A year ago this month, I met a little girl in Dunyal village, along the Khor Wakow River in South Sudan, named Nyasabit Rambang.
She was two years old then, a slight little thing with sleepy brown eyes that seemed to burrow deep into my inner being, searching for something more than I had to offer.
I remember Nyasabit because she would pull the leaves off a tree twig and eat them.
I remember the multiple sores on the dry, cracked, almost elephant-like skin of her arms and legs – the product of a child who drank dirty river water to survive and suffered the scourges of infection and disease because of it.
I remember that most of the time, Nyasabit wore a dirty, torn dress and nothing else.
I never heard a peep out of her. Never heard her cry. Never heard her mutter a word or phrase in her native Nuer.
But I know she was the reason Sioux Falls probation officer David Jal is raising money here on the Northern Plains and traveling back and forth from South Dakota to his native village of Dunyal to dig a well and build a school.
I know that she was his hope – a little girl who, because of Jal’s benevolent work, could grow up to do something more than haul water from the river and grind corn by hand every day to feed her village. In the classrooms Jal wants to build, she could become a nurse or a teacher or the kind of leader that guides that newest country on the planet into the 21st century.
Nyasabit was the reason I traveled to Africa with Jal, to see the children who study beneath trees if they go to school at all, and to know that all those dollars he is raising back in America are really changing lives in the Third World that is South Sudan.
Jal told me today that Nyasabit drowned last month in the Khor Wakow River, not far from the mud huts where she lived and I stayed during my time in Africa.
I am stunned. More than that, I find myself haunted again by the face of a little girl with flies drawn to her tear ducts and the mucus in her nose.
I’m haunted, too, by those eyes fixated on me, seemingly searching for something more than I had to give.
I just wish it wasn’t so.
The series is scheduled to start on Sept. 30. You can learn a bit here about what’s coming.
Sioux Falls groups traveling to South Sudan on goodwill missions or to visit family members are once again paying particular attention to fighting and unrest in the East African country.
Refugees fleeing the fighting along Sudan’s border with South Sudan say civilians are being killed by aerial bombings that Sudanese war planes have been dropping since early August.
The Associated Press has reported that observers believe Sudan is increasing its attacks to discourage the implementation of a humanitarian agreement signed Aug. 4 that would see aid deliveries to the region of South Kordofan in the Nuba Mountains region.
On top of that, Muslim unrest over an American-made anti-Islamic video has spilled into the Sudan capital of Khartoum.
In Sioux Falls, Prairie Hills Covenant Church has been raising money to build a church in Nasir, South Sudan. But Roger Quam at Prairie Hills reports that his group is staying put for now.
“It’s really not safe to go over there,” Quam said. “So we’re not going to do a thing with that for now. If the Lord wants a church built there, he will build it there.”
A second group with ties to the Catholic publishing venture Mary’s Project in Sioux Falls intends to move forward with its effort to build a library center in the South Sudan village of Paliau. It next heads over to Africa in early January.
“The news sure has been terrible,” Lisa Marie Johnson of Mary’s Project said. “But as far as our project, it has not caused any concern for us. Although Sudan is one of the countries involved in the uprising, I feel confident and safe in South Sudan.”
Of course the U.S. State Department would prefer that Americans stay out of South Sudan. In a posting this month, the agency pointed its strongest warnings to the border states along the Sudan-South Sudan border, but added that “you should exercise extreme caution in all areas of South Sudan.”
In addition to the fighting in the border region, “there are at least seven rebel militia forces that frequently engage in violent clashes with SPLA forces in various areas of South Sudan; these clashes can flare up with little warning and may exacerbate ethnic tensions throughout the country, leading to further violence,” the State Department said.
It suggests that anyone currently working on humanitarian relief or development efforts in the capital of Juba, or anywhere in South Sudan, “should take measures to reduce your exposure to violent crime, and should closely follow the security policies and procedures of your organization.”
Building schools and libraries in South Sudan, and digging wells for people used to drinking river water, takes more than goodwill.
It takes a lot of money – a lot of Ethiopian birr and Sudanese pounds to pay well diggers and construction workers, to buy trucks to haul building materials, and to purchase machines to create concrete bricks.
For a good school, a functional library or a new church, you can be talking upward of $250,000.
So back here in Sioux Falls, where five different groups are involved in humanitarian efforts in the East African country, fundraising continues on a lot of different fronts, at a lot of different levels.
Children from across the state have brought their dimes and nickels to school to help their African counterparts. Service organizations have held community dinners to raise money. Mary’s Project in Sioux Falls raffled off a mission trip to Africa this summer as a way to raise awareness about the needs in South Sudan, and to bring in money to help build a library in the village of Paliau.
And now members of an effort called the Khor Wakow School Project are about to unveil a book about the driving force behind their mission, Sioux Falls probation officer David Jal.
The book is called “David’s Journey” and is a story about Jal’s struggle to survive a decades-long civil war in South Sudan that ultimately turned him into one of the Lost Boys.
Jal wrote it with Laura Jacobs, a colleague of his in the probation office here in Sioux Falls. Illustrated by Tracy Bezesky, it’s 32 pages long and is being self-published, meaning 100 percent of proceeds will go toward building a school in Jal’s native village of Dunyal along the Khor Wakow River in eastern South Sudan.
“It tells the story I want it to,” Jal, 38, says. “I was impressed with the work Tracy Bezesky did. I think she’s a very gifted woman.”
The group is producing 5,000 copies with the first printing and intends to sell it for $20 apiece. Building on a marketing theme of “Buy a book, build a school,” project board members see the effort as a major fundraising piece for the school Jal wants to build for approximately 400 children in and around his home village.
There are no classrooms in the village now. Children are taught by volunteer teachers beneath the branches of what the Nuer call a thow tree. The nearest actual school is hours away, meaning many younger children go untaught.
Many of the girls go untaught as well. In the Nuer culture, the girls are expected to spend their days grinding corn and sorghum into flour, and to haul water from the Khor Wakow, and thus have no time to attend school. Jal has already taken hand grinders to his village to make that work easier, and also saw to it that a well was dug there this past February.
Now he’s intent on building the school so boys and girls alike have a place to learn safe from the whims of nature.
“David’s Journey” is expected to be available for purchase at the end of September, Khor Wakow board member Lisa Carlson said. Jal will be signing the books during the Festival of Books Sept. 28-30, and at Zandbroz on Oct. 27. The Siouxland Public Lilbraries has indicated it wants to host Jal for a book signing this fall as well.
Carlson said more information about the book and its purchase will become available soon on the project’s website at http://www.khorwakowschoolproject.org.
Lana Smith sits with her friend, Chol Thbek, at a picnic table at Whittier Park./Photo by Steve Young
Alcohol, the young man tells Lana Smith, is like the pull of the lion.
It’s like when he was a child, he is telling Smith, who is a counselor at Avera Behavioral Health but on many days is just a friend who likes to sit with him at Whittier Park here in Sioux Falls.
He is remembering when he was a boy growing up in South Sudan, when he and his siblings were hiding in the bush, when they were watching their parents being murdered by the Sudan soldiers from the north, and when they were too afraid to return to their village.
And then the lions came, and now they had another problem. The big cats were grabbing children in their teeth, pulling them screaming away to their deaths.
“Now, that’s what alcohol is like to him,” Smith explains. “He drinks to forget. But the more he drinks, the more alcohol takes over his life. He’s losing his family because of it. He’s losing his job. It’s killing him, giving him death. And so this pull of the lion is still on him, only now it’s alcohol.”
Smith has heard many stories like that at the park, where she has been going since May to spend time with Sioux Falls’ homeless Southern Sudanese population. Many call her “Mom” now because she brings them something to eat, maybe a Bible verse or two to encourage them, and perhaps some assistance in earning their citizenship or securing a job.
Their connection really began at John Morrell & Co., where Avera Behavioral Health was providing an employee assistance program for the meatpacking plant, and where Smith was going once a week to counsel workers.
She gave her card to many of them and encouraged them to contact her if they needed help. She’d see them at a monthly gathering of congregations in community called All Nations City Church. Eventually, one of them did call and ask her for help.
He really needed medical help, he told her. He was sweating and scared and having heart palpitations. So Smith and her husband met him at the park and took him to the emergency room. The hospital had seen him before, Smith said, and had told him the medication he needed, but he never made the connection that there were places he could go to get help securing the meds.
And that’s how Lana Smith the counselor became Lana Smith the friend.
Soon after, she started going back to Whittier Park to check on the man, to bring him food and Bible verses and to make sure he was doing all right. Other homeless Southern Sudanese men saw this, too, and they yearned for her evangelism and her kindness.
“Their common thread is they are all Sudanese men who ended up on the street,” Smith said. “They have alcohol problems, and it’s primarily because they suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and are self-medicating with alcohol.”
Now she routinely goes to the park and sits at the picnic table, connecting with as many as 15 of the men. Many were child-soldiers in the Sudanese civil war. Most still struggle in dealing with the trauma they experienced.
In Smith, they finally found someone who would listen to them. Because of that, they have become very protective of her.
“Anybody that seems a little aggressive or rude, those guys would say, ‘Get out of here. This is our spiritual mom. Leave her alone,’ ” Smith said.
Chol Thbek, one of the 15, does call her “Mom.” She is looking at ways to help him earn his citizenship so he can fly back to East Africa to see his family and know that he can then return to Sioux Falls
“For 16 years, I have not seen my mom or dad,” Thbek said. “When I lost my job at John Morrell, she never turned her back on me. She helps me all the time. So you see, when somebody takes care of your life like she does, they become your family. She is part of my family.”
Smith said she’s just trying to build relationships, trying to establish trust so that in working with others across the community who are in a position to help, perhaps they all can make an impact on these lives.
Maybe they can end the pull of the lion.
“I just feel like God put it in my heart to help these guys, and I can’t seem to let go of it,” she said. “They ask me, ‘Why are you helping us? Why are you coming here?’ My answer is, ‘God sent me to help you, and I don’t know why and I don’t know what to do. But I’m here to try.’ ”
Peter Morse/Steve Young photo
A retired Sioux Falls ophthalmologist has won a mission trip to Africa, an opportunity he intends to turn over to his wife.
The 77-year-old Morse was the grand prize winner at a recent fund-raising gala staged by Mission HOPE South Sudan, a Sioux Falls-based group that is working to build a library center in Paliau, South Sudan.
As fortune would have it, Morse’s wife, Rhonda, is already involved in a similar effort in another Southern Sudanese village, called Pajut, where they have dug wells, built a school, put in automated corn grinders and are making plans for a women’s center.
“I figured since I don’t have a specific project I’m working on over there, it would be better to give it to her,” Peter Morse said.
That’s fine with Lisa Marie Johnson, executive director of Mary’s Project, the Catholic publishing venture based in Sioux Falls that operates Mission HOPE. In providing round-trip air fare and covering the costs of food, housing and transportation in Africa, her group wanted to give a lucky winner the chance to see and be part of the construction of the Ajuong Library Education Center when they travel to South Sudan between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, or just after the new year.
As such, “we did have as the raffle rules that the winner was also allowed, if they wished, to pass the winning ticket to someone else as a gift as long as that person met the health criteria and other conditions, such as passport and visas,” Johnson said.
That certainly qualifies Rhonda Morse. Since 2009, she has made several trips to Africa with her good friend, Moses Joknhial II, and others to work in his native village of Pajut. There seems little question that she will be going over again someday.
Though family concerns might require her to take the second option offered to the grand prize winner – round-trip air fare to anywhere in Africa before the end of 2013 – Morse said she would like to travel with Johnson and her partner in the library project, former Lost Boy Atem Juowei, and go to Paliau and Pajut.
“I would like to combine the two,” said Morse, who emphasized that the many South Dakota groups working in South Sudan have talked about working together and are not in competition with each other. “I’m looking to see if there is something I can do collaboratively, something we can do that might be a benefit to each other.”
Whatever happens, Johnson said she was pleased with the decision to offer the unique fund-raising opportunity, and added that the event went well for her group.
They raised a lot of awareness about the project, and about the Southern Sudanese in Sioux Falls, Johnson said. They brought in Southern Sudanese cuisine for guests to sample, entertained them with Sudanese songs and dances, and educated them with a power-point presentation.
Money raised is going to what Johnson called phase one of the project, which includes purchasing a truck to help move materials, buying brick-making machines, paying for a well to be dug, and covering the costs of concrete materials and tools to build the library center foundation.
While not reaching the $95,000 goal yet for phase one, “the item we are coming closest to being able to purchase are the brick makers,” she said. “And we are specifically trying to promote help in raising funds for the pickup, which is absolutely necessary for the project to get materials during the building process.”
Peter Morse has worked in North Africa. He’s been to Kenya, to India, to China, in his career as an ophthalmologist. He has seen what the world is like over there, and is glad that his wife will get the opportunity again to continue her work.
“It just happened that, by the grace of God, it was I who was graced by lady luck,” he said. “At this point, I figure it’s much more sensible to give the trip to her rather than I go.”
Soliman Soliman (left), Ayom Ayom and Loro Peter, students at Washington High School, hope to return someday and help their Sudanese homeland. Photo/Emily Spartz
I’ve talked to a lot of Southern Sudanese children in the last four or five months about what they want to do with their lives.
Two things struck me as we chatted on the dirt plains of East Africa, and in conference rooms back here at Whittier Middle and Washington High schools.
One is how absolutely fervently the children of dirt-poor Dunyal village along the Khor Wakow River in eastern South Sudan cling to the notion that education can transform their lives.
The other is how often schoolchildren here in Sioux Falls who are used to all the conveniences of 21st century living still are motivated to go back and help change the world their parents grew up in.
Not all of them. “When I think about living in a mud hut,” Nybol Kur, an eighth-grader at Whittier, told me, “I’m used to living in America and going to the bathroom on toilets. I have no desire to get used to what they have to do.”
But there are many here who yearn to institute change in South Sudan. Ayom Ayom, a 17-year-old senior at Washington whose father was killed in the Sudanese civil war, is one of them. Loro Peter, 19 and a student at Washington, is another.
“I want to help my people; it’s important to me,” Peter said. “They’re in my blood. I just can’t leave them. There is a good chance I will go back.”
There is a feeling among a segment of Southern Sudanese youth in Sioux Falls that the opportunity they’ve been given for a better education here deserves to be shared with their countrymen. “My sister wants to be a nurse back there,” Ayom said. “I’d like to do something to help, too, maybe go to Ethiopia first and start out there, and then on to South Sudan. I’d go to see my uncle in Juba and then try to contribute. I’d like to teach.”
In South Sudan, 1.5 million school-aged children get no educational instruction whatsoever. For those who do, often while sitting in classes outside under trees, the average age at which they start is 13.
The opportunity then is better in Sioux Falls. But even opportunity here doesn’t necessarily promise success.
Sioux Falls School District officials tell me that between 2001 and 2011, 46 percent of refugee students who entered middle and high school ended up graduating from the school district. Ten percent dropped out, and the other 44 percent were listed as transferring out of the school district.
Learning a new language and a new culture obviously brings its own struggles. But give them enough time and enough support in our education system, and young people here like 15-year-old Rundial Biliu might actually realize his ambition of becoming e a mixed martial artist someday. Kur could become a nurse. Fourteen-year-old Matias Kowang may indeed return to South Sudan in the future and fulfill his desire to be its president.
Such are their dreams here in Sioux Falls today. And really, they aren’t so different from those of the young boys and girls who live in mud huts in Dunyal and carry jugs of water around on their heads and spears in their hands that they use to hunt gazelle.
Fifteen-year-old Chot Pal sat beneath a tree in Dunyal village on a hot February afternoon and told me that he preferred to do something more with his life and not to be a farmer like his father. Of anything he could be given in this world, what he wanted most was an education.
“Back in his day, my father didn’t have the opportunity I do now,” Pal said. “If I get an education, I would not do farming. I would do other things. I hope I can make a difference.”
That last line seems like a familiar one on the dirt plains of East Africa and in the hallways of Sioux Falls. The biggest difference between here and there then is opportunity. Perhaps in time, if Ayom and Loro go back, or if people like Sioux Falls probation officer David Jal succeed in their mission of building schools in their homeland, there will be little or no difference at all.
Some Sioux Falls folks I know who have been to South Sudan have gently suggested to me that I might be portraying life a bit too harshly in that East African country.
Tales I’ve relayed of corruption and other challenges we encountered on a February trip to the Khor Wakow River region of South Sudan, where Sioux Falls probation officer David Jal went to dig a well and someday build a school, didn’t necessarily reflect experiences other Sioux Falls groups have had.
I understand that.
I would also tell every local school child who has ever donated a nickel or dime to the cause of building schools in Africa, every benefactor from a church or service organization or just a regular Joe, that based on my view of the situation, their dollars were spent on that for which they were intended.
Jal might have had to reach into his own pocket to pay an unexpected and questionable boat repair bill. But the money his nonprofit provided to have a well dug in fact paid to bore that hole. I saw how that works firsthand.
As for my characterizations of life in the eastern horn of Africa, they certainly reflect a Midwesterner’s view of a dramatically different daily existence than what we experience here on the prairie. There are no flush toilets. There is no electricity and running tap water in the village. There is disease and hunger and children walking around with no clothes on.
But that doesn’t mean the people there live in a constant state of unhappiness.
In dealing with Nasir County government officials on the digging of the well in Jal’s native village of Dunyal, Deputy Commissioner Nagus Yassin Wita thanked us for coming over to help his people. Then he said something that struck me, something that captured for me the hundreds of smiling faces we encountered each day of our stay there.
“We like to smile,” Wita said, “so you know that joy is inside of us.”
While it is difficult to imagine knowing happiness living under such conditions, being nurtured and cared for would still naturally breed contentment wherever one calls home. “I don’t remember life being hard when I was young,” said Deborah Deng, an employment specialist at Lutheran Social Services’ Refugee and Immigration Center in Sioux Falls who grew up in a village near Wangeli in South Sudan. “I was loved and happy. When we arrived in the refugee camp, that’s when life became really hard.”
You can see and hear her talking about her life and journey to the United States by going here.
Jal, who worked in the same office as Deng from 2001 to 2007, said children growing up in the villages when civil war wasn’t being waged around them would have known a much more carefree existence than they do in the United States.
“You’d see children going to the bank of the river to play, and no one had to watch them or take care of them,” he said. “Here, you have to let the kids out to play, but there were a lot of people that kept them at home and would not let them go out. I don’t know if it was a fear of exposing them to other cultures, or a fear of their kids getting hurt.”
I saw the joy in Dunyal, saw the boys fishing in the Khor Wakow with their nets and the girls giggling as they ran their hands over the hair on a white guy’s arm – something they apparently don’t see very often.
To wonder how those smiles were possible is maybe understandable for a white middle class American who grew up in a totally different world. But to look at those smiles and suggest that I saw no joy inside would not have been accurate.
I saw the happiness. I also saw corruption but understood it did not define a culture nor diminish the good work South Dakotans are doing in Africa.
To have suggested otherwise would have been wrong.
Sioux Falls probation officer David Jal calls the congregation to worship with a drumbeat at Kingdom Dunyal Presbyterian Church in Dunyal, South Sudan./Steve Young photo
On a Sunday morning last February, in Dunyal village along the Khor Wakow River in South Sudan, I sat with the bees in church.
There were at least a half-dozen of them, big golf ball-sized monsters buzzing past my ears and dive-bombing me throughout the service.
For a guy two days into stomach unrest caused by the fish stew-rice combination we were eating every night, it didn’t help my nausea any. The opening to the outside was 10 feet from my chair, and with apologies to the pastor, I was tempted to bolt to the sunlight more than once.
But I stayed. And in that flimsy mud structure with its dirt floors, its thatched ceiling and the wooden poles holding up the roof, I was reminded of the universality of Christianity in this world.
There were maybe 15 people in the Kingdom Dunyal Presbyterian Church that morning. Many of the villagers were gone, having moved their cattle to greener pastures during this dry season. Four children sat on the floor by me, poking each other and rustling about until an older woman scolded them into silence.
And of course, there were the bees.
I understood neither the spoken words nor the hymns. Everything was in Nuer. But with Sioux Falls probation officer David Jal as my translator, I came to appreciate the familiarity of the service.
The Rev. Stephen Dhol Biel Dak thanked God for the beautiful Sunday morning. He read from Matthew 13, verses 18 to 23, the parable of the sower spreading the seed that is the Gospel.
Later, one of the religious sisters gave a congregation report. They were thankful that Jal had brought clean water with a new well to the village. “A woman reports that someone came and took her cattle,” the sister said. “She was hurt by that and wants the congregation to pray for her.” And someone named Bhan had a cough, “and we need to pray for that.”
As another hymn began, I was taken back to two weeks earlier, to my very first night in a mud hut in Gambela, Ethiopia, where Jal’s mother lives. It was maybe 4 in the morning, and I awoke in the darkness to the voice of a man singing in the distance over a loudspeaker.
As he did most mornings, he was calling church members to worship with his song.
I was reminded as well of another evening in the compound where Jal’s mother lives. It was dusk, and there were several mosquito net tents hanging from a wire stretched above the ground. In one of them, Jal’s niece, 17-year-old Nyahok Long, sang “hallelujah” over again and again as she drifted off to sleep.
The spread of Christianity is immense in South Sudan. In many ways, it was at the heart of a decades-old civil war in which the radical element of the Muslim Khartoum government of Sudan was bent on cleansing the south of its Christian influence.
But they did not succeed. And today, congregations are constantly springing up across the landscape – Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Evangelical Covenant, First Assembly of God, Episcopalian and more.
When Southern Sudanese refugee Moses Joknhial II of Sioux Falls enlisted his Episcopalian friends at the Church of the Holy Apostles to help him build a school in his native Panyang community, they also put new metal roofs on the Catholic, Episcopal and Presbyterian churches there.
Out on the east edge of Sioux Falls, at the Prairie Hills Covenant Church, Sam Kuach, Elijah Yuek and others are working with their white friends to build a brick church at Nasir, South Sudan, for their sister congregation there.
“It will be a big new church,” Yuek said. “The old ones are destroyed by termites. They just eat through it. In three years after it is built, the mud church will be gone. But with cement, it will be a good church.”
The termites are hard after the Kingdom Dunyal Presbyterian Church, too. In a few years, if not sooner, there will need to be a rebuilding there as well.
On this day, however, where the 15 were gathered, God found a passionate audience despite the golf ball-sized monsters buzzing around our necks and ears.
Those darn bees.
South Dakota’s interest in South Sudan is explained easily enough by the thousands of African faces in our schools, our work places, our churches and on our streets.
After 20 years in Sioux Falls in particular, the refugees relocated here have created countless friendships. And in their stories, they have inspired many South Dakotans to help them make a better life for the people of their homeland.
America’s interest stems from the country’s geographic importance for fighting terrorism in that part of the world. A democratic and strong South Sudan can bring stability to that region of the globe. And the human rights and humanitarian abuses spotlighted by the high-profile likes of actor George Clooney are something this country simply chooses not to ignore.
So the U.S. has poured $6 billion into Sudan and South Sudan over the last seven years. This past year alone, it spent $240 million in South Sudan, not including $110 million in emergency funding for refugees and returnees.
An obvious concern to donors here, and to government bean counters in Washington, D.C., is the question of whether the money is being spent wisely. Benefactors want to know that their gifts of $1 or $100 aren’t being lost in the graft of a van driver who stops on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere and demands his payment be tripled, or a county officer who insists that he needs $1,000 before he’ll allow well-digging equipment to leave the shop.
That’s why people like David Jal, the Sioux Falls probation officer who had a well dug in his native village in February in advance of building a school there, insists on going back to South Sudan to make sure the work is done right.
He and other Sioux Falls groups going over to build schools and clinics and churches have to know the donations are spent properly and are going to reputable businesses. Trust is a big issue here, and creating it might cost a little more. But the good they are trying to do in South Sudan is happening.
Can the U.S. government say as much? Kevin Mullally, the South Sudan mission director for the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, told me by phone recently that he is confident of it.
His agency is the one through which the U.S. government channels development assistance to countries like South Sudan. By contracting with other agencies, USAID is trying to bring cleaner water and better sanitation to the country. It’s building government offices and teaching people how to govern. It is helping the country develop a tax system, and financial accountability systems so government spending can be tracked. It’s strengthening the response to malaria, AIDS, typhoid and other diseases.
Is it succeeding? An unflattering June 2010 report commissioned by USAID found that the capacity-building efforts in the country “are currently neither strategic nor focused. With few exceptions, (the) objectives are sweeping, unspecific, detached from actual performance, impossible to measure, and thus unlikely to succeed.”
Mullally disagrees. He wasn’t working in the country in June 2010, he says, but the capacity-building project discussed in that report has been completely rewritten, a new contractor was selected to provide more focus, and progress now is more easily tracked.
“Every day, things get a lot better,” he says. “I would say we’re not perfect. We go back to Washington to provide us with more oversight on our projects. That said, I think we are providing sufficient oversight right now. We always wish we could do things a little better.”
Corruption is a problem in South Sudan, Mullally says. President Salva Kiir sent a letter to 75 former and current senior officials within his government in May demanding that they return an estimated $4 billion in stolen funds from the country.
“We fought for freedom, justice and equality,” says Kiir’s letter, which was obtained and verified by the Associated Press. “Yet, once we got to power, we forgot what we fought for and began to enrich ourselves at the expense of our people.”
The credibility of their government is on the line, Kiir says.
The credibility of the U.S. government’s spending in Kiir’s country is not tied up in that corruption, Mullally insists. No U.S. dollars go directly to the South Sudan government, he says. Instead, they are disbursed in grants and contracts that can be tracked vigorously.
“We have inspector generals who come down very frequently to look at the programs and track our progress,” he says. “It is not going into the pockets of government officials.”
But is it accomplishing anything? Is the more than $1 million being raised in South Dakota to finance at least five independent projects accomplishing its goals?
Despite the horror stories about corruption and graft, Jal and Mullally insist thpse investments are paying off.
“I think we will lift them out of their Third World poverty,” Mullally says. “I’m not going to say we can do it in five or 10 years. But if they have good leadership in that country and support that leadership and move ahead, I think in 10 years, we are going to see incredible improvement there.”