Area man determined to give aid in Africa
SPRINGDALE — Even a medical emergency and a stay of more than two days in a dilapidated hospital hasn’t deterred Sam Totten from continuing his humanitarian trips to a war zone, thousands of miles from his Northwest Arkansas home.
“As long as I’m relatively healthy and have the ability to pull it off, it just seems selfish, in a way, not to do it,” Totten said. “Or heartless, or whatever you want to call it.”
Totten, 68, lives east of Springdale in a quiet, verdant
neighborhood overlooking Beaver Lake. It’s a far cry from the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, a war-torn region to which he’s traveled several times over the past five years on missions to feed hungry civilians.
He spends thousands of his own dollars on each trip. He also spends his own money, as well as donations from others, on food for the Nuban people.
His most recent trip was last month. Totten arranged the delivery of more than 6 tons of rice, sorghum, beans, cooking oil and salt — all worth about $9,000 — to Nuba refugees in Uganda, which borders South Sudan. He also bought 650 reusable feminine pads for the refugees.
Totten said he wasn’t able to see the delivery through before he left because of the heavy red tape involved. A doctor with whom Totten traveled, along with a “fixer” he hired, eventually got the job done. A fixer is someone who has connections inside government and elsewhere and can pull strings to get certain jobs done, Totten said.
“We had to get permission from the prime minister’s office to introduce any items into any of the (refugee) camps, whether it’s food or whatever,” he said.
He had hoped to spend time in the camps interviewing refugees, but his plan was derailed by an unexpected illness. He woke up early one morning with gastrointestinal pain. The pain worsened as several hours passed.
“I was in agony,” he said. He ended up in a hospital in northern Uganda, a setting
he described as hot, buggy and lacking amenities — such as soap and toilet paper — most Americans would expect in a hospital room. Bats came into the room at night, and no one changed his bed sheets during the 2½ days he was there, he said.
In addition, everyone at the hospital had to cook their own food.
“So every morning and late afternoon, you’d hear all this noise, and it was people outside starting fires and cooking their own food,” he said.
He was told repeatedly a medical-evacuation flight was being arranged to take him somewhere else, but the flight never materialized. He finally decided to return to Kampala, the capital of Uganda. He caught a flight from there to Kigali, Rwanda, before returning to the United States.
“It was a successful trip, but it was miserable and I didn’t accomplish everything I wanted to,” Totten said. “But the main thing is, we got the food there.”
Kathleen Barta, Totten’s wife, was at a fundraiser with friends when she got the call about his illness. It was a scary time, she said.
“But I’m grateful for the friend he was traveling with,” she said. “They made some good decisions.”
It was the second time Totten experienced a medical problem while on one of his mission trips. In January 2016, he passed out and hit his head in a shower in a refugee camp in South Sudan, sending him to a makeshift hospital. He eventually was evacuated by airplane to a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, where he stayed for five days.
Barta worries about her husband, but admires his
willingness to do what he can.
“His life has been committed to human rights issues,” Barta said. “I wouldn’t be the one to stop Sam from doing the work. I think at this stage of his career, it’s a powerful example for people to do something and not be a bystander.”
Totten said Barta is amazingly supportive of him, though he appreciates the anxiety his trips cause her.
“I don’t want to be cavalier and say, ‘Well, I’m going to keep going, no matter what,’” Totten said. “If it starts eating away at her, then that’s not fair.”
Totten, a scholar of genocide studies, taught at the University of Arkansas for 25 years. His home office is filled with books on genocide, some of which he has written or edited. He will teach a course on genocide at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., this fall.
Philip Tutu is a native of the Nuba Mountains living in Kansas City, Mo. Tutu, 53, has known Totten for six years. He complimented Totten on the work he does.
“We have a crisis in Sudan, and he has always cared about our people and always wanted to bring the story out to tell people about it,” Tutu said. “He is caring and has a good heart for people. He’s risking his life to go help others.”
Conflict in Sudan is nothing new, but the current crisis in the Nuba Mountains region is most directly traced to 2011, when the country of South Sudan was born. Two Sudanese provinces that wished to join the new nation were excluded, so a rebellion sprang up against President Omar al-Bashir’s government.
The Sudanese government has waged war against the rebels, but the government also has been criticized for targeting civilians in the region. The International Criminal Court has charged al-Bashir with crimes against humanity, including genocide, in connection with violence against Darfur.
Totten estimates he’s probably spent well over $20,000 of his own money not only on the food he’s delivered to Nubans, but also the airfare and vehicle rental needed for his trips. He pays for it all with royalties from his books and the money he makes from talks he gives nationally on genocide. He makes $3,000 from each talk he gives, he said.
Others have been financially supportive of his work, however. A local educator donated $1,000. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, the Quakers of Fayetteville and various other genocide scholars have contributed as well, Totten said.
Sam Totten, a genocide expert and former University of Arkansas professor, stands Thursday in his home office in Springdale. Totten returned last month from a trip to east Africa to bring food to civilians in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan.