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“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.”
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