My Mom and South Sudan?

My Mom occasionally buys me books that she thinks I will like. She has bought me about ten books in the past couple of years, and all ten books were far from my usual reading selection. I try my best to have a diverse reading list, but my Mom is in a league of her own when it comes to getting me out of my comfort zone. The most recent example of her eclectic curation came from the book – What is the What by David Eggers. What is the What is a nonfiction book written as a fiction book…yes I did say my Mom expanded my horizons. It is technically a piece of fiction because it is the story of Valentino Achak Deng – one of the lost boys of the Sudanese war during the 1980s. Valentino was a child when the war occurred, and hence his first memories are not 100% accurate – but doesn’t take away from the real nightmare that made up the first two decades of his life.

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When Valentino was seven, his peaceful life in the southern region of Sudan turned upside down when war broke out. The war was between the SPLA, who wanted an independent South Sudan, and the government of Sudan who wished to maintain control over the area. Southern Sudan was primarily Christian while the political north was primarily Muslim. The Islamic government wanted to bring an Islamic state to the south, and the SPLA wanted to maintain its unique Afro-Christian identity. The conflict has been known to posterity as the Second Sudanese Civil War which began in 1987 and ended in 2005. During that time, two million people were killed – almost three and half times more people that died in the American Civil War – and thousands of children were left orphaned to fend for themselves.

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A large portion of those children were boys who were too young to enter into the SPLA and fled their homes to escape the conflict. Valentino was one of 20,000 lost boys who marched from South Sudan to safe havens like Ethiopia and Kenya. The boys walked to these places many times in small groups and had to endure starvation, government attack, and even predatory animals. Valentino witnessed his friends being dragged into the jungle by lions, shot by overhead helicopters, and eaten by parasitic flies after dropping dead from exhaustion. The walk he took consisted of hundreds of miles and months of toil – on several occasions, he laid on the ground for hours unable to move from extreme malnutrition and infection.

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Valentino was able to obtain some semblance of life at a Kenyan refugee camp that was funded by the United Nations. He lived in the camp for several years until the US allowed several Lost Boys to resettle in the states. While in the States he met Dave Eggers who recorded his story and wrote the book What is the What. Through funds of the book, Valentino started his own foundation to support education in Southern Sudan. South Sudan won its independence in 2011 but is still in conflict with various internal organizations – it is one of the most depressed countries on earth. I had no idea the turmoil in Sudan until reading this book, and it has ignited in me a desire to learn more about Africa in general. Oftentimes, we get consumed with our own interests that we miss seminal events around the world. All these things impact us, and we must continue to learn and help those who are suffering. Refugees need help more than ever, and we need to seek practical policies which benefit not only the “lost” but also the countries who take the “lost” in as citizens. Thanks, Mom, for expanding my horizon, and I always appreciate your eclectic tastes – I never thought I would be mentioning your name with South Sudan. Expand your world…I am continuing my expansion by reading a book that is far from my comfort zone – Emma by Jane Austen.

Here are 9 out of the next 15 books that I will begin in June:

Nabokov, Vladimir
Tennessee Williams

The Congo’s Hidden “Holocaust”

We all know of the Holocaust and the 11 million Jews who were killed by Hitler. Many of us know about the Armenian genocide which took place during WWI – over two million Armenians, Assyrians, and Pontic Greeks were killed during that time. Unfortunately, these were not isolated incidents in the history of humanity, and I have just learned about yet another mass murder. This particular slaughter of people was not a genocide but rather an indiscriminate killing for the sake of prophet. It occurred over a hundred years ago in the area we now call the Congo. These evils came from the most unsuspecting country – Belgium. The nation of waffles and Brussels sprouts – has a hidden history which not many people know about. To learn how Belgium terrorized the Congo, I read King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild. The real villain in this story is not Belgium but rather Belgium’s King – Leopold II.

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King Leopold II was viewed as the world’s greatest African philanthropist. His generous donations to the continent and his desire for funding scientific explorations were proclaimed across Europe as progressive measures to bring civilization to the savages. Unfortunately, there was a hidden objective in Leopold’s philanthropy – he was collecting as much research as possible so he could found his own colony. In the 19th century, Africa was a piecemeal conglomerate of European colonies – England, France, Germany, and Italy all claimed a portion of the raw material pie. Leopold had a small country complex – Belgium was nowhere close to competing with the big dogs regarding intercontinental control. Nevertheless, the King of a country the size of Maryland was able to weasel his way into Africa. He performed this feat of diplomatic chicanery by founding his own company which was designed to provide humanitarian needs for the newly discovered Congo. This company had its own flag and was technically independent of the Belgian government – allowing King Leopold complete control. The other European forces permitted the company to control the Congo with the aim to promote free trade while preventing major disputes between land-hungry countries. In short order, King Leopold II confiscated all of the native’s property for his “state” and began exploiting the virgin land for elephant tusks and rubber.

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Vast quantities of raw materials left the Congolese ports – the only import for the people of the Congo was hired soldiers who enforced the status quo of exploitation. This military force ruled by the rifle and the chicotte – a whip made of hippopotamus hide cut into long corkscrew strips. These “humanitarians” were given commissions based on how much ivory could be collected. This capitalistic motivation led to the forced labor of the Congolese at a time when Europe was aghast at all forms of slavery. Things only got worse after scientists discovered new and useful applications for rubber – the pneumatic tire being one example. The Congo was full of wild rubber, and this brought new terror for the natives. Men of all ages were forced to meet quotas of rubber; If they did not comply they were shot, or their families were forced into labor. As the rubber began to run out, the Congolese were required to travel longer and longer distances – draining villages of work for harvest and subsequently causing thousands to starve. A typical punishment for the Congolese was to cut off a member of their body – a missing right hand was a ubiquitous sight.

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Between murder, starvation, susceptibility to disease, and labor exhaustion, the population of the Congo dropped by half during Leopold’s control: 1885 – 1908. That is a total of 10 million people! A scary number, especially since very few people know about this history. It is as if I were writing this blog post about the Holocaust and people were reading about the acts of Hitler for the first time. Of course, this was not a pure genocide, but it was a well-documented atrocity which affected the lives of various Congolese tribes; that is why many are beginning to call this point in history the “Hidden Holocaust” and why I think it is more important than ever to keep learning about our past. If WWII is our only knowledge of the mass murder, we will think it is an isolated occurrence – something that was an anomaly and will never happen again. I wish I could say it was an anomaly but it is a sad pattern which we need to understand to truly prevent. Did you know anything about King Leopold before this post? What are your thoughts on history repeating itself? Should schools do a better job of teaching these lessons? I love your comments.

“The Congo Free State is unique in its kind. It has nothing to hide and no secrets and is not beholden to anyone except its founder.” – King Leopold II (Founder)

The Forgotten Genocide

I found myself last night eating a double-decker plate of apple pie with an unfortunate amount of whip-cream on top. While feasting, I thought about how thankful I was to be able to shove my face with food. Have you ever been without food before? Not like a diet or a 3 pm snack type of hunger; the kind of hunger where there is no escape and no relief to the pain of emptiness. I am thankful this holiday weekend that God has blessed my family with the polar opposite of that painful state. Unfortunately, there are individuals around the world who suffer from hunger on a daily basis – over 796 million people lack enough sustenance to lead a healthy lifestyle (foodaidfoundation.org). That statistic is doubly disheartening with the fact that the world wastes one-third of all food production each year – 1.3 billion tons (fao.org).

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I bring up hunger specifically because I just finished a book that details one of the worst genocides in our modern history – Not Even My Name: A True Story by Thea Halo. This genocide took place between 1913 and 1922 against the Christian ethnic groups of Turkey – Armenians, Assyrians, Pontic Greeks. In total, the Turkish government killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians, 300,000 Assyrians, and 500,000 Greeks through blatant murder and death marches. The book pointedly tells the story of Sano Halo – a Pontic Greek – who experienced these events and actually escaped with her life to America. As you’ll read, the Turkish authorities were ruthless against Halo’s family and used hunger as their principal weapon.

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The causes of this genocide are myriad, but one of the most significant catalysts was the Ottoman Empire’s fall during World War I. The Ottoman’s were prolific during the medieval ages but slowly declined by the 19th century – their central territory located in modern-day Turkey. At the turn of the 20th century, the Turkish government began changes in their state that aimed to lift up Turks and bring down historic ethnic groups located in the country. These “reforms” mixed with defeats in WWI to form a true hatred for everything “Western”; leading to the systemic extermination of millions of people to purify the decaying Turkish state and bring it back to its once glorious Ottoman apex. The government forced these “foreigners” – who historically lived in the area for thousands of years – into work camps, deportation marches, and mass graves.

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Sano Halo was 10 around the time the Turks came to her village and told her family to prepare to leave the next day. With guns pointed at their heads, they abandoned all their possessions, their livelihood, and their history. They were forced to march all day without breaks for food or water. The Turkish guards would beat them if they took a break or begged for food from local villages. Sano would end up marching 6 months straight – her younger siblings all died from hunger during that time. Eventually, even her mother died of exhaustion and Sano was forced to live with a Turkish family as a maid so she could have regular food.

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Sano was poorly treated by this family and eventually ran away. She was ultimately taken in by a family friend who arranged her marriage to an Assyrian man from America. She was able to reach Ellis Island and eventually had a happy family of 10 children. Sano was the unfortunate exception to this horrific story, and the Turkish government did their best to cover up its despicable deeds. In the aftermath of the genocide, textbook producers were paid by the Turkish government to exclude their actions and paint the country as a modernized beacon of the middle-east. This cover-up is one of the reasons Hitler felt so empowered to begin his own genocide…

“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
-Adolf Hitler 1939

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Sadly, this Holocaust is still seldom recognized, and the Turkish government refuses to officially refer to it as a “genocide.” However, the genocide and death march was crystal clear for Sano, and thankfully her story was recorded so we can honor her family by spreading this knowledge. I challenge you this Thanksgiving weekend to think about how hunger can destroy and think about how blessed you are have not only food but a place to call “home.” Spread this message and help others learn this history. Not only will it help us prevent another genocide but it will help us be more thankful for the blessings we take for granted each and every day.

Further movies and books on this period in history…

Aghet: A Genocide (Documentary)

Intent to Destroy: Death, Denial, and Depiction (Documentary)

The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response (Book)

The Unlucky Irish

Michiganders are some of the worst people when it comes to complaining about the weather. Every winter in Michigan is like being trapped in a dark refrigerator for 6 months. Winter sucks and I definitely contribute my fair share of whining: “I haven’t seen the sun for a week, I’m moving to Hawaii!,” “If I have to scrape ice off my car one more time I’m going to just drive with my head out the window!,” “I’m sick of soup but its the only thing that keeps me from hypothermia!,” etc. Even sex sucks because it takes a half hour to remove all the layers of clothing; nothing gets me turned on more than seeing my wife strip off her seasonal-big-fluffy-bright-pink socks. Most people would agree that Michigan winters are worthy of complaints but Michiganders take weather misgivings to whole other level. Once the snow begins to thaw, the pink-socks get retired, and the sun begins to shine, Michigan becomes the most beautiful place in the summer. Here’s the thing though, Michigan fricks still complain about the heat, humidity, stickiness, brightness, and bugs. I mention all of this complaining because I just read a book that makes Michigan seem like a paradise no matter what season it is. Hungry for Home: A Journey from the Edge of Ireland by Cole Moreton tells the story of the people who once lived on the inhospitable Blasket Islands off the coast of Ireland.

The Blasket Islands are a collection of six islands that are situated off the west coast of Ireland (click here for map). The original settlers of these islands were monks seeking solitude in the medieval ages; eventually more inhabitants would make their way in pursuit of safety from threatening land owners on the mainland. The population of the Blaskets at its peak was 160 people. The islands were very hard to live on because there was little natural shelter, few trees, insignificant arable land, and extremely harsh weather. During the winter, the Blasket Islands were pounded by unrelenting rain storms which made it impossible to cross the channel to the main land. Because the island was such a harsh environment, the community was isolated from the changing politics of Ireland and hence preserved their original Gaelic customs. Irish was the spoken language on the island and it was one of the last places on earth where Gaelic was used in its ancient form. For this reason, in the early 20th century many language scholars visited the island to document the islanders dialect and customs to preserve the culture. Beginning in the mid 1800’s, as a result of the potato famine, a large portion of Irishmen began to immigrate to the United States. The inhabitants of the Blasket Islands followed suit and by the 1940’s the island only had half of its peak population.

The dwindled population was primarily made up of older men and women who were too poor or too stubborn to leave their inhospitable lifestyle. Few youth remained and without their strength it was almost impossible to do the daily work required to survive on the harsh landscape. In the 40’s, extremely-severe winters forced the inhabitants to send out emergency messages for food and many died because of malnutrition. The last remaining islanders were removed by the government in 1953 to a nearby settlement on the mainland; close enough to still see the Blasket Islands but safe from future threats of starvation. There were only 22 inhabitants left in 1953 during the evacuation and almost all of them were extremely relieved to be getting off the cursed island. Today, the Blasket Islands are a popular tourist destination during the short summer season. I thought this story was amazing because it made me appreciate where I live. Compared to the Blaskets, Michigan is a paradise. I have food, shelter, health-care, security, and a great community. As the winter approaches we should realize that there are places much colder, darker, and inhospitable. Think of these places and find contentment-I guess those fluffy-pink socks aren’t all that bad 🙂