When you consider that John Bul Dau started the first grade when he was eighteen, scratching his first A-B-C's in the dusty ground of a refugee camp, his memoir is inspiring by any measure. It's hard to imagine anyone surviving what Dau describes, much less flourishing once he had the opportunity. By the time he started copying books from the refugee camp library, learned English and Swahili in order to understand the instruction, passed the Kenyan high school exam, then made it to Syracuse, New York, he had wandered upwards of a thousand miles over fourteen years from his bucolic village in southern Sudan.
Sudan is not only the largest country in Africa, and one of the most complex (572 tribes that speak 114 languages), it's also one of the most war-torn. The Darfur genocide in western Sudan rightly grabs our attention, but for twenty-five years civil war raged in the southern part of the country. The "white" Arab and Muslim government in Khartoum has tried to impose strict Islam as the state religion for the entire country, but the black and Christian south rebelled. In 2005 a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was reached.
When the Khartoum government bombed Dau's village of Duk Payuel in 1987, he fled with thousands of other displaced Sudanese. He was thirteen years old. Rape, disease, pillage, daily burials, wild animals, famine (they sometimes ate mud and drank urine), government troops, and hostile tribes did not prevent Dau and some 265,000 Sudanese from reaching refugee camps in Ethiopia to the east. Most of them were young boys and a few men, as women and girls could hardly survive, and so they became known as the "Lost Boys of Sudan." When Ethiopian troops started slaughtering them, the refugees trekked 500 miles south to safety in Kenya. By then Dau was eighteen. Nine years later he was one of only 3,600 Sudanese refugees in Kenya who were resettled in the United States.
Dau is the first to thank the many people who helped him in America, but it bears saying that by his account he was totally self-sufficient about six months after he arrived. He finished community college, entered Syracuse University, met and married a Sudanese woman from his Dinka tribe, started several foundations to help Sudan, sent most of his hourly wages back home, and was featured in the award-winning documentary film God Grew Tired of Us; The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan (Sundance Grand Jury and Audience awards in 2006). It's only fitting that Dau's improbable story ends with reconnecting with his mother, father, and siblings. "God," he writes, "had not forgotten me after all."