Bol's mission is building a school in his war-ravaged native land
OLATHE, Kan. - When Manute Bol unfolds his 7-foot-7-inch frame from a Cadillac Escalade and walks into a suburban Kansas City restaurant, eyes turn and people gawk.
Bol is oblivious to the stares after a lifetime of towering over everyone around him. He considers his height a gift from God, one that gave him a way out of his native Sudan and brought him fame and fortune in the NBA. Now he wants to give back by helping to build a school in the village where he was raised.
Bol, who didn't attend school as a child, understands that a quality education is the key to building a better future, for individuals and countries. It is why he moved to Olathe with his wife and four sons a year ago.
"I like it here," Bol said. "It's quiet. I like my neighbors, people are very nice and my kids can get a good education."
He wants children in his village to have the same opportunity.
That is why under the auspices of Sudan Sunrise, a Lenexa-based group that promotes reconciliation in Sudan, he is leading an effort to build a school in Turalei.
"If you don't have education, people go in a bad way," Bol said. "This is what I want in southern Sudan, for everyone to go to school."
Besides providing education, Bol says the school could further another goal close to his heart - reconciliation between Christians in southern Sudan and Muslims in northern Sudan. Many of the Muslims now suffering in Darfur and neighboring Chad were soldiers who inflicted so much pain on southern Christians during the civil war that ended in 2005.
Sudan has never been far from Bol's heart, even after he arrived in the US in 1983 to play basketball. He played for the University of Bridgeport before embarking on a 10-year NBA career in which he averaged 3.3 blocks, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.6 points in 624 career games with Washington, Golden State, Philadelphia, and Miami.
As he became famous as a shot-blocking specialist who sometimes hit 3-pointers, Bol lobbied Washington lawmakers to help stop the bloody civil war that raged in southern Sudan at the time, killing more than 2 million people and creating 4 million refugees.
Bol gave an estimated $3.5 million to relatives, many of whom were leaders in the Sudanese
Since the war ended, Bol has returned to Sudan several times. It was on a trip home in February of this year that he decided to try and help build a school in Turalei. Like most of southern Sudan, Turalei is still trying to recover from the war, during which it was destroyed and most of its citizens killed.
Bol had scaled back his lobbying efforts after being injured in a 2004 car accident and out of frustration over a lack of interest in Sudan. Now, the world has turned its concern to Darfur, in western Sudan, even as southern Sudan still struggles to recover.
When Bol was growing up, children in rural Sudan didn't go to school. He said he spent most of his time herding cows until a chance encounter with an American basketball coach paved the way for him to leave.
His countrymen now understand that education is the key to recovery, and "everyone wants their kids to go to school," he said.
The more than 200 children and 15 teachers in Turalei meet under trees or don't meet at all if it rains, which it does a lot from May through October. Bol said they have no books or equipment.
About 85 percent of the population in southern Sudan is illiterate and about 1.5 million children have no schools to attend, according to Sudan Sunrise. And only about 7 percent of the teachers in the south have any professional training.
Bol envisions an eight-classroom school; villagers will make the bricks and the donated money would be used for a solid roof, books and supplies. And Bol hopes to persuade American teachers to train the Sudanese teachers. The preliminary fund-raising goal is $120,000.
If he could, Bol said, he'd also like to build a clinic to help fight malaria, which is the No. 1 killer in his country.
"If I had the money, I would build both," Bol said. "I want to continue doing that, to build both, maybe build more school(s) and more clinic(s). I want to help my people out."
Sudan Sunrise is sponsoring a similar effort with Francis Bok, who was kidnapped from his southern Sudanese village of Gourion when he was 7 and was a slave for Muslims in northern Sudan for 10 years before escaping in 1996. Bok, who lives in Boston, visited Gourion in February and was devastated by what he saw.
"Some people don't have food to eat, clean water to drink, no place to stay," he said. "But when we asked them what we could do for them, they all said, 'Build us a school.' "
Bol and Bok say their schools will welcome both Christians and Muslims.
"The Muslim people in Sudan are not that bad," Bol said. "The only bad people are in the government. We cannot let what is happening in Darfur happen again in the south. Education and working together is the only way."