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Follow This, TEDxColumbus

sharing supplies

by Kendra Hovey

The shipment came down the Nile by boat, where it was transferred onto small makeshift watercrafts, ferried to the riverbank, and then all 6,000 pounds of it carried by hand for a mile up to the village of Piol. This was the Buckeye Clinic’s third shipment of food and supplies since war broke out in South Sudan, and the most challenging; it’s the rainy season and Piol is accessible only by foot or canoe.


Makeshift boat

Last December, just days after we posted a story about past-speaker Bol Aweng and the Buckeye Health Clinic, the situation in South Sudan changed drastically. When we shared the story, the Clinic, supported almost exclusively by the Columbus community, was up and running and close to completing its final goals. Both Aweng and fellow “Lost Boy” Jok Dau had good news to share, including the unexpected and happy discovery that Aweng’s sister, missing since 1991, was indeed alive and soon would be reunited with the Aweng family in Piol.

But on December 15th, violence broke out between warring political factions, the Buckeye Clinic shifted their efforts to provide needed food and humanitarian aid, and the reunion, of course, did not happen.

Today, the region is under its third cease-fire, this one includes a 45-day period to build a coalition government. Since the fighting began, over 10,000 have been killed, almost 2,000,000 have been displaced and the region is now facing a potential famine, one that is entirely human-made. Most South Sudanese live in rural areas (and with violence turning some cities into ghost towns this percentage has likely increased) where the main source of food is family crops. But because of insecurity and displacement many fields remain fallow.

delivering suppliesThe Clinic is still providing needed medical care. Luckily, it has not been damaged or looted and has been able to remain open since the crisis began. The first shipment of food and supplies were sent in April. It had an unexpected ripple effect. Most of the community had fled to the marshlands of the Nile. While safer from violence, food is limited (people lived on water lilies and what fish they could catch). And without medicine, clean water and adequate shelter, there is risk of waterborne disease, especially vulnerable are children under five. When the first shipment arrived it was assumed that people would take the food and return to the Nile, but instead a number of them stayed and began to rebuild their homes and plant crops. The support network for the Buckeye Clinic sent two additional shipments over the summer, and is preparing a fourth (all with no administrative costs—receipts, distribution lists, photos and videos are posted on their website, as well as opportunities to donate).  

After decades of war, a period of rebuilding and then independence, the people of South Sudan are again threatened—this time by internal strife. So how do we understand this conflict?

There are the factual events. At independence in 2011, Salva Kiir, who is Dinka, became the first President of South Sudan. Riek Machar, who is Nuer, became Vice President. For both, these mirror the leadership roles they held since the end of the civil war in 2005. In July of 2013, Kiir dismissed his cabinet and VP. Machar, interpreting this as a power grab, convenes a December press conference, which Kiir interprets as a coup. Violence erupts.

There is recent history, which tragically can be traced through the traumas experienced by Bol Aweng’s family (and many others). The second civil war between the north and south began in 1983. The village of Piol was attacked in 1987 and Bol Aweng, running for his life at age six, became one of over 36,000 Lost Boys of Sudan. While this conflict still raged, internal strife developed within the South Sudan Resistance. Citing different political goals, Riek Machar (the VP mentioned above) challenged the leadership of John Garang. In 1991, his largely Nuer forces attacked Garang’s home territory—Dinka lands, including Piol. Bol’s mother and sister were abducted. The mother returned, but the daughter was not heard from again, until just last year when she was found living in Nuer lands.

Machar, who received support from the Sudan government in Khartoum, signed an agreement with them in 1997, but in 2002, he rejoined Garang’s Resistance Movement (Garang was killed in a crash in 2005; Kiir was his second in command) and, in 2012, Machar publicly apologized for the massacre of 1991.

And there are the consequences of decades of war. The health delivery system was destroyed and has not been adequately re-developed. One out of five children do not live to age five. South Sudan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates, and their literacy rate is the lowest in the world—these are just some of the realities of generation after generation having to live in survival mode.

Is this an inevitable tribal conflict? A battle for political power? For economic control? [After all, oil-rich regions are continually a loci of conflict.] Or a consequence of war’s neglect and stagnation?

And perhaps a more important question: Is there a way forward politically? This remains to be seen. But it’s important to understand that even as the map divides regions and tribes, those lines crisscross everywhere—Nuer helping Dinka, Dinka helping Nuer (and for a less heartwarming example, some Dinka were part of Machar’s group in the 1990s), and those of other tribal affiliations helping both. A Dinka man, for instance, is protecting his two Nuer nieces, even as the girls’ relatives in another area are fighting, albeit reluctantly, against Dinka. “I would save those girls again,” he says, “even if my people are killed, I would rather save a life, any life, rather than take one.” There are many stories like this. No matter how cruel the politics and the violence, there always are.

Seemingly pointless political machinations and mass killings make it difficult for those in the west to watch and, eventually, to care. Bol Aweng understands this. The last year has returned him, quite painfully, to his own trauma and the awful knowledge that it is happening again to others. Though it is hard to witness, he is grateful to those who do. As a child he remembers feeling as if his misery was “imperceptible” to the rest of the world. Now he is here in Columbus, he is raising a family, he is making art, he is improving healthcare, he is reducing infant mortality. “In the world, a lot of bad things happen,” he says, “but if we save the life of one person, this is a big difference we can make in the lives of human beings.”

Kendra Hovey is editor and head writer at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at



Follow This, Speakers, TEDxColumbus

[by Kendra Hovey]

You won’t find the village of Piol on Google Earth. You’ll find it by dirt road. That is, if the weather is dry. If not, you’ll wait in Bor a day, maybe more, until the road is clear. Then, it’s another sixty miles across South Sudan’s Jonglei state, but you will find Piol and, there, you’ll find something oddly familiar: The iconic Block O; a building called Buckeye Clinic; perhaps even a few villagers wearing their scarlet and gray.

If you happen to recognize Piol as the home village of TEDxColumbus speaker Bol Aweng, you already have some idea of just how much he has accomplished since his 2010 talk. Back then a working medical clinic in his South Sudan village was just an idea. Three years and a little more than $200,000 later, the Buckeye Clinic is a functioning healthcare facility with a vaccination program, maternity ward and staff of five.

It’s a huge change: Previous healthcare in Piol amounted to a table under a tree and one man with enough fluency in English to read labels and hand out medicine. And, it’s made a huge difference: According to the latest count (2009), in this part of the world only 1 in 5 children survives past the age of five. But in Piol, the clinic has inoculated over 500 children from potentially fatal but preventable diseases. “Now 5 out of 5 children may live to age 5,” says Aweng, and parents who before did not dare to dream because, as he says, “my child may be taken away,” now have hopes for their children and are even making plans for their future.

While there’s more to do and more money to raise, clearly Bol Aweng has achieved the goal he shared in 2010 to help his family, his village and south Sudan.

Since then, he’s accomplished one or two other things as well:

  • He illustrated a children’s book Maluak’s Cows written by his late cousin Maluak Chol
  • He makes and sells his art
  • He speaks and is a guest artist at various schools, churches and organizations

And all of this he does while holding down a full-time job (second shift) at a Walmart distribution center, and also managing all the demands and joys of life as a new husband and father.

That’s another change since taking the stage at TEDxColumbus: Bol Aweng is married and he has a young daughter named Kiki. He and his wife Ajiel first met as youths in the Kenyan refugee camps. Though it took a year-plus, immigration-induced wait before Ajiel and Kiki could join him in the US, the family of three is together in Columbus. Very soon they will be a family of four—a baby boy is due any day now.

To those familiar with his story, this will all come as particularly welcome news. Bol Aweng, like his friend Jok Dau, is one of the 35,000 Lost Boys of Sudan and one of less than half that number to survive. To hear his story (best told by him, here) is to wish for him not just success, but the most basic personal happiness; to wish, in fact, for every kind of happiness there is—for him, his family and for all the lost boys and girls of Sudan.

Though we don’t hear as much about them, girls were also traumatized, displaced, killed or orphaned during the long civil war. After 20 years of separation, Bol Aweng was able to reunite with his family, but his younger sister Nyankiir remained missing. She had been abducted in 1991 when she was only four years old. “We feared she was not alive, but held out hope,” says Aweng.

In the spring of this year, word spread to Piol of a woman in the far eastern part of Jonglei who was believed to look like Nyankiir. When travel was possible—and the limitations on this cannot be overstated: there are only 80 miles of paved road in the country; zero in Jonglei state; rains can quickly make dirt roads impassable; and bandits can make any road unsafe—Bol Aweng’s father, accompanied by the village chief, went to meet her.

“My father knows my sister has certain marks on her body,” recounts Bol, “ ‘if you have these marks’ he says to her ‘then I know you are my daughter’ and she has them and shows them to him and they both cannot talk to one another anymore and just cried.”

Nyankiir has a husband and two children. She no longer speaks her native Dinka, so the family must communicate through an interpreter. Bol was able to talk to her on the phone, and she is expected to visit Piol at Christmas this year and reunite with the rest of the family. What she remembers and what she experienced is still a story to unfold. But whatever the past or the future, the happiness to have found her, says Bol, is beyond words.

When Nyankiir does come to Piol she will see the Buckeye Clinic, perhaps even her children will benefit from its inoculation program, as the children of her and Bol’s other siblings have. Along with vaccinations, the clinic also offers health education and basic primary health care services. Birth services, and a maternity ward for those experiencing complications, as well as, emergency transportation and medical training are planned for the near future. Funding for these services, as well as construction, utilities and personnel, comes almost entirely from the people of Columbus, Ohio. You may not know this, but there is a blue lion in Piol. Also a golden bear and a wolf with a blue paw print. You’ll find them in and around the clinic and on the catchment system providing clean water to the village, each one marking the fundraising efforts of Columbus-area schools.

From large-scale fundraising projects to each individual donation, the support, says Aweng, has been wonderful: “This was something I needed to do, but lack of funds can dismantle the idea. Then the community of Columbus joined me and now we see the day of a clinic in my village. I really feel proud about the people of Columbus.”

Steve Walker, long-time friend and mentor to both Bol Aweng and Jok Dau and also a major force behind the clinic project, reports that the next crucial steps are to hire a full-time midwife and nurse, and to raise more money for operating costs. The project is about $80,000 shy of the $300,000 goal that will fund the clinic for three years, after which it is expected to be sustained by the primary health care plan developed by the new—as well as the first and the only—government of South Sudan.

On July 9, 2011, after a nearly unanimous vote (98.9%), The Republic of South Sudan officially became an independent state. It is an exciting and much-welcome development, says Aweng, but the world’s youngest country is “still struggling a lot,” he says. While there is no shortage of outside interest in oil, Aweng also welcomes investment in agriculture, business, transportation, healthcare, security and, more than anything, education.

Building the clinic at the same time the country is building itself brings with it a unique set of challenges. Imagine that between interviewing and hiring, the country enacts a social security plan. Suddenly there are more rules, regulations and costs to figure out. But, quite unexpectedly, the project now has more help on the ground.

Last April, Steve Walker travelled to Piol with Jok Dau, who, as a lost boy also from Piol, has, in broad strokes, a story similar to Bol Aweng’s. Dau, in fact, was scheduled to speak with Aweng at TEDxColumbus, but was unable to get the day off work. In April, when he and Walker flew to Africa, Dau was in a much better job at the US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) and, just one year earlier, had travelled to South Sudan to marry Abol, his fiancé. This time, after two weeks working with the community in Piol and meeting with various government officials, Walker flew home, while Dau was to stay on three more weeks to help expedite his wife’s visa application and to visit with his new in-laws.

Three weeks passed, but Dau did not return. He made the mistake of skipping his pills and contracted malaria. As he began to recover, his wife who had been caring for him contracted not only malaria, but typhoid fever as well. Dau did not feel he could leave. He resigned from the USCIS. At the time, Walker was concerned for Dau’s future, but “Jok reassured me,” Walker recounts, “he told me ‘I will just start over’ and, well, I thought, that is one thing he certainly does know how to do.”

Recovery took months, but today both are healthy. Dau recently took a job training government staff in taxation and capacity building, and he continues to assist with the Buckeye Clinic. Turns out that having him “on the ground” has been an invaluable resource, says Walker.

Bol Aweng fully expects Dau will find a way to return with his wife to the US. Looking at Dau’s life now, as well as his own, I asked Bol Aweng what it feels like today, as a man, artist, employee, husband, father, philanthropist, to hear himself called a Lost Boy of Sudan. To answer, he began by talking about those 20 years: “Totally crazy,” he says, “no sense to them…and how I was able to cope…I can only say God is great. The Lost Boys of Sudan is about the history, but those 20 years are a big part of my life, and though, yes, I am a man, I have a happy life…the name ‘The Lost Boys of Sudan’… it is a reality.”


UPDATE: 12-8-13: Baby Aweng has arrived! At 8 pounds, baby is in good health. So is mom.

UPDATE 1-3-14: On December 15th, a political dispute escalated into an open conflict that has killed 1,000 people and displaced nearly 200,000. Fighting first erupted in Juba, then on December 25th rebels attacked Bor, the majority-Dinka capitol of Jonglei State that is about 60 miles south of Piol.

Steve Walker was able to talk to Jok Dau by phone on December 27th. He reports that Jok was evacuated to Nairobi by air by the US State Dept. His wife Adol, who had been in Juba for a medical appointment, fled by car to Kampala, Uganda. She made it to the border town Nimule, but for unknown reasons was unable to cross into Uganda. Jok says she is safe there with many other refugees also fleeing Juba. Adol was seeking medical care in Juba because, in news Jok was happy to share, she is pregnant.

When Bor was attacked, civilians either sought safety at the UN headquarters (as Bol Aweng’s sister did) or fled to their home villages. Bol says that over 1,000 fled to Piol, where they are without food or shelter. There is no food in the village and everything in the nearest towns has been looted by the rebels. Both Steve and Bol have been trying to get in touch with the staff at the clinic, but the phone network has been down for weeks.

Today (1-3-14) the US government announced a further reduction in embassy staff. So far one American death has been reported (though not officially confirmed): a former “Lost Boy” who had returned to prepare for his wedding. Also today, official talks between the government and rebel forces (led by former Vice President Machar) begin in Ethiopia. Previously, the African Union has said it would “take further measures if hostilities did not cease” in four days from today. It remains unclear what those measures might be.

UPDATE 3-10-14: After two months with no word from his home village, Bol was finally able to talk to a Buckeye Clinic staff member on February 12. He learned that most families in Piol had fled to the swampy land on the Nile, including Bol’s family. The Buckeye Clinic remained and remains open. The village chief and clinic staff stayed behind.

A cease-fire agreement was signed on January 23, 2014. Though there is still insecurity in the country. There were reports of renewed fighting in late February in Malakal in the Upper Nile region, north of Piol and close to the Sudan border, and a brief clash in Juba on March 5th. The UN, which publishes a weekly update on the crisis, reports that since Dec 15th over 900,000 have been displaced from their homes. 

Photos courtesy of, except independence celebration courtesy os Reuters. 

Kendra Hovey is editor and head writer at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at