Changing Course From Soldier to Student: A Q&A with South Sudanese Intern, Garang Buk Buk
Growing up in South Sudan, Garang Buk Buk was no stranger to public health issues. However, he did not always see himself becoming a public health professional. Buk Buk is an intern with The Task Force for Global Health’s Focus Area on Compassion and Ethics (FACE) while he completes a dual Masters in Public Health and Development Practice at Emory University.
His path to The Task Force and Emory has been far from straight and easy, though. It is a path that can only be described as one of courage and perseverance, taking him from his village in South Sudan through a harrowing journey as a child soldier which motivated him to change course and pursue his education and a career that could make a positive impact in his country. Here Buk Buk shares his journey, public health experiences, and how he came to share his talents with The Task Force for Global Health.
Q1: How did you get started working in public health?
After I finished secondary school, I worked with the Catholic Diocese of Torit in Narus, South Sudan doing electrical wiring and teaching people how to use computers. Employees from The Carter Center’s Guinea Worm Eradication program would sometimes stay at the diocese when they arrived for field visits or store stuff there while they were traveling, so I got to know various Carter Center employees by helping coordinate these stays. They told me about a job opportunity they had there with the Guinea Worm Eradication program, so I applied and started working with that program in 2007. That experience really helped me understand what could be done about public health problems because I had come across public health issues in my daily life,, but we never really knew what could be done about them. For example, I remember when I was living in a communal house and there was an outbreak of cholera that took the lives of many of the people I lived with, and we did not know how it was spread or how to prevent it. So I had seen the need for public health, but I hadn’t considered working in it until I joined The Carter Center. The same goes for guinea worm itself. Growing up, we knew about guinea worm because we knew people who had been affected by it, but we believed all these conspiracy theories about how it was spread. It wasn’t until I worked with The Carter Center that I started to learn the facts about how not only guinea worm was spread but how other diseases were too. A part of my work was to help educate communities on how to protect themselves from guinea worm, and I realized that I cannot educate others if I am not educated and I cannot help others if I do not have the means to help. So I wanted to learn more.
Q2: There was a point in your life when you didn’t want to be educated. Can you tell us more about why?
When I was growing up around 1983, there was a lot of unrest between the North and the South in what was then Sudan, and my village got caught up in the middle of the fighting. One morning a group of armed people showed up in our village and separated the men from the women and they burnt our houses and killed many of the men in the village. Luckily, my father was traveling at the time and his life was spared. But from that point, it affected me a lot and made me want revenge for those who I did lose, a feeling that stayed with me for a while. My family and the entire village lost everything, all our belongings, anything that we didn’t have with us when the armed group arrived. In 1988, I heard from friends that there were training camps in Ethiopia for those who want to take up arms, hearing that I thought it was time to get a gun and take revenge on those who wronged our village. I joined a group of people who were traveling to Ethiopia in search of justice. Each day on our walk you wouldn’t know if you would make it to the next day because there was no food, there was sickness, and there were areas where we would go without water for long periods. In some villages we passed through, the chief would let us stay and feed us, but some thought we were the enemy, so they turned us away.
After nine months of training in Ethiopia, if you were young enough like I was, they would send you to school, and the older kids would go back to South Sudan to fight. They wanted to send me to school, but I said no. I felt the need to fight. I wanted to join the rebel group, so I was granted an OK to join. In 1990, I went back to South Sudan as a child soldier at about 11 years old. It was very bad. One day you would have a best friend and the next he would be gone because every time we would go on a mission, not everyone would come back.
Q3: How did you end up leaving the rebel group and pursuing your education?
While I was with the rebel group, I was a bodyguard to one of the commanders. He was educated, not like really educated, but he knew why he was fighting, why he was holding a gun. As a bodyguard, he was our master and you would do everything for your master. Clean his clothes, carry his weapons, and cook his food. One day, he started to teach me my “ABCs” up to “E.” The next day he taught me more, and by the end of the week, he called me over and asked if I remembered what he taught me, and I was able to recite the letters for him. Gradually, he talked to me about getting an education. He said that a time would come, that you know, these guns we are using will not be useful. We’ll need people who are educated, and if you can go back to school, you can do more good for your community. He told me he would even help me go back to school, but I told him I was not interested. I wasn’t thinking about school then. It took some time, but he was patient with me, and I really respect him for that. Eventually, he convinced me to stop fighting and focus on my education. What I think especially touched me and convinced me to eventually leave the rebel group was when he told me that if I go to school I will survive and I would make him proud, but if I stayed, I would just leave this world like the friends I had lost during fighting.
I left the rebel group when I was 16 years old to start my primary school education with the support of this commander. The school itself was free, but it wasn’t very systematic. We didn’t have supplies like stationary, so we would use the ground to write out our lessons. But I pushed myself to learn and finish it, and then I went to secondary school. That was a really hard time because we had to pay a fee for secondary school, so me and my three friends that I lived with who had also been child soldiers would do odd jobs wherever we could on our holidays to raise the money for our school fees and food. I am pretty sure we were malnourished then because we would just eat one meal a day of Asida, a sort of dough-like porridge made from sorghum, and we had to walk a long way to school. In my third year at secondary school, I became an electrician’s apprentice which gave me more stability and funds and led to a permanent job with the local catholic dioceses in 2005 when I finished secondary school.
By then, the CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement) was signed between the Sudan People Liberation Movement/Army-SPLM/A and the government, so it had become a relatively peaceful time in South Sudan.
Q4: How did you find your way to Atlanta, Emory, and The Task Force?
After working with The Carter Center for 6 years until 2012, I got a fellowship in London with the Program for African Leadership sponsored by the London School of Economics and Political Science. It was only for a month but that also changed my perception of education and inspired me to get my bachelors degree at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Kenya. When I was in school in Kenya, a former Carter Center colleague introduced me to a teacher at Haddonfield Memorial High School in New Jersey who was talking to her class about child soldiers. Before this I had never wanted to talk about my own experience, and so when my Carter Center colleague emailed me to see if I would be willing to talk to this teacher’s class about being a child soldier, I did not respond for a while because I was asking myself how I would even begin to start talking about this difficult experience. At that time, I was also taking a class on psychology, and they were talking about counseling and how if you’re under psychological distress, it’s important to talk about what is causing it in order to help you heal. I also really trusted my former colleague, so I told myself that now is the time to start talking about it. I eventually skyped with this teacher’s high school class and that was the first time I shared my journey as a child soldier. After, I received thank you letters from all the students, and I’ve valued my relationship with those students ever since.
I graduated with my bachelors degree in 2016 and went back to South Sudan and began working with Help Restore Youth, a national organization that helped local communities with peacebuilding, food security, and legal issues. About a year later, I started applying to graduate schools in the United States to pursue my masters, and Emory was one of them because I knew about it from my colleagues in the Guinea Worm Eradication program. I knew I wanted to study development, and one of my friends who actually worked at The Task Force connected me with one of their colleagues who had completed the program, so that’s how I came to apply to Emory’s Masters in Development Practice. Throughout the process, I stayed in touch with the teacher at Haddonfield and she wrote my recommendation letters for my applications to graduate schools, but when I got accepted to Emory, I told her I could not afford to go even with the partial scholarship they offered me. She told me that she would try to help me out.
She talked to her class that I had skyped with, and they decided that this was the time that they could help, so they started a GoFundMe and went door-to-door and helped raise the remaining money I needed for my first semester. It was because of their support that I’ve been able to get here, and they’ve continued to help me raise money for my school.
When I came to Atlanta though, I didn’t have a place to stay, so the teacher from Haddonfield met me here when I arrived to help me look for a place. And there was an ad in a housing platform that talked about my situation and actually a former Task Force employee reached out, saying he had a place for me to stay. And that’s how I learned more about The Task Force and was nominated for the William H. Foege Global Health Fellowship Program and led me to working with FACE. It was quite a surprise when I started at The Task Force and actually knew a couple of the employees from my previous experiences.
Q5: Do you want to return to South Sudan?
That is what I am. That is what all my ambition is. I am here to learn, but when I finish, I want to go back to South Sudan to help others and be reunited with my family. South Sudan at the moment is at war, and who will be the ones to bring peace? The communities. My dream is to implement something that will not just help public health but also help South Sudan progress out of war and extreme poverty. The country has a dependency syndrome because citizens rely on food from aid agencies even though we have resources in South Sudan. I feel the communities need to understand their capabilities; they need to learn how to stand for their rights and hold leaders accountable and their role in ending this war. So I’m asking myself how do I start that kind of conversation in communities? Especially at a grassroots level? I think a sort of shelter like a community center could be a space for communities in South Sudan to talk and be trained on how to hold the country’s leaders accountable and be activists for their rights, and this space should also be a resource for people with books because there are a lot of people like me who want to teach themselves and learn more, but books are scarce. That is my dream: to start an organization that will help build something like community centers to help foster change in my country.
Q6: What role do you think public health could play in bringing peace to South Sudan?
South Sudan has many different tribes and a very fractured national identity, so I think because public health issues don’t have borders, addressing them throughout the country would help bring more cohesion and help the tribes join efforts rather than having disputes with each other. If one tribe has an issue with a disease and someone from that tribe travels to another and the disease continues to spread, then all the different tribes will want to get rid of that disease and implement prevention measures such as using latrines and proper sanitation efforts. That starts to build a sense of togetherness because they can find a common desire around health and wanting to keep their people healthy, so I think addressing public health issues is a road to bringing South Sudan together and eventually achieving peace.