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Christmas and "The Lost Boys"

23 December 2022:

Yesterday, Michael and I celebrated Christmas by treating ourselves to a spa, gift exchange, then having dinner with co-workers and new friends on the base. The entire day was wonderful. During some of my moments of stillness I had a memory of a Christmas I had a few years ago. After I was reunited with my family after spending most of the year in, "The Motherland."

Christmas this particular year was hosted at my parents’ house and my aunts, uncle, siblings, grandparents, Michael and I traveled to celebrate together. We did the usual gift exchange early in the morning, had breakfast, then had Christmas dinner later in the evening. The entire day was spent in fellowship with one another in between and during the festive activities. During the gift exchange, I had given my family members gifts from my trip, and they were incandescent with joy. It's not every day you have a family member live on the continent of your ancestors and bring back paintings, jewelry, figurines, and other trinkets from the trip.

A few months prior to that, I didn't see the experience of living in "the motherland" through the lens of my family members on Christmas day. In fact, I was tired, bored, unfulfilled, lonely, disappointed and ready to go home. I thought my experience would be like my friends who did the same job but in a different region of the world. They described their experience as fast pace, busy every day, and fulfilling. Mine was the opposite. I had a countdown on my phone to return home but the days were not moving fast enough.

As methods for resilience, during my downtime I would attend Bible study sessions with the Chaplain, play ultimate frisbee in the evenings, and visit one of the local orphanages periodically. While these experiences helped temporarily refill my cup, I was still ready to go home and saw the overall experience as falling short from my expectations. " I made the wrong choice coming here" I thought. "I would have gotten the experience I wanted and thought I needed if I had gone somewhere else." I told myself.

This attitude DRASTICALLY changed for me after meeting one person during one trip to the local orphanage.

When visiting the orphanages, the hosts tell us to not directly give gifts to the children but to give it to the staff, and they will disperse it. I never asked why, I just followed the directions. This day, I would LEARN.

At the conclusion of our trip, we all began to pile into the van to leave. During this time, one of the men who worked with the Chaplain, began to hand out little baggies that contained flip flop shoes and waters to some of the children. I suppose he tried to do this secretly, but word got around. Thats when chaos erupted.

The orphanage was enclosed within a brick wall that had a single walking gate entrance. Outside of the brick wall was a dirt road where a lot of homeless people lived. Some of them were elders while others were young adults who had aged out of the orphanage. Our van was parked along the external perimeter of the brick wall on the dirt road, not within the confines of the gate. After one baggie was given, the word spread at what felt like lightning speed.

Children within the orphanage and homeless people on the dirt street, began to run and surround the van. People were coming from all over. It reminded me of some of the zombie movies where people are just running in mass numbers extremely fast. The people started to surround the van searching for the bags. I was in the van at this point and some people even began to come inside of the van. I tried to tell them we didn’t have any bags left then attempted to help my teammates get into the van and secure the door. But I was not successful, and it was getting scary. All of the sudden, one of the men on our trip stood at the entry way of the van and began to speak to the people in a language I didn’t recognize. He was very tall, (probably 6.4 or 6.5 feet), thin and had a dark-complexioned black skin. The people immediately stopped and listened. The rest of the people from our team were able to get into the van, we safely closed the door and were able to safely leave. We told the man who worked with the Chaplain to not give out anymore gifts on future trips.

A few days later, I saw the tall man who spoke to the people and diffused the situation, sitting in the dining facility alone. I decided to have dinner with him, and we chatted. I learned his name was Dekon and when I asked what he said to the people and what language he spoke, he told me, "I told them that there were no more bags left and it was time for us to go home." He also explained that his native language was Dinka. It took me a moment to make the connection, but I then excitedly told him, "Dinka, I read a book about a boy who spoke Dinka, and I saw documentaries about some of the Lost boys of Sudan." Dekon said to me, "you know about the lost boys? ... I am a lost boy."

At this point, my jaw was on the floor. I had read and watched documentaries about their story during college in my Genocide Holocaust ethnic studies course. I COULD NOT BELIEVE I was meeting a person who had experienced and survived the atrocious things I had read about. It was like my books and studies had come to life right in front of me. Dekon could see my fan girl moment, told me to watch the movie, "the good Lie" starring, Reese Witherspoon, which was a film inspired about his story, and told me we can schedule a time to chat about his experience.

Over the next two weeks Dekon shared with me how during the civil war in Sudan, he fled his home in Southern Sudan, walked north to Ethiopia for refuge with other lost boys (children forced to flee because of the war), saw that there was more fighting there, then walked south along the border of Sudan until they made it to a refugee camp in Kenya. Once in Kenya he remained a refugee at one of the camps for about a decade then was sent to Kansas City. It was this experience as one of the "Kansas City Lost Boys" that inspired the film.

Dekon shared with me how it took him many months to walk the span of distance to make it to the refugee camp in Kenya. He shared how every night he went to sleep and when he woke up, some of the children died either from illness or from one of the wildlife. Dekon was around age 11 (if I recall correctly) at the time so he was one of the older boys. Some children were as young as 4 on the journey. He shared how he had to cross a river with crocodiles to evade government and rebel soldiers who either would have killed or forced him and the other children to join their cause. He shared how he saw "so much death" and was separated from his family, but in his demeanor, he didn’t seem to stay in that dark place. This was the opposite of what I thought a response to that type of trauma, would be.

Dekon shared how he stayed in the Kenyan refugee camp for about a decade before he was sent to Kansas City. He shared how he was later able to enlist in the Army, and during one of his weapons trainings, his trainer said to him, "do we need to get you a spear?!" We both laughed. He explained how shooting with a gun rather than a spear was a big adjustment for him. During Dekon’s time as a U.S. Soldier, 60 minutes interviewed him about his experience as one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan" and what it meant to him to serve in the U.S. Army.

My time with Dekon, was one of the highlights of my experience in the motherland. Learning about his story and seeing how he carried himself inspired me in such a way that it revealed to me the precious gift I had been given by getting the experience of LIVING in the motherland. The precious gift of living and getting to be among other people in general. I had spent so much time counting down and focusing on what I didn't feel or didn’t have or what others were experiencing, and I wasn't, that I devalued and didn't realize what I DID have. I said to myself, "Kristin, WAKE UP you are MISSING IT!"

I lost touch with Dekon after I returned to the States, but my experience with him will forever leave a positive mark on my life. During that first Christmas back home, I looked at my family and saw they're thankfulness to have me back and admiration to go where I don't know if any of my other family members have gone. At least before chattel slavery. I looked at the tattoo on my Uncle's arm of "the motherland." I thought of how much that would mean for each family member to return to the home our ancestors were stolen from. For me, the experience was not what I expected. It was not what I imagined. I am still processing what the experience means to me as I work to become more connected to my roots. But during this Christmas, I now see for myself how it was TRULY a precious gift.


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