me, but I had fallen asleep so the moon had left and moved to the other side of the world. There was a river near our house, I remember once, my father lifted me into it, to dip my toes and the fish tickled them. The last time that I saw my father, before he went to war, he placed his picture in my hand”
That’s it, that’s all he got; a cute joke, some paddling and the simplest of gifts. These things a childhood does not make, indeed, it is a mere few hours of memories in most normal worlds. And yet, when telling me them, Manyang smiles sweetly, sighs heavily and you can tell he lives those moments, over and over again. I guess, he has to, they are all he has. At the age of three, his little world was torn asunder. In 1991, with the Second Sudanese Civil War raging across the region, his village was subjected to an attack by soldiers conducting a shoot to kill policy directed at all people. Manyang tells me,
“I was woken by big noise, the sound of war. Somewhere in the house my mother was screaming. It was the last time I ever heard her voice. It was still dark, she must have run out of our house with my tiny baby sister. My Uncle Dodo slung me onto his back with my little legs wrapped around his neck. We could see bodies moving through the river. It was murky and thick, and it was not easy for Dodo to keep moving. Soldiers were shooting at us. Bodies of men, women, and children, fell under the water all around us, I watched them from Dodo’s shoulders. Then he too was shot and red spouted from his mouth but he kept swimming. We made it to the far shore. I tumbled from this neck. I looked up, soldiers stood above me. I didn’t know would they shoot me or help me. I saw Dodo lying in the sand, blood leaking from his body. I stood in my pajamas with my father’s picture in my hand, watching Dodo die.
We walked, for weeks and weeks, we walked. We were starving, I watched people swallow mud from the road and pull leaves and bark from trees. Some people simply sat down in the dirt to die. There were children crying in the dust because they had no one to carry them and they could not walk. We walked and walked, we walked into Ethiopia. I didn’t know what that was. I was in a whole new country with many other young Sudanese boys. I had no idea where the girls and the mothers were. Local workers would ask for your name and geographic background so that they could keep tribes together. It was chaos. There were a hundred languages. They might not be actual blood kin, but the children were placed with adults from the same tribe.
I was given a new family. We all lived in a mud hut with rooms divided by sheets. They called me Keat, I don’t know why, but that’s what they called me, Keat. Sometimes I peed in the hut, they yelled and made me clean it up. They took a dislike to me. They restricted me to the kitchen which had a hole in the roof for the smoke to escape from cooking. They set up a grass bed in there, but it was the rainy season, so the bed and floor were drenched. So, I stood like a horse in a stable. Did you know snakes search for dry ground? I heard a heavy whisper. The snake was in the grass in my sleeping pallet. I put my hand up to shield myself from this wind, this heavy whisper, and felt a thump on my elbow which went numb. I screamed and screamed. They yelled at me from the hut to knock it off. I lay there, numb. It was a very long night. In the morning they found me, numb and raving. They brought me to a house that had electricity and stuck my arm to the electric current, which they thought was a treatment. I began screaming again, so they brought me back into the kitchen, wrapped my arm and told me to lie down on the pallet. I was paralyzed on one side of my body and monstrously swollen. In the morning of the next day, the lady, my new mother, brought me milk in a blue cup. I may have been not quite four, but I knew that they had accepted that I would die, and maybe they felt sorry for me. Or maybe they were scared that my real father would find out how badly they had treated me. I knew I was going to die. I dreamed of my father and he was telling me, Hakuna Matata. Yet, I found myself so mad at him. He couldn’t touch me, comfort me, or make my hand better. I wished he had not left me just when I needed him the most. I found myself talking to the ghost of my father, yelling at the ghost of my father. I looked for a sharp object with which to harm myself, but I could find none. They didn’t stay to help me or take me to a hospital, I guess because of the money they thought they would have had to pay.
There was a man in the kitchen, telling me he was a doctor. I was sure that the family had called this man to take me away to die. I had heard all the talk about what happens to those who are about to die in the camp. When you are too weak and you smell, they throw you into the stream to let you die. That’s what I had heard. I yelled, “Go away!” But he kept asking for my name. I looked at him, he looked at me, and there were tears in his eyes. Now I was really scared. Why would he cry if he didn’t think I was going to die? He told me that a cobra had bitten me and I needed to go to hospital. An ambulance came. I was sick and dirty and smelled so they put me in a separate room which made me angry and scared. Again, I was convinced that everyone knew I was going to die and wanted to separate me. I didn’t realize that I smelled or that they were checking to see if I was contagious before they decided what to do with me. But they gave me medicine, washed me, and settled me in bed with fresh sheets and pillows. The doctor visited me a lot, he had a way of making me laugh. His name was Alfred. The moment Alfred would get to work, I could hear his voice, loud and happy in the hallway. He would check on me first, making sure that the nurses would turn me from side to side, change the bedding and check my blood. Alfred would say my name the way my mother would, and no matter how big the hospital was, no matter how busy he was, he always came to see me and that was the best part of my day. I lived for Alfred’s visits because he reminded me of my father. When I got stronger, he would take me walking and bring me caramels. But after six months, he placed me back in the ambulance and sent me back to my new family. He gave me a picture book and I made him write his name in it, so that I would be able to find him again.
My family were not eager for my return. My new father told me, “You can’t stay with us anymore. You’re four years old and really a man now.” So I walked away, what else could I do? I walked and walked. I found a tree where I sat. I stayed until it became dark. It was just me and the mosquitoes and shadowy animals. I climbed into the tree and tried to sleep but dogs were barking at the bottom of the tree. So, I climbed to the top of the tree. Mosquitoes flew up to where I was. I yelled, “I am Manyang! I am Manyang! I am Manyang!” I worried about being bitten by another snake. I didn’t think I could go through that situation again. I hit the branches to check for snakes.
In the mornings, small children would go into a building near my tree, I found out that it was a school, where people got to learn stuff. One morning, I made my way over to them, they didn’t ask me where I had come from, and no one wondered anything about my parents or how old I was. There were three hundred of us. In order to prove that you were young enough to be in pre-school, they made us place our arms around to the other side of our head and touch the opposite ear. If we could, we were too old. We stayed there for two or three hours each morning learning some English and some Arabic. The teachers would give the children one biscuit, so I got one biscuit too, but that was never enough for me since it was the only thing each day that I ate. After two days I came up with the idea of making clay cows from the ground, and I made them for the other children in return for a biscuit. I was becoming popular and I got way more biscuits. However, if I ate two or three, I would fall asleep. I was so tired from trying to sleep in the tree and worrying about snakes. Often, if I did fall asleep at the school, the teacher removed me from the class. I had to sit outside. Students competed over spitting at me. The worst memory I had of that time is when the children would be picked up at the end of school, and I was left there at the gate. No one seemed to notice that I had nowhere to go and no one to pick me up. A lot of children had no parents in the camp. They may have lost one or both parents, but usually there was someone older who came for them, a brother or someone who watched over them.
One day my luck changed. We had a free school water pump which was for the children and the people who lived nearby. One day a teenage guy came by and left his container. Sometimes people had to leave their containers and wait until more water was available. Each container had your mark, and it was the honor system. I guess I felt bad for him when someone moved his container. I went and filled his container. He was grateful and asked where my parents were. I told him that I didn’t have a family. He told me that I could come home to his own house. His name was Wiyual and he lived with his brother, Oguol who was my age. I was afraid to go with him, but I knew that life with them would have to be better than living in a tree. When we got to his hut, he told me to sleep. And I did sleep. From noon until three. When I woke up, they served me food! I couldn’t eat much because I had only been used to two biscuits per day, and my stomach wouldn’t handle good food. I made four clay cows for Wiyual’s brother, Oguol and we played with them. Wiyual cooked and I slept more. In fact, I slept for five more days and didn’t go back to school during that time. Finally, I was ready to go back and Oguol and I went together. I was happy with the three of us. It was so nice to have people to talk to and to actually hear people talking.
In July 1995, there was an outbreak of cholera in the camp, the disease with diarrhea and vomiting. Hundreds were dying. Many were hospitalized. Some died in their own houses because the hospital was full, and there were no more beds for others. Wiyual caught cholera and was seriously sick for three days; he thought he was going to die. He gave me a talk. He wanted to know that if he wasn’t around, would I be able to cook and bring in firewood water. I said I could do them both until he came back from the hospital. He asked again what would happen if he couldn’t come back because of any reason. I said that I didn’t know. He asked his brother and he said the same answer. He told us, “It is not good to live under someone or depend on someone else’s help. Now, I will tell you to listen please. Don’t ask for money even if you guys are not going to live. It will be good if you can do that for me. Don’t talk too much to people because they will tell you what they don’t like and bring trouble to you. Don’t think of stealing something from someone to make your life better. Don’t lie when people ask you for truth. Lastly, keep in school because someday this simple school will be me and your parent. May God find a way for you guys to go to college.” We went out to play, and then we cooked and ate. We tried to give him something to eat, but he was too weak to eat it. He smelled the food and said it was good, to keep cooking anytime we got hungry. That things would get better. And he told us not to be mad at each other anytime.
Wiyaul died of cholera. I tried to go to talk to a man who was known at the local church. He told me that he would come over or send someone, but we waited three days, and he never came. I went back again. He told me the same thing. Then the third time, he told me that he would come and he never did. I told Oguol to talk with him, but he told him the same thing. We gave up because we knew the religious people would not come if we didn’t have any money. The body began to change and smell. We got a big carton and put his body in it and rolled him to a stream at night when no one could see us.
The camp was a place where we depended on the UN to get us food. They served one meal per day. People got their place in line for the food. We were too young for the line because older people would move us out of the way or chase us out of the line. Most of the time, we didn’t get any food. We would go back home, turn mud into doll cows so that children would buy them with biscuits. Other lost boys were registered as unaccompanied minors which helped them to get their food easily. We were not registered because Wiyaul had made a house that was in a group that counted as part of the village or block. Our situation turned from bad to worse. Since we were hungry, Oguol quit school. I was hungry, but I never quit school. We didn’t know who to complain to for help or how to register in the group for unaccompanied minors. We turned mud into cows for help getting biscuits for a long time. Nobody knew for real if we would live. But we went on like that until 1997, when we became big boys of eight years old. We started to be okay because we finally knew that we could do for ourselves. By age nine we were able to get food in line and find firewood and water, and we could cook. We stayed there until 2003.
Some people arrived in the camp who my father had fought against in the war and they wanted to kill me, so I agreed with the UNHCR to go to another camp. I found a friend there that I used to go to school with and I was able to live with him. Just after I moved into the house, Oguol came to live in the camp. I was so happy but a week after Oguol came, the UNHCR told me that the some of the enemies of my father had also been transferred to the camp. They offered me to enroll in a programme for resettlement in America. I came home and talked with Oguol about it. We were both scared about going to America where we knew nobody. We also thought there were no African people in America. We didn’t want to live in a cold and icy place, especially if we were homeless. We agreed that I would not go. When I took a long time of not returning to the UNHCR office, they called me again and sent me a counselor who was African American. He talked to me for two weeks and finally he convinced Oguol, who then talked to me. Oguol said that he would go to America too.
One morning we took a bus from the UNHCR office to Addis Ababa. We then took a plane to Cairo and from there to London and onto Chicago. When we arrived in Chicago, we were told that we were to be separated, Ogoul was going to Michigan and I was going to Richmond, Virginia. And just like that, he was gone and with him all that I ever knew was in the past.”
On his first day in Richmond, while been transferred from the airport to the shelter that would be his home for three years, Manyang Reath Kher passed St. John’s Church on East Broad Street, where on 23 March, 1775, Patrick Henry made one of the boldest and eloquent speeches ever delivered. In front of an audience that included future Presidents Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, Henry exclaimed, “Give me liberty, or give me death”, powerfully influencing Virginians and events leading to American independence. Manyang had faced death for fourteen years, now he had his liberty and boy was he going to make it count. Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘Life’s most urgent question is, what are you doing for others?’ Manyang Reath Kher possesses a great answer.