Literary Activism

Harriet Levin Millan

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


By Michael Kuch with Harriet Levin Millan

This first-person account tells the story of refugee Michael Kuch’s journey as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Harriet Levin Millan Director of The Drexel University Writing Program and the author of The Christmas Show (Beacon Press) interviewed Kuch and pieced his answers together in fluid prose.

These scars on my forehead? These are not my initiation scars. They are not the scars a boy gets when he goes into the forest to become a man. I did not live in my village and with my family long enough. Initiation happens to boys when they are somewhere around 10 years old. I was much younger when I was forced to seek a home elsewhere. These are razor blade scars. When I was about 5 years old I had some problems with my eyes — maybe just some dirt in my eyes — I don’t know how serious it was, and my grandmother cut my forehead with a razor blade to improve my health. I still remember the pain. The blood. I didn’t like my grandmother after that. Her name was Nyankuerdit. The “it” at the end of her name means “big,” a sign of respect like you would say in English, my esteemed Grandmother Nyankuerdit.

The government systematically planned to destabilize my village, Bor, in southern Sudan, because it was the home of John Garang, the man who started the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement and began the rebel uprising. My village was attacked at night. Planes bombarded it with bombs and set it afire. My family was scattered. I joined a crowd of people and walked with them. When I first started walking I wore shoes, but this walk went on for three months and most of it I did barefoot.

There are two seasons in the Sudan, the dry season and the rainy season. This happened during the dry season, which is hot, windy and humid. We walked at night to avoid the hot sun and the winds, and because we’d be less thirsty. The problem with walking at night is that there are wild animals, which attack people. I saw lions and hyenas attack and kill people in my group. Another reason we walked at night was because we were walking though a war zone.

Even though I was so young, I was conditioned for the walk because I had spent many days with my siblings in the forest learning how to hunt animals. I was already skilled at learning how to survive. We walked days without food. Some of the walkers ate wild plants and others ate mud, which attached to their insides and killed them. It took me a long time after I moved to America to get accustomed to eating meals. For a year or so I only ate once a day, and still, I don’t eat a meal the way you do.

After three months of walking, I arrived at a refugee camp in Ethiopia. It was 1991 and Ethiopia was undergoing its own troubles with Eritrea. A civil war was breaking out and almost as soon as I had arrived, I had to leave abruptly in the middle of the night. This time it was the rainy season and the Nile, which runs through all of eastern Africa, was flooded. Not many of us knew how to swim. There are tribes who have always lived by the Nile. In fact, they are called Nilotes. These people knew how to make dug-out boats from trees. I was lucky enough to get a spot in one of the boats, but other people were pulled across the river with rope attached to the boats. I saw many people drown in that river. I also saw crocodiles in that river attack people.

I couldn’t make it back to Bor because it was so far away. Instead, I stopped at an Internal Displaced Persons Camp called Pachalla where food and medical attention were provided. But again, just as I was settling in, more violence broke out. Planes bombarded the camp day and night and it became unsafe to stay. It took me one month to walk to another refugee camp, Kakuma, in Kenya. I stayed at Kakuma for eight years, all that time learning how to survive in the camp, which meant learning how to live in a very small space with tension — clashes over food and water, and avoiding the Turkana, the tribe who lived nearby and often attacked refugees outside the camp.

In 2000, I got an offer from the U.S. state department to come to the U.S. I struggled with this decision, which meant leaving Africa, perhaps forever. I still didn’t know if my family, particularly my mother, was alive. Just about that time, I was united with three of my brothers and sisters, who it turned out had also come to Kakuma. Then, all of us were given the chance to immigrate to Philadelphia.

I always feel called to go back to Sudan. The whole American experience, the chance to get my B.A. here, and now, applying to graduate school, is an opportunity, but I will always want to go back and do more.

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