A Su­danese ‘lost boy’ brings his dreams home

District res­i­dent who fled civil war at age 11 and earned an MBA at Johns Hopkins works to shape a new era in south­ern re­gion

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY SU­DARSAN RAGHA­VAN ragha­vans@wash­post.com

Abra­ham Akoi strolled con­fi­dently through a door marked with a sticker that read: “Se­ces­sion.” The tall, rail-thin D.C. res­i­dent walked up the stairs of theMin­istry of Fi­nance here in south­ern Su­dan, en­ter­ing a world he had never ex­pected to en­ter.

As he walked into his of­fice, an­other man smiled and de­clared: “Sep­a­ra­tion!” Hazy sun­light glinted on the man’s pur­ple shaded thumb, a sign that he had just voted.

That morn­ing, Akoi, too, had taken part in Su­dan’s his­toric week-long ref­er­en­dum, which ended Satur­day. He had voted for the south to se­cede from the north, as most peo­ple in this re­gion were ex­pected to do.

For Akoi, it was the lat­est stop in an ex­tra­or­di­nary jour­ney. It be­gan with a dan­ger­ous walk across moun­tains and deserts when as a child he fled a civil war. It stretched to refugee camps and pres­ti­gious Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties and now un­folds back here amid great hope and trep­i­da­tion over what could soon be­come the world’s new­est coun­try.

“I still can’t be­lieve that I am here,” said Akoi, 31.

Ten years ago, Akoi stepped off a plane in At­lanta, one of sev­eral thou­sand “ lost boys” whose hard­ship and es­cape from Su­dan’s bru­tal 22-year con­flict cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of Amer­i­cans. Thou­sands of south­ern Su­danese were re­set­tled in theUnited States, and most strug­gled to blend into their adopted com­mu­ni­ties. But many, like Akoi, ex­celled.

Akoi earned a de­gree in his­tory and eco­nom­ics from the Uni­ver­sity of the South in Ten­nessee, then a mas­ter’s de­gree in govern­ment and an MBA from Johns Hopkins Uni­ver­sity. He had in­tern­ships at the Carter Cen­ter in At­lanta and with Rep. Don­ald M. Payne (D-N. J.), who has cham­pi­oned causes in Africa.

To­day, Akoi’s life has come full cir­cle. South­ern Su­danese liv­ing in the United States could have voted in sev­eral U.S. cities. But Akoi and many other “ lost boys” chose to re­turn to their home­land to vote and help pro­pel it into its next era.

“It is a fulfillment of a mis­sion we for so long have yearned to ac­com­plish,” said Valentino Achak Deng, whose own jour­ney was por­trayed in the novel “ What Is the What.” “It is a day when I feel like some­one has fi­nally given memy voice. It was im­por­tant for us to be here, to be on this soil.”

‘Think­ing about the past’

The day Akoi voted, the mem­o­ries flooded back: flee­ing his vil­lage at the age of 11. Walk­ing, hun­gry and tired, to neigh­bor­ing Ethiopia. Flee­ing mili­tias and bombers. Then re­turn­ing to south­ern Su­dan, only to flee again to a refugee camp in Kenya. Learn­ing that his fa­ther and three broth­ers had died in the war.

As he stepped up to the card­board booth to cast his vote, his hands shook.

“I was think­ing about the past, all that we’ve been through,” Akoi said. “I voted on be­half of all who lost their lives. I voted for my broth­ers.”

He paused and added: “I looked at the bal­lot for a few sec­onds, as if it would fly away, and then I dropped it into the box.”

In a cou­ple of weeks, he’ll know whether his dreams of se­ces­sion will come true. If the ref­er­en­dum passes, as ex­pected, south­ern Su­dan will declare its in­de­pen­dence in July.

On a re­cent day, Akoi drove through Juba. He noted how much the cap­i­tal has im­proved since his first visit back, in 2009.

A few years ago, “ this road was not paved,” he said with pride.

He pointed at a sign for a lo­cal re­lief agency: “ That was started by Su­danese in the U.S.,” he said.

Akoi knows that sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges lie ahead. So many key is­sues dic­tat­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween north and south re­main un­re­solved. Will the oil-pro­duc­ing border re­gion of Abyei, con­tested by both sides, erupt into war? Will rev­enue from Su­dan’s mas­sive oil re­serves, the ma­jor­ity in the south, be shared eq­ui­tably?

“Our po­lit­i­cal and fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions are weak,” he said. “Civil lib­er­ties are not strong. There are no good hos­pi­tals and no good sup­ply of medicines.

“And only 15 per­cent of south Su­danese know how to read and write. That’s not very good for democ­racy.”

Like most south­ern Su­danese, Akoi blamed Su­dan’s govern­ment, which is dom­i­nated by an Arab elite, for the re­gion’s woes. For decades, the Khar­toum govern­ment sought to re­press the south. Akoi noted how the vast ma­jor­ity of uni­ver­si­ties were lo­cated in the north. “We can’t have good gov­er­nance if the in­sti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing are not there,” he said.

Akoi has al­ready be­gun play­ing a role in shap­ing his home­land. He has de­clined to seek the six­fig­ure salaries in the United States that come with earn­ing an MBA. In­stead he has cho­sen to live here and work with the govern­ment. His cur­rent job in the Min­istry of Fi­nance is to make sure govern­ment min­istries and de­part­ments spend money ef­fi­ciently and ac­cord­ing to the an­nual


Wa­ter and man­goes

It’s a del­i­cate bal­anc­ing act. The govern­ment is led by and filled with for­mer rebels who have lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence. Cor­rup­tion is rife; jobs are of­ten handed out based on tribal al­le­giances. And de­spite his his­tory, many per­ceive Akoi as an out­sider.

“How do I tell them what to do with­out them think­ing that I am some guy from the U.S. talk­ing big? It’s a very tough job,” he said.

A few months ago, as global oil prices fell, he told of­fi­cials they had to cut spend­ing.

“ They were not happy, but I had to do it,” Akoi said. “ They didn’t un­der­stand that the oil rev­enues were based on mar­ket prices. They thought they would al­ways get the same price.”

Salva Kiir Ma­yardit, south Su­dan’s pres­i­dent, has tapped Akoi to be­come the deputy di­rec­tor of ad­min­is­tra­tion and fi­nance — a sign that the govern­ment is reach­ing out to qual­i­fied tech­nocrats in the di­as­pora. Many of south­ern Su­dan’s ed­u­cated pro­fes­sion­als, in­clud­ing lawyers, doc­tors and econ­o­mists, died in the war or fled the re­gion.

Akoi vowed not to be in­flu­enced by cor­rupt bu­reau­crats.

“I have a com­mit­ment and in­tegrity to do the right thing for south Su­dan,” he said. “Our biggest chal­lenge is cre­at­ing a sys­tem that is big­ger than one per­son, to cre­ate a sys­tem that will stand the test of time.”

On most week­ends, Akoi walks along the banks of the Nile, which snakes through Juba. When he looks at the lush mango trees, he sees the po­ten­tial for south­ern Su­dan to ex­port their fruit. When he looks at the brown wa­ters, he sees the po­ten­tial to har­ness hy-dropower to light up the elec­tric­ity-starved re­gion.

“When I look at the wa­ter and the man­goes, they are in­di­ca­tors of how beau­ti­ful south Su­dan is,” Akoi said. “ This is a place where peo­ple should not go hun­gry. If you plant any­thing here, it will grow.”


Abra­ham Akoi, 31, puts his U.S. de­grees in his­tory, eco­nom­ics, govern­ment and busi­ness to work for south Su­dan’sMin­istry of Fi­nance.

“ This is a place where peo­ple should not go hun­gry,” says Akoi, who vows to re­sist cor­rup­tion. Many ed­u­cated pro­fes­sion­als, in­clud­ing lawyers, doc­tors and econ­o­mists, died in the war or fled the re­gion.

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