Letters from Africa: Saying goodbye

Editor's Note: In this space, Penn teammates Dau Jok and Zack Rosen will provide a series of blog updates on their trip to Africa and Dau's work to start up the Dut Jok Youth Foundation to help his native Sudan. For more on the tragic, yet inspiring reasons, behind Dau's mission, read Dana O'Neil's story here. Also make sure to check out previous entries in Dau and Zack's blog journal.

From Zack: AGAHOZO-SHALOM YOUTH VILLAGE, Rwanda -- I eat meals at the same table, table 7, every day. I have formed terrific bonds with the bright group that spends meal time at this table. The intelligence of these young kids is astounding. Can you imagine? They have overcome everything and are speaking English, conducting calculus and executing experiments.

One of the girls wants to be a computer engineer. Another aspires to be a lawyer. A young man dreams of becoming a scientist. They love to study and they recognize that education will scab wounds and lead to a better life, a better Rwanda. We share great conversation and an abundance of laughter and it gives me so much pleasure to eat in the dining hall at the top of the hill every day, spending time learning, sharing and smiling. Today, some of us exchanged Facebook names and email addresses and I look forward to my Gmail inbox being overloaded with updates from Table 7.

Agahozo-Shalom draws young people from every region of Rwanda and this is intentional. The vision is that in their time here in the Village, the kids can learn the necessary skills to one day go back to their district and begin the work to repair their respective territories. With people from all over the country equipped with the capability to heal, the hope is that one day every district will be transformed and the transformation will occur because of its own inhabitants.

From Dau: Today was a very strange day for me in the youth Village. Every Saturday the students here come together at 6 in the morning and do the famous "Muchaka Muchaka," an exercise of military origins which the kids turn into fun. I woke up at 5:45 in order to participate, and as we ran from the Village gate down towards the neighboring village of Rubona, we chanted, sang, clapped and maintained ranks in lines of four.

I had done Muchaka Muchaka before, on our second day in the Village. But this one felt a lot more natural; I knew many of the chants this time, so I could sing along. These chants are mostly single phrases sung and repeated in call and response. They speak of hope, love, brotherhood, sisterhood, strength, courage, praise and optimism.

After running and singing for about 45 minutes, we returned to the Village. After the run, I had an amazing time sipping porridge and eating a bun for breakfast with the kids before joining the Penn group for a meeting. We soon met up with the kids for the national monthly day of service, Umuganda. We weeded the banana plantation next to the school for two hours. It was hard work, but it was a far cry from the volunteer work that the kids do in the broader community during the week.

Two of the main principles of Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village are tikkun halev (repair the heart) and tikkun olam (repair the world). In their first year, students focus on tikkun halev by looking inward to focus on themselves and their own healing through their new families and slowly developing a community.

After their first year, they move on to tikkun olam. Second-year students leave the village every Tuesday afternoon to go to the local clinic to help out, teach at the school or help “cultivate” (clear large swaths of land) for local farmers. This is a wonderful opportunity for the kids to give back to their extended community and teach them the value of giving. After all, everyone has something to give. But that was Tuesday and this was Saturday. After our farming stint, the Penn group spent a few hours relaxing at our guest house, chewing sugarcane, cracking jokes and generally having a great time.

Lunch was very difficult because today was originally meant to be my last day at the Village. I was scheduled to depart at 4 p.m. local time for Kigali, and I spent the lunch hour saying goodbye to the kids, especially the two houses with whom I feel closest. Each kid lives with 15 brothers (or sisters) his age in a house. These houses are headed by a House Mother and a Counselor who acts as a big brother or big sister. Five nights a week they hold an hour-long “family time” at which they reflect about their day and talk about how they feel about what they're learning, relationships they're building or anything else on their mind.

But the house Ben and I visited this Tuesday spent the hour in a bit more of an upbeat mood. Instead of sitting down and reflecting as most families do, we were dancing, singing, rapping, joking, doing magic tricks, arm wrestling and competing in push-up contests. We were able to interact as peers and friends rather than get stuck in a visitor-host relationship.

After lunch today, the Penn group (along with a group from Tufts University that just arrived) were sent off on a scavenger hunt. At this point (an hour before I was to depart for Kigali), Rabbi Mike pulled me aside. He told me that the University of Pennsylvania and those associated with this trip were concerned about my visit to South Sudan. Recent developments in South Sudan have made it a dangerous place to travel according to Homeland Security and other international sources.

South Sudan has set July 9 as the day it is to be recognized as an independent nation, and in the meantime the North is doing all it can to instigate another civil war and derail the South's march toward statehood. Northern elements have taken over Abyei, the disputed oil region on the North-South Sudanese border.

The risk was too big for everyone associated with the trip, and after a series of phone conversations with my mother, she agreed that I should not fight Rabbi Mike's request not to go. In my culture it is a bad omen when many people say no, and it is thought that at a certain point it is wise to do what the many say, despite your own desire to defy them.

All things point to another war instigated by the North. Last night an Antonov, a Russian-made missile plane, hovered over cities in South Sudan. Further, tribal wars within South Sudan have intensified. Zack and I also read that Eritrea is forming forces so that they can fight South Sudan and then use “peace” as a tool to broker an agreement with the new country. Eritrea has a history of such political stunts and will likely try to establish a base in South Sudan to fight Ethiopia.

In my view, war is inevitable. The question is merely when and whether the international community will be willing to intervene given the atrocities likely to occur if the last civil war, which left nearly two million dead, is any indicator.

Although the fact that I will not be going back home is disappointing, my family and friends feel it is the safest move. This is not because I am in any more danger than anyone else in South Sudan, but because my family has seen the wrong side of a bad omen with my father. We went to America to escape the violence and gain an education so that we could come back and build up South Sudan by teaching the youth empowerment.

But as Bruce Koeppl puts it, “You can't change anything dead ... there is no foundation without you, your dreams and aspirations for your people vanish when you vanish.” I still believe that if something is going to happen to me, it will happen regardless of where I happen to be.

Nevertheless, despite this setback, the plans for the foundation are still in motion. For now I will kneel and pray to God that the world intervenes before it is too late. Because if they do not, I fear that families will be torn apart or lost completely and my homeland will have to relive the horror of the 1990s.

Peace and Love from ASYV,

Dau and Zack