Garang Mayuol is reunited with his mother.
Garang Mayuol is reunited with his mother. Credit: David Morse

Garang Mayuol was in the cow pasture with his father when the shooting started.

He was five years old, living in Lang, a tiny rural community in southern Sudan. It was 1987, four years into the second Sudanese civil war. The Arab Muslim majority government in Khartoum was cracking down on the mostly black Christian and animist separatists in the south, and government-backed militias descended on Lang with devastating force. Mayuol and his father fled on foot. “My dad said, ‘We can’t go back there,'” he recalls. “‘They’re killing boys.'” They trekked east for five months, to Ethiopia, where they took refuge at a UN camp. Disease was rampant, and Mayuol’s father died in 1988—of what Mayuol isn’t sure. He would hear nothing about the rest of his family for ten years.

By 2007 Mayuol was living in Wheaton, an American citizen with an associate’s degree in business management and a job inventorying shipments for LTD Commodities, a merchandising company. Two close friends and fellow Sudanese war refugees, Bol Deng and Koor Garang, had raised donations for a trip to Mayuol’s home region, to deliver mosquito nets and medical supplies and set up the infrastructure to build a school. Mayuol hadn’t been home since the day the troops came, so he signed on to help distribute the supplies. During the trip he not only reunited with his surviving family but took on a mission that’s driven him ever since: bringing clean water to an area stricken with drought and waterborne disease. Seattle filmmaker Jen Marlowe chronicles that journey in the documentary Rebuilding Hope, which makes its Chicago premiere Friday, November 20, at the Portage Theater.

After his father’s death, Mayuol lived with a foster family at the UN camp. Then, in 1991, when Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia, the Eritreans cleared the camp, forcing the refugees back across the border into Sudan. The Sudanese military in turn bombed them for a week, driving them south toward Kenya. “People were drowning in the Gilo, being killed by crocodiles and hyenas,” Mayuol says. In 1992, at age ten, he made it to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where he would spend the next nine years—one of the approximately 27,000 orphaned or displaced male children known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. He was housed in a compound with seven other boys, including Deng and Garang, who would become his surrogate family.

Conditions were bleak at Kakuma. “They would give us a small amount of maize to last 15 days, and the last seven days we would be without food,” Mayuol says. “Sometimes we would run out of water.” Stricken with malaria in 1998, he ended up in the same hospital as a cousin of his who’d been wounded fighting for the primary southern insurgent force, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Mayuol’s cousin told him his mother was still alive and living in Lang.

In 2001, Mayuol, Deng, and Garang were among 3,800 Lost Boys chosen by the UN High Commission on Refugees on the basis of essays, interviews, and medical exams to be sent to the U.S. “I needed to get out,” Mayuol says. “People were dying every day. What came to my mind was ‘Let me go and get an education and get a better life in America.'”

The Christian aid organization World Relief placed Mayuol with a family in Elgin. “They were good people, but I didn’t have any friends at first,” he says. “I learned English in Kenya, but my accent was terrible, and many times people didn’t get me.” He completed his last year of high school at Larkin High School in 2002, at age 20.

Mayuol moved around the western suburbs for the next few years, doing various jobs and going to school at the College of DuPage. In 2004 he got to talk to his mother for the first time since fleeing Lang. “She got sick and I could call her in the hospital,” he says. “She heard my voice and said, ‘Is that you?’ and she collapsed on the floor.” He sent her money but he couldn’t find the means to return to Sudan and see her in person until Deng and Garang’s trip, three years later.

Independent journalist David Morse had secured a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to cover the trip, and he invited filmmaker Marlowe to come along. Marlowe had already codirected a documentary about Sudan, Darfur Diaries: Message From Home, which captured early stages of the Sudanese government’s atrocities in its war against separatists in the country’s western region. But where that project was an overview of the humanitarian crisis, this one would be much more intimate. “Rebuilding Hope was . . . the story of these three guys trying to go home and trying to make a contribution to their home,” says Marlowe, who raised $95,000 in grants and donations to make the film.

In Lang, Mayuol was greeted like a hero, with dancing and ululations. Two men held a small bull on its back for him to step over, then sacrificed the bull. Villagers draped a cape around him and led him on a procession through the adoring crowd of 800. “Everybody wanted to touch me and make sure I was real,” he says. He got to see his mother and younger sister, but it was a bittersweet reunion. “I saw the suffering of my people,” he says. “It was overwhelming. I saw a lot of needs in their eyes. I thought, ‘How should I help them?'”

He visited the cow pasture and saw villagers squeezing just a few drops of milk from the shriveled udders of dehydrated cows. Many of the livestock were dying. “They value animals like Americans value dollars,” he says. “If you don’t have animals, you can die.” And lack of water and good sanitation had led to the proliferation of disease. “People commuted back and forth three hours to get [tainted] water from the river,” he says. “Cholera was killing people instantly. I told them, ‘I don’t know how much I can help, but I’ll see what I can do.'”

Marlowe says she saw Mayuol transform over the course of the trip. “He started out with the desire to find his mother, and really being in the supportive role to the other two young men,” she says. “By the end of the trip, [he’d] emerged as a true leader—a fantastic problem solver, with a clear vision of bringing clean water to his village and the surrounding villages.”

Back in Chicago, Mayuol established the Lang Water Project under the umbrella of Deng’s nonprofit Hope for Ariang. (Ariang is Deng’s home village, where the group is building the area’s only school.) Mainly by speaking at churches and schools, he raised $12,000. In January 2009 Marlowe accompanied Mayuol and Deng on another trip to Sudan. Deng and Marlowe stayed a month, long enough to see the school construction off the ground. But Mayuol stayed for three more months, overseeing the construction and chlorination of six hand-pumped wells in Lang and Ariang. “There are no roads in these villages, so we had to drill the wells before the rainy season starts in May, when the land is dry and you can get the truck in without getting stuck,” he says. He contracted with fellow Lost Boy Salva Dut, who runs the nonprofit Water for Sudan out of Rochester, New York, to build the wells.

“After we drilled the wells, they were able to drink clean water, and they can take a shower and cook with clean water,” Mayuol says. “Cholera stopped right away.” But with just six wells serving a dispersed population of 20,000, some people still have to walk two hours to get to the pumps. He’s hoping four more wells in the area will be enough to make water reasonably accessible, and he’s seeking $20,000 for the project. After that, if he can raise the money, he hopes to expand Water for Lang into surrounding communities.

Now 27, single, and going for a BA in business at Benedictine University in Lisle, Mayuol plans stay in the U.S., using his knowledge to promote international investment in his homeland. “I hope I can find some foreign companies who can invest,” he says. “There are a lot of resources.”

And he hopes Rebuilding Hope will create an awareness of the need that exists in south Sudan. “Americans are very generous,” he says, “but it’s hard for them to imagine that there are places with this kind of suffering.” He sees a lesson in his own awakening to a sense of mission. “When you have a privilege like this, to get an education, you have to use it to help yourself and help the community,” he says. “I hope the film will teach people how to become a responsible person.”