A Life Cut Short

NBA basketball star and Sudanese activist Manute Bol leaves the world a better place than he found it.

“We’ve only got a hundred years to live,” says singer-songwriter John Ondrasik. He’s being quite generous. The Bible only promises “three score and ten” years of life – a more reasonable expectation. But last month, I was an honorary pall bearer at the funeral of a man who didn’t reach even that anticipated 70 years. He was only 47. And yet in his life he did more than most people will do, even if they have a hundred years to live. He was a Dinka herdsman, a famous basketball player, a self-sacrificing humanitarian, a prophetic voice warning about the danger of Islamic jihad, and an agent of reconciliation who manifested tremendous grace and forgiveness. His name was Manute Bol.

The 7’7” former pro basketball player, born October 16, 1962 in the village of Turalei in South Sudan, died on Saturday, June 19, 2010 at the University of Virginia hospital in Charlottesville. Bol had been in Sudan for some months before his death. He was overseeing construction of a school he was building in Turalei, where trees have served as the classrooms. Then, although he was suffering from kidney ailments and lack of the proper medication, he extended his visit to help encourage corruption-free elections throughout South Sudan. Already seriously ill before he could return to the United States, Bol’s condition deteriorated when medication he took in Nairobi caused him to develop Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, an extremely painful and life-threatening skin condition which ultimately led to his death.

Bol started life as the son of a Dinka tribal elder descended from Bol Nyuol, the chief of the Tuic Dinka. Like all Dinka young men, Bol took care of his father’s herd of those very interesting cows with the extraordinary horns around which Dinka culture revolves. Many Dinka boys are named after favorite cows. But Bol, born after his mother had suffered a miscarriage of twins, was named “Manute,” the Dinka word for “special blessing.” At Bol’s funeral and on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Senator Sam Brownback reflected on how appropriate a name it was for a man who has been such a blessing to the people of Sudan.

According to Deng Deng Nhial, the Deputy Head of Mission at the Government of South Sudan Mission in Washington, the famous story that as a teenager Bol killed a lion that was attacking his cows was indeed a true story. Nhial, who played basketball with Bol at the University of Bridgeport, says Bol used a wooden club and a spear to kill the lion. This was in the days before Nhial’s brother, the now Commander Nhial Deng Nhial, a South Sudan government minister, brought his friend Bol from Turalei to Khartoum to play basketball. In the summer of 1982 Bol was discovered at the Catholic Church’s basketball club in Khartoum by Coach Don Feeley of Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Bol had no idea that the pastoral life he had known in South Sudan would be gone a few years after he arrived in America. During his youth, Sudan had experienced a rare ten years of relative peace due to the Addis Ababa peace agreement following the first war against Islamic/Arab imperialism, the Anyanya War of 1955-1972. One of the first Sports Illustrated articles about Bol, then the new African phenomenon in basketball, described South Sudan as undeveloped, but not as the place where nightmares are reality. The region was only just beginning to experience a war that would take over two million lives. But in 1983, the same year that Bol came to the United States, Sudanese President Gaafar Nimeiry abrogated the Addis Ababa agreement, resurrecting the policy of Islamizing and Arabizing the entire country. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) was formed to fight against the imposition of Shari’a.

The SPLA’s military victories over the Sudan armed forces were so persuasive that Sudan’s next president, Sadiq al-Mahdi was willing to sign a peace agreement granting limited autonomy to South Sudan. But in 1989, while Bol was playing for the Golden State Warriors, General Omar al-Bashir led a successful military coup against al-Mahdi to thwart the peace agreement. In the words of Bashir, the purpose of the coup was “to save the country from being taken over by the infidels and preserve the Islamic Arab identity of the Sudan.”

The world was oblivious as Bashir’s Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation joined forces with the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated National Islamic Front of Hassan al-Turabi. It was oblivious as the Islamists attempted to eradicate the black, African people of South Sudan, deliberately targeting civilian populations for destruction through abductions and torture, the resurrection of the slave trade, government-orchestrated famine/starvation, aerial bombardment of schools, churches, hospitals, and feeding centers, mass crucifixion of Christian clergy, and other weapons of jihad. It was not until voices like Bol’s raised a cry that the world took notice of Sudan’s first genocide.

The NBA video _Manute Bol: Basketball Warrior_ says that at first the war “seemed just a distant threat to Bol.” But in 1991 Bol saw Sudan on television for the first time. “The Sudan government was killing my people. I say no, this cannot be right. I have to do something,” the NBA star blocker said. And he did do something. He returned to Sudan and to the overflowing refugee camps, where he saw the devastation that the war had brought to his people. The Dinka warrior said in an interview with Sports Illustrated years later, “God guided me to America and gave me a good job. But he also gave me a heart so I would look back.”

Bol did not just “look back.” With his earnings playing for Washington, Golden State, Philadelphia, and Miami, and even after his basketball career was over, he provided relief aid and support for the victims of the National Islamic Front regime’s genocidal jihad. The basketball player saved probably thousands of lives. He definitely saved hundreds of Sudan’s “Lost Boys.” The boys who fled from Sudan in 1987 lived in refugee camps in Ethiopia until 1991, when government upheaval and war in Ethiopia forced them to flee again. In The Journey of the Lost Boys, one Lost Boy told author and activist Joan Hecht how when one group of Lost Boys were starving and many were dying from the lack of food, water and medicine or from attacks by enemy soldiers and wild animals, Bol entered the war zone to help them.

“One day, a famous athlete from America came to visit our camp,” the Lost Boy said, recounting Bol’s visit. “When he saw us he bowed his head and cried for a really long time. He was very sad to see us that way.” Hecht added that before Bol left, he promised to help the boys and to tell the world about their suffering. “A short time later, helicopters appeared in the sky, and landed inside their camp,” Hecht continued. “It was Manute Bol, making good on his promise, bringing food and medicine for the children and reporters to tell their story.” Bol also was to become a great help and support to Lost Boys who were resettled in the United States, beginning in the fall of 2000.

In addition to the generous humanitarian relief, Bol recounted that in the face of the jihad against his people, he “decided to be a fighter.” And a fighter he remained until the day he died. When he returned to America, Bol used his fame to raise awareness about what was happening in Sudan. He told Congress, the State Department, and audiences across the country that 10,000 people were dying every day in South Sudan and the other conflict areas. He gave the State Department photos that he had taken in the refugee camps.

Bol also attempted to “educate the American people that the next threat is going to be Islamic fundamentalists.” He and his cousin, Ed Bona, a former Fordham basketball player, warned the United States government, “You’d better take care of these people now.” Like other Sudanese who have tried to warn the U.S. government, Bol and Bona had heard the declarations of jihad by Khartoum. They knew that Sudan was only the beginning for the Islamist regime. The regime in Khartoum intended to join with other Islamists to wage jihad across Africa and then the rest of the world in order to establish a worldwide Islamic Caliphate. But,” said Bol in the film, _Manute Bol: Basketball Warrior_, “they told us in the State Department that they have no interest in Africa.”

It was during these same years that Bin Laden had been welcomed into Sudan. He had established a headquarters for Al Qaeda in Khartoum. Bol and some of his Sudanese friends went to the Pentagon with this information where they urged, “Please, Bin Laden has to be stopped.” No one believed their warnings. “I felt like a fool,” Bol said. But history has shown who the real fools were.

The strategists in Khartoum believed that eventually someone might listen to and act upon Manute Bol’s warnings. (They may have seriously overestimated the American government.) The Islamists understood that they could remove the threat posed by the famous basketball player’s activism by tricking him into returning to Sudan. They could also exploit him by claiming he had gone over to the Government of Sudan side, thus demoralizing and dividing more South Sudanese. So in 1997, through proxies that had defected from the SPLA, they invited him to take part in peace negotiations in Kenya initiated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) of East Africa.

Bol said that he “was scared” but he had to do it. He thought that he might be able to make a real difference and help bring peace to his country. Even though he had been warning the United States about Islamic fundamentalists, he himself did not realize the extent to which the regime used deceit and trickery to divide and conquer the people. He learned soon enough.

“I thought they were serious for the peace but they were not, you know,” Bol explained on ESPN’s Outside the Lines in May 2002. “Because when I went there all things they talked on TV … is the peace. And now in a minute, they change and say no we gotta fight to the death.” The peace talks collapsed in two weeks, after which the Sudanese regime offered Bol the position of Minister of Culture and Sports. He went to Khartoum, but then discovered that the Islamist regime expected him to convert to Islam in order to take the position. He refused. They withdrew their offer and seized his travel documents. Forbidden to leave the country, Bol was held in Sudan under what amounted to house arrest.

Bol told Outside the Lines that he lived in fear for his life in Khartoum. “When I get sick, I don’t go to the doctor … because I don’t want to be killed,” he said. He explained to an uncomprehending sports reporter, “These doctors are fundamentalist people. When you get sick you go there and you are somebody who is against them … you are southern Sudanese, you’re gone. They’ll shoot you with a medicine you don’t know… Or maybe they drop something in the tea. When I go to their house, I don’t drink tea. I don’t drink soda. Because that’s the only way I survive. Because a lot of our people, they was killed like that.”

Finally, believing that if he did not do something he would die in Khartoum, Bol took a chance and attempted to board a plane at the Khartoum airport with his wife and infant son. The only reason they made it out of the country was because there were BBC reporters at the airport and the regime did not want an international incident to develop. After some struggles, and a time of exile in Egypt, Bol and his family got back to the United States with the help of Senator Joseph Lieberman and others. This time, he was a refugee, penniless and suffering from severe arthritis, but he was still a fighter, and still determined to do whatever he could to help the people of Sudan. A few years later, in 2004, Bol’s health issues and the pain which accompanied him everywhere were multiplied by a near-fatal automobile accident in Connecticut. He was riding in a cab that hit a guardrail, swerved across both lanes, hit a rock ledge, and rolled over. The accident killed the cabdriver and left Bol with a broken neck and other injuries. “I am happy to be alive,” was Bol’s response to the accident. “I thought I was going to die. My people prayed for me. I made it. I think God is great, so how can I be mad,” he demanded.

Perhaps it was because he also had been deceived and exploited by the Islamist regime in Khartoum that Bol was able to sympathize with the Darfurian victims of Sudan’s current genocide. Or perhaps it was just because Bol’s incredible generosity was not just a matter of finances, but a matter of the heart. As many as 75% of the military forces conscripted by Khartoum to perpetrate the war against South Sudan were comprised of Darfurians. But although Darfurian troops killed 250 of his family members, Bol believed that they were manipulated and lied to by Khartoum as part of the regime’s operating procedure of “use a slave (abd, the Arabic word for both “slave” and black person) to kill a slave.” His ability to forgive was a powerful testimony both to other South Sudanese and to the people of Darfur.

In the last five years of his life, based in Olathe, Kansas, Bol joined other South Sudanese Christians in reaching out to Darfurians. He also joined advocacy efforts to end the genocide in Darfur as well as efforts for reconciliation among all of Sudan’s marginalized people through his partnership with Sudan Sunrise, a non-profit, non-denominational Christian ministry that began as a network of Americans partnering with South Sudanese Christians committed to aiding Darfurian Muslims. Bol and the others believed that only true forgiveness, which does not excuse or deny that wrong has been done, but chooses to forgive, brings freedom to both parties.

Bol believed that one of the most important keys to peace in Sudan is education and so he began a project with Sudan Sunrise to raise funds and build desperately-needed schools in South Sudan. Because of the war and displacement of some 5 million South Sudanese, 85% of the people of South Sudan are illiterate and 1.5 million children have no school. And because of the current war in Sudan’s western region of Darfur, thousands of Darfurians have fled to Turalei and other areas of the South. Bol was determined that these “Reconciliation Schools” would contribute to reconciliation between Christians, Muslims, and followers of traditional religion by bringing all the children together for an education. And Darfurian Muslims, who do not want to be “Islamized” any more than do South Sudanese Christians, began to work together with Bol and others at Sudan Sunrise to build the schools and provide teachers and to encourage other Muslim Sudanese to embrace the vision of a peaceful “New Sudan” where there is peace, democracy and religious freedom. It was Bol’s goal to build 41 such schools throughout South Sudan. He picked “41” in honor of President George H. W. Bush, because, said Bol, Bush “fought for freedom.”

An article by CNN Medical Executive Producer Jennifer Bixler asks the question, “Did compassion kill Manute Bol?” Bol’s friend, Sudan Sunrise executive director, the Rev. Tom Prichard says he believes that if Bol had not gone to Sudan he would be alive today. Prichard was the homilist at Bol’s funeral on June 29, 2010 at the Washington National Cathedral. Prichard quoted John 15: 13, “Greater love hath no man this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” That was the Manute Bol depicted by Senator Sam Brownback, NBA official Rory Sparrow, and all the others who offered tributes at his funeral. He laid down his life because of his consuming passion to see the vision of the New Sudan come to pass.

In an interview following the funeral, Prichard told Lisa Olson of _Fanhouse_ that when Salva Kiir, the President of South Sudan, asked Bol to help counter corruption during the historic national elections in April, “he was so weak [officials] had to carry him to the car, drive him places, carry him to speak and carry him back to the car.” But what Bol told the people was “brilliant,” Prichard said. “He told them, ‘If somebody comes around and they’re trying to buy your vote for food or money, take all the food and money you can get out of them. But you don’t have to give them your vote. ‘”

Twice, Prichard and other friends tried to persuade Bol to leave and arranged for a private plane with a nurse and doctor on call, but both times Bol cancelled the trips at the last minute. “He said, ‘I just can’t leave. Sudan is going through an absolutely critical election,’” Prichard recalled. Prichard praised his friend, saying, “You think about sports figures who do nice things or donate their time, and that’s great, and then you see what Manute did. He didn’t just give away so much of his money. He put himself in harm’s way to help lead a region in reconciliation.”

Columnist Olson says that in a 2007 interview Bol told her that his “most important work, by far, is saving people. Money comes and goes, fame comes and goes, but you can never bring back the people who are gone,” he said. Olson lamented that the media gave far more coverage to the crazy pranks shared by Bol and Philadelphia teammate Charles Barkley than to any of Bol’s pleas for Sudan. And she was right.

In his 47 years, Bol did more than most people will ever do. But even in his death, he continues to do great things for Sudan. New stories now recounting Bol’s great sacrifices and his love for his country once again pound out the truths that Bol revealed about the war waged by Khartoum against South Sudan, Darfur, and all of Sudan’s marginalized, black African people. They echo Bol’s warning about the threat to the world beyond Sudan of the same Islamic jihad that devastated his homeland and his people. And they witness to Bol’s incredible ability to love and forgive those who had been enemies, a capacity that, if possessed by others in Sudan, could bring real transformation

Faith J. H. McDonnell directs The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan, and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).