PITTSBURG, Kan. —
When a militia attacked Manon Bol’s village, killed his father and took him captive, he was about the age of the sixth- and seventh-grade students with whom he spoke Thursday at Pittsburg Community Middle School.
Today, he thinks he is 41.
“I was not born in a hospital,” he said. “So I am not sure.”
Bol, one of thousands of “Lost Boys of Sudan,” spent the day at the school sharing his journey, tragedies and triumphs as the culmination of a unit of study in social studies teacher Lynette Wescott’s classroom.
“He’s here,” Wescott told her students, “because he wants you to understand his feelings, to understand about his culture, and ... is your bad day anything like his bad day. He’s saying, ‘I had a bad day, a lot of bad days, but now I have a good life.’”
Bol grew up in a Dinka village accessible only by foot six hours from Turalei, the nearest town in northern South Sudan.
“We don’t have a lot of things,” he said. “We don’t have a car. We don’t have houses like you have.”
To get water, women must walk several hours to fill large containers that they carry back to the village on their heads. Cattle are the villagers’ currency.
“Here, when you have a car, a house, some money, you know you are rich,” Bol said. “In the village, something that makes us rich is cows.
“When you marry a lady, you pay her family in cows. When you are 13, you need to work hard to buy cows.”
It was those cows that young Bol and his father were tending in the pre-dawn hours when shouting and gunfire began.
His mother and brother were asleep inside their circular woven hut.
A civil war was raging — a war that over the course of 22 years would displace millions of children and adults — and it had come to Bol’s village.
“I didn’t know a lot of things about war,” Bol said. “When I grew up in my village, we thought the village was the world. Just one people, same language, same color, that’s it. We thought that is life.”
Bol, his family and friends fled into the bush.
“Many people died,” he said. “My father and I, we took the cows and ran away, but we didn’t know where to go. They caught my father, killed him. They captured me, took me and the cows to northern Sudan.”
There, he served as a slave tending his captors’ cattle.
“I saw my village no more,” he said.
Sad and scared, Bol would spend several years in the Darfur area, then more in an area in north Sudan. He dreamed of escaping, and one day he met a man who promised to help.
“He showed me how to get out, how to run away,” he said.
A relief organization in Khartoum helped him and other refugees by providing food, a place to sleep and eventually a ticket to Cairo, Egypt, where Bol would spend five years.
“I lost my family in my mind,” he said.
But aided by the United Nations there, Bol was given hope: Workers would help him get to Canada, Australia or the United States.
In 2006, Bol arrived in Kansas City, which had begun receiving “Lost Boys” refugees in 2001. He connected with a church and attended English classes. In 2011 — the same year South Sudan gained its independence — he became a U.S. citizen.
He also connected with an uncle, famed NBA player Manute Bol, who was known for his extreme height.
When Manute Bol returned to his homeland to provide family there with money, food and clothing, he discovered that Manon Bol’s mother was still alive. The younger Bol used his savings to travel there himself in 2012 — the first time he had been to his village since the attack in his youth.
“I met with my mom in my village; my mom didn’t know me,” he said. “She didn’t know me. I tell myself to my mom, and my mom, she cries.”
Despite the heartache caused by 20 years outside of his country and away from his family, “I am very happy because my mom is still alive, and my mom is very happy, too, because I am still alive,” Bol said.
In December 2013, he returned again, traveling by airplane to Europe, then Africa, then by car, then by foot for many hours to his village.
“Many people didn’t know me because I’m grown up,” Bol said. “Many people died. I did find some friends, but they didn’t know me.”
He found that outbreaks of unrest continue. Gunfire and violence erupted around him during his December visit, but he made it back to the U.S. safely. Having worked for several years, he would like to attend school, he said.
Bol said he was glad to share his story with the students and to be in the audience when they presented a play for him based on the best-selling book “A Long Walk to Water,” which chronicles the true stories of two children of Sudan.
“I have a new life,” he said. “I can say I had a bad life before, but you know now I can say I have a good life. The problem is, when you left family far away from you, it’s very hard. Little by little, it gets easier.”
The students said they learned a great deal from their time with him Thursday.
Sixth-grader Kassidy O’Dell said she was surprised to learn what life was like there for children.
“I couldn’t believe they walk six or seven hours to get water,” she said.
Classmate Maria Molina said she was saddened to hear Bol talk about his family members dying when he was just a child.
“It made our problems not seem so big,” she said.
THE LOST BOYS OF SUDAN is the name given to more than 20,000 boys of the Nuer and Dinka tribes who were displaced or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War from 1983 to 2005. An estimated 2.5 million people were killed, and millions more were displaced.