Friday, February 17, 2006

"Lost Boys" of Sudan: Searching for Peace


One of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan carrying food at the Kakuma Refugee camp in Kenya.

The “Lost Boys of Sudan” is truly an incredible story. It’s a story about war, cruelty, suffering, endurance, faith and deliverance… In our global village, somehow, the things that happen to James Manyror and Michael Deng are more and more everyone’s responsibility. Meeting and James and Michael was an inspiration---the distance they’ve traveled, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually is unbelievable. The world is changing and evolving at a breakneck pace, and some people are caught up in the vortex. James and Michael should be a reminder to us that while mass events are often beyond of our control, individual lives do matter, and we should do what we can to make a difference.

"Lost Boys" of Sudan: Searching for Peace

In the Western mind, the name “Sudan” denotes a land and a region, as much as a modern nation-state. Extending below the Sahel grasslands on the southern edge of the Sahara, from the “French Sudan” (Mali) east to the Red Sea, the Sudan is a region rich with connotations and images. It is a land of profound history; a place where the mystery of ancient Egypt and Nubia, the pyramids, the great desert and the rest of the African continent all converge. Sudan is also known for the most beautiful shades and darkest hues of the African race; it is also a land where the racial mystery of what is “black,” and what is “African” and what is “Arab” is so fine as to be indistinguishable, yet full of violence, separation and warfare.

How does a place of such beauty and history become rife with conflict and suffering? Over the last 20 years Africa’s largest geographical nation has also become home to its most protracted and brutal war. More than 2 million people have been killed and another 4 million displaced in a civil war where accusations of genocide, ethnic cleansing, slavery and crude horrors abound--horrors that are nearly impossible to conceive behind Western TVs, computer screens and the conveniences of modern living.

Most recently, Darfur has commanded world attention, as the combined attacks of the Sudanese military and the Janjaweed militia have bombed, killed, raped and pillaged, carrying out a scorched earth policy that has decimated the livelihood of peaceful, agrarian people. As hundreds of thousands have been driven to destitution and starvation, many world leaders, aid organizations and human rights groups have called for international intervention.

It seems that these massive conflicts, tragedies and displacements have their own special names and places in the history of the African continent. There is the Maaf or the great crisis of slavery; the Mfecane or Defacane, the vast destruction and migrations of tribal groups in the wake of Shaka Zulu’s ruthless expansion; and now a new Diaspora of African Sudanese seeking refuge from continent’s latest conquerors.

But even before we began to hear about the problems of Darfur, another extraordinary saga of suffering was emerging from the Sudanese north-south conflict. The desert of Sudan and Egypt has been a land of epic migrations and the scene of biblical exile and deliverance—and it seems that in our modern times we have witnessed a new mythical tale in the sad story of the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”

In 1987, the Sudanese government—in coordination with loosely organized militias—intensified its bombing raids and attack on towns and villages the southern region, killing adults and raping and enslaving women and young girls. Thousands of the male children from these pastoral regions were typically herd boys who tended goats and cattle on the outskirts of their villages and by chance survived the devastation. Suddenly homeless orphans, these boys gradually coalesced into larger and larger groups seeking to escape the violence and possible enslavement or conscription. Ranging from about 5 years old to 13 or 14, the wandering bands of “lost boys” had no idea of the terrifying ordeal that lay ahead of them. Originally some 26,000 (according to UN estimates), less than half would survive the agonizing journey on foot that would eventually cover nearly 1,000 miles of desert and months and years of wandering from one village or temporary refugee camp to another.

Dogged by hunger and thirst, the Lost Boys ate leaves and wild berries and sucked water from mud and desert plants to stay alive. Sometimes the pain was overwhelming and some of the boys just collapsed to the ground from exhaustion, or slowly lagged behind, becoming easy prey for lions. When the smallest boys were in too much pain to walk, some of the older boys would pick them up and carry them on their shoulders. Sometimes the Red Cross helicopters dropped food and supplies to them, but aid organizations were unable to land because of the fierce fighting in the region. For the most part, the Lost Boys were on their own.

The boys walked for several months across southern Sudan and into Ethiopia, where they lived for three years in various refugee camps. But fate was not on their side, as Ethiopian insurgents staged a coup d’etat in 1991 and the rebel military forces chased the boys out. In their desperate attempt to escape Ethiopia, many of the Lost Boys drown in the River Gilo, or were eaten by crocodiles or shot.

For more than a year the boys walked back into Sudan, and then south to Kenya, where they finally found relative stability at Kakuma Refugee camp in 1992. Over the past 10 years Kakuma has grown into one of the world’s largest refugee camps and is now home to more than 80,000 dispossessed people from Somalia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Congo, in addition to the Lost Boys and other Sudanese. While Kakuma provides some security and basic health and educational services for the boys, it is a desolate environment of sweltering 100-degree desert heat, tin-roof mud slab homes and pit toilets. The refugees are unable to cultivate their own crops, and must rely on a low-calorie one meal per day food ration. But the Lost Boys at Kakuma were grateful for their survival, and are eager to take advantage of primary education classes and English lessons in hopes of a better life.

James Manyror knows firsthand about the terrifying experience of the Lost Boys. But sitting in his comfortable Aurora apartment, with his 49ers jersey, baggy jeans and basketball sneakers and the TV blaring ESPN NBA highlights, you would never guess that he was among the thousands who made that harrowing journey through the desert. Manyror looks like an ordinary African American teenager or hip-hop kid. His dimpled smile and easy going laugh show no signs of someone who lost his innocence and childhood in the Lost Boys’ ordeal. If you ask him about the past, he’s eager to tell his story and share his amazement where life has taken him.

“Life was really a struggle. When I think back then, it looks like a nightmare—you can’t figure out where you are. You can’t imagine that year,” Manyror said, as his voice suddenly becomes animated. “I never thought that I could sit here. on a couch like this, in a place like this and go to school. We really struggled and we didn’t know where we would end up.

“Sometimes trying to explain it is really difficult. There was no food some days; there was no water some days; sometimes you are sick and you don’t know if you’re going to stay alive.”

Manyror’s roommate Michael Deng is also a Lost Boy from Paireng, the same village that Manyror was also born in. They come from an isolated rural area with no electricity, no TV or radio, no running water. The two boys made the long journey together in allied groups, and have a very deep bond and friendship; they came to Denver together from Kakuma in 2001. In four years they've gone from learning how to use can openers and telephones to attending college and mastering the look and feel of American youth. Deng is more introspective and reserved, but with his fly shirt, crisp pants, handsome boots and smooth haircut, he looks ready to hit Pierre’s Supper Club or the Casbah on the prowl. But when he speaks, Deng appears serious and thoughtful, carefully considering his words.

“You can’t imagine it,” Deng answers ponderously, replying to my question about his experience during the war years. He speaks slowly and shakes his head in disbelief. “I can’t explain it. It would take an entire year or two years. It was such a large history that you cannot cover it in one day.”

Manyror then proceeds to describe the general events of their great trek. The government attacks in 1987, their escape to Ethiopia, being chased out of Ethiopia back into Sudan, and finally walking all the way across the Kenyan border to Kakuma. He said they had nothing when they left Paireng, but sometimes people would give them supplies along the way. Language was often a barrier and at times they could only communicate with hand gestures; sometimes villagers were openly hostile. One of his worst experiences happened when they were leaving Ethiopia and a local gang opened fire on them.

“After we left Pinchalla, when we were in Kopita, we were attacked by local villagers—it was a very tragic attack. One of my friends was killed that night—oh man, I was so scared,” Manyror said with a tremble in his voice, adding that he had many nightmares long after the event. “They started shooting at night. Nobody saw them come up to us.”

Deng seemed calmer and less traumatized by the attack, and explained that the villagers were “shooting randomly” and those who happened to remain prone, close to the ground, survived; the unfortunate boys who stood up and ran were killed. Manyror was terribly shaken by the loss of his close friend, who they buried later that day.

“I think it was his day to go,” Manyror shrugged.

When I asked both young men about the roots of the conflict and the perceived racial differences between the Sudanese Arabs and Africans, Deng let go a bitter, sarcastic laugh, again shaking his head in disbelief. Manyror however, was more inclined to discuss the political context.

“When you say you don’t see a (racial) difference between (the Sudanese) Arabs and Africans, you are right. But political differences play a role. It comes to religion—the Arabs think that they are Moslem, and the others are infidels,” Manyror pointed out, explaining that the Arab government has imposed Islamic fundamentalist Sharia law and controls job opportunities and economic development. “Some who are a little lighter think they are separate from the south, but it is heritage that is the biggest difference.”

Deng and Manyror are from the Dinka tribe, the largest ethnic group in Sudan, and they both hail from the Ruweng clan of the Dinka. Like many of the Lost Boys, both young men are not quite sure of their ages or birthdays. Manyror says he was born in 1979, and was 12 or 13 by the time they made it to Kakuma in 1992. Deng says he was born in 1980.

True to his solemnity and contemplative character, Deng speaks of becoming a priest or pastor. He works during the day at Safeway and takes theology courses from the Catholic Church at night. Manyror works as a Certified Nursing Assistant—he studied nursing at Aurora Community College—and intends to transfer to a university to earn his Bachelor degree. Both young men say they are so busy with school and work that they have very little time for TV, movies web surfing or other kinds of youth entertainment.

Manyror returned to Kakuma for two months in April and May of 2005, and he has now become consumed with a vision of starting an organization to help other Lost Boys at Kakuma. There is a continuing influx of refugees from Sudan, and after talking with Kakuma officials and local church groups, Manyror would like to assist in a project to construct 10 dormitory buildings and 10 classrooms for some 200 young orphans who are now semi-permanent residents at the camp. Like Manyror and Deng, the orphans will receive some education, and many of them may be resettled in the United States, Great Britain, Australia and other countries. Manyror calls his organizations the Sudanese American Orphaned Rehabilitation Organization (SAORO) and has applied for tax-exempt status as a non-profit. The organization plans to launch its web site——in March.

Manyror is very excited about the prospects for SAORO and he believes he is in a position to make a difference for Kakuma, which he describes as a “horrible”—if relatively safe and secure—place. He hopes more Americans will learn about the crisis in Sudan and will help the plight of Sudanese refugees.

“People in the United States hear all kinds of stories in the news—good stories and bad stories. If they don’t hear these stories, they won’t know what is happening.” Manyror explained, saying he believes people of “goodwill” can help the Lost Boys. “I think for me, not to get this story out, is not an option.”

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Kyle Baker: A Contemporary Vision of Nat Turner


I have't read a comic book in years, but reading this and interviewing Kyle Baker was a fantastic experience...

Kyle Baker’s Contemporary Vision of Nat Turner

Kyle Baker is at it again.

As if his renown as an animator, cartoonist, illustrator and one the comic industries finest artists weren’t enough, the multi-talented writer is turning his prodigious creative energies to writing a graphic novel about the infamous slave rebellion leader Nat Turner.

But perhaps this is expected of someone who helped pioneer the graphic novel art form itself with such treasured gems as the hilarious hip hop critique “Birth of a Nation,” sophisticated social satires like “Why I Hate Saturn” and “The Cowboy Wally Show” and a comic book version of the Bible’s King David. It seems that Baker ‘s consistency lies in his penchant for taking his readers and fans beyond the expected boundaries of his previous works.

For people who haven’t touched a comic book since fourth grade and believe that comics can’t take on serious subjects, think again. Ever since Art Spiegelman broke new literary ground with “Maus”—a graphic novel about his father’s harrowing experience surviving the Nazi Holocaust—graphic novels have set the publishing world on its head. Taking his inspiration from Spiegelman, Baker was one of the first to experiment with the graphic novel format in the mid-80s with “The Cowboy Wally Show,” which one reader called “the single funniest graphic novel ever written.”

But Baker’s “Nat Turner” series is anything but funny. Nat Turner, of course, has a curious and enigmatic place in our nation’s history. Like John Brown, Denmark Vesey and other slave rebellion leaders, Turner was caught up in the injustices and emotional upheavals that would eventually spark the Civil War. William Styron fired up the American imagination with his Pulitzer Prize winning “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” in which he, a white southerner, took artistic liberties to write from the psyche of a 19th century slave,

Baker’s “Nat Turner” is quite the opposite of Styron’s. Between beautifully vivid, explicit artistic images there is no dialogue, save the actual writings from Nat Turner himself, as told to Thomas R. Gray, the sympathetic attorney who recorded Turner’s last words and confessions in his jail cell as he awaited execution. The result is an extraordinary historical journey that goes back in time to the capture of Nat Turner’s mother in Africa and her horrid slave ship journey through the “Middle Passage,” and on to the story of Nat Turner’s childhood, youth and eventual rebellion.

Baker sought to avoid some of the controversies that followed Styron’s book by adhering to original sources for his story.

“Everything in the stories is actually true—they happened to somebody. A lot of the experiences aren’t particularly well-documented just because they were slaves,” Baker says, with an earnestness that belies his lighthearted sense of humor and irony. “I have a lot of books, and during the Depression there were a bunch interviews done with slaves through the WPA, and they were an excellent source. I’m trying to stick with primary sources because it is such a controversial subject and there’s also been a lot of misinformation written about Nat Turner too, just over the years.

“You can’t argue with actual quotes. You might argue with whether what that guy said was accurate, but you can’t argue that Nat said it, at least.”

“Nat Turner” stirs turbulent emotions as it carries the reader through the trials and tribulations of slavery. The drawings are black and white—revealing Baker’s amazing power of illustration—and vibrantly dramatic, yet starkly visceral and haunting. I found myself returning to the images again and again, reliving events, absorbing the story and developing an unusual affinity for the characters. It’s been many years since I flipped through a comic book, and “Nat Turner” was a pleasurable return to a fascinating—if under appreciated—media.

Baker finds the ambiguity of Nat Turner as a historical figure is perplexing. African Americans and white Americans often have very different views of Turner, and that confuses and fascinates him.

“One thing that I had encountered before I started the book was that every time I told a black person I was writing a book on Nat Turner, they’d get very excited and say, ‘That’s a terrific idea, I can’t wait to see it,’ “ Baker explains. “And whenever I’d tell a white person I was doing a book on Nat Turner they had no idea who Nat Turner was.

“I thought it was very interesting that there’s a guy like that—you ask almost any black person who he is, and he’s a hero. And one of the things that really fascinates me about the guy is that he is controversial and I honestly don’t know why.”

Baker uses his artistry to paint a broader canvass of slavery itself, and while he is known for his deft linguistics and wry sense of humor, “Nat Turner” is more of a sparse, Zen-like journey through historical records and collective images of the “peculiar institution.” He considered including more dialogue, but since he decided to confine his work to historical sources, he felt some of the dialogue could actually diminish the impact of the story.

Baker also pointed out that he had to put more into the art to convey what a character is thinking and saying to compensate for the lack of dialogue.

“If I had added dialogue, it would have had to been in a slave dialect, which is very hard to understand anyway, so I couldn’t see how it would help the story. When I read some of those old things written in dialect, it’s like they almost didn’t speak English,” Baker explains, adding that it’s harder to make the characters sympathetic if the reader can’t understand the narrative. “Slaves were uneducated. They talked like you see in those Mark Twain books. I just felt it real distracting—it’s another problem for the reader to deal with.”

While Baker is held in high esteem in the comics world (he received the Harvey Award and the Eisner Award, considered the two top honors of the industry), he still faces certain editorial battles when he ventures into new experimental territory. He decided to circumvent potential conflicts by self-publishing “Nat Turner” through his own company.

“When you’re signing the contract (with a publisher) you’re taking a guess, because you haven’t written the book. I often get into trouble because as it gets nearer the deadline I realize, “Oh God, this is lot more work than I thought,” Baker pointed out, with his regular chuckle. “In the case of Nat Turner, that’s exactly what happened. The comic books were originally supposed to be 32 pages, but as I was doing them, I felt it really didn’t work at that length, and they needed to be 48 pages. And even that would’ve gotten me fired.

“And then bringing it in late (would be a problem). When I’m working on something like Batman, I can’t get away with that.”

Beyond extending the length of the book and the time he spent working on it, Baker is also choosing to break the format mold with “Nat Turner.” He says an average Superman comic book has six to nine drawings per page, while “Nat Turner” has far more variation, and corporate publishers might have a hard time accepting the project.

“I think if you go into a publisher that traditionally is used to seeing 5 or 6 drawings per page and you bring in one drawing on a page, with no color and no dialogue, it looks you’re trying to pull one over on them,” Baker said, bursting with laughter. “It looks like I’m trying to work less, which isn’t at all the case. The reason I’m doing less drawing per page, is because I want to spend more time per drawing.”

Apparently, the formula is working and the response has been positive. Baker has published the first two comic books in what will eventually be a series of four, and the first one sold out, while the second is also selling out fast. After the final two are printed, the entire series will be published as a graphic novel. Baker will not reprint the comic books, and hence they are becoming collector’s items. He expects to complete “Nat Turner” within two months, although the book is already available in pre-orders on the Barnes & Nobles web site. He started “Nat Turner” around June, 2005, although he conceived the project a couple of years before that.

Baker believes his innovative marketing strategy is helping popularize the graphic novel version, although he feels “Nat Turner” can reach a far wider audience than the young males who typically frequent comic book stores. People who buy and trade comic books aren’t necessarily representative of the kinds of readers who will likely find a Nat Turner graphic novel appealing.

“The thing about the kind of stuff that I tend to do for comics is I’m trying to push the envelope. But the problem is regular readers don’t want the envelope pushed. The people who read Spider Man every week aren’t saying, ‘Boy, I really wish I could have a Nat Turner comic book,’ “ Baker says, with his trademark chuckle. “The reason its being done this way now is because I’ve been in this business for 20 years. I happen to know the distributors and retailers, and now I’m trying to get more into schools and bigger book stores where I think the audience is going to be.”

Depending on the success of Nat Turner, Baker is considering writing other historical graphic novels that might be suitable for teachers and schools. The 40 year-old lifelong resident of New York City has plenty of options in comics, cartoons, film and animation. He recently worked on Shrek II, providing character development for the Eddie Murphey’s donkey. Baker also worked on “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” with Brendan Fraser, Bugs Bunny and other Warner Brother’s cartoons, where “they spent millions of dollars on it and had tons and tons of meetings and they were wrong.” His experience with the Bugs Bunny movie reinforced his concept of not being afraid to test his own ideas independently in the marketplace.

Baker’s old friend, film director Reginald Hudlin—who worked with Baker and Aaron MacGruder of the Boondocks cartoon series to create “Birth of Nation”—recently became the head of entertainment at BET, and Baker says they are planning a television animation project. But he’s a little concerned about the uncertainty of the budget, which he believes will have a big impact on the quality of the final product.

“I think with TV and video the more you spend, the better it looks. The people he’s hiring are all very good, so it should be okay,” Baker opines, pauses for a moment and laughs. “If the budget’s not that good, I just won’t be that excited about it, but I’ll still do it.”

“The Bakers,” a comic book and graphic novel series about his wife and three children is another one of his self-published projects that is close to his heart. His wife Liz says, with a slightly strained ambivalence, “He gets paid to make fun of me. Very few people can get away with that.”