This article was first published in Catholic San Francisco Online Edition
March 9th, 2011
By Valerie Schmalz
Francis Bok puts a human face on the reality of human slavery in the 21st century – and on building a country.
Bok, a Catholic Dinka tribesman from southern Sudan, was 7 and on his first trip with older children to sell peanuts and boiled eggs at a marketplace when he was captured during a raid by Arab Muslim marauders from the country’s north in 1986. He spent 10 years as a slave to a wealthy Arab Muslim family in northern Sudan, sleeping with animals, herding goats and sheep, and then cows, and eating food scraps, often rotting, from the family’s table. He was forced to become a Muslim, even as he was taunted as “abeed” – or black slave. The wife of the man who captured him regularly threatened to kill him, the man threatened to cut off his arm if he fled, and the children beat him.
“When you are in trouble, you have to turn to God,” Bok told the students at Marin Catholic during a March 4 visit to thank the students for their prayers and ask their help in building a 12-classroom school, complete with a traditional boarding high school, in his village in the newly created country of South Sudan.
At 17 – on his third escape attempt – Bok walked away from his life as a slave, making his way to Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, then to Egypt and finally to the U.S. In 2000, Bok was the first escaped slave to testify before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee as part of his work with the American Anti-Slavery Group. Bok told his story in his 2003 book co-written with Edward Tivnan, “Escape from Slavery: The True Story of My Ten Years in Captivity – and My Journey to Freedom in America.”
The book was an all-school read at Marin Catholic High School when Bok visited for the first time in 2008 and is now required reading for the freshman class. Bok’s return was something of a homecoming, with the 6-foot 6-inch Sudanese terming theology department chairman Joseph Tassone “a big brother” who kept in touch, often via notes sent to Bok’s Facebook site at facebook.com/pages/The-Francis-Bok-Foundation.
But the visit also had a concrete goal. Bok, a married father of two living in Kansas, spoke with the students about building a school in the village where he was born on his father’s land. Bok’s parents and sisters were killed during the raids on southern Sudan, but he did not know what happened to them until more than a decade later, his hope of seeing them keeping him going through much of captivity, he said.
“My father was someone I looked up to. He actually served his community with zeal and care,” Bok told the students, and he said he continues to live his life with the example of his parents in mind. In regard to the genocide, and his time as a slave, Bok said he is working for his country’s future. “What you do is everything you can to keep it from happening again,” he said.
By prayer and sacrifice during Lent, Marin Catholic’s community plans to raise between $6,000 and $11,000 for the school that Bok hopes to break ground on this year, Tassone said. Marin Catholic plans to be involved with Bok’s work for years to come, Tassone said. The school will include primary school classrooms and also have an adult education component for parents who are mostly illiterate, Bok said. A compound to house volunteer American teachers and Sudanese teachers is part of the plan.
There is no high school in the region and because students have nowhere to go beyond primary school, they are losing hope. “I want that school to be preparing the leadership of tomorrow,” Bok said. “To compete with the modern nations we have to work hard, we have to educate ourselves.”
Since a 2005 peace agreement ending decades of sectarian civil war between Sudan’s north and south, security has improved in the south and hundreds of thousands of refugees have returned to their ancestral lands. Bok’s brother, his only remaining immediate family member, now lives on the land of their father and is helping with the school. Children from first to seventh grades learn under trees on their land, Bok said.
Bok’s village of Gor-Ayen is part of the new country of South Sudan, which was created with the overwhelming approval of a referendum in January. South Sudan, which officially becomes a nation July 9, is mostly Christian and animist and is rich in oil reserves but remains undeveloped.
“People are coming back who migrated during the war,” Bok said. “During the war, the entire village was completely destroyed and everybody left and went to either to Khartoum to the refugee camps, to Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya – you name them, all those places we actually fled to because of the war.”
Michael Hill, senior communications officer for Catholic Relief Services, said South Sudan is the newest country in the world and one of the poorest. Churches, including the Catholic Church, have been the only organizations to provide any structure in the decades of destruction there, he said.
During the war militia from the north destroyed villages, killed nearly 2 million, enslaved 200,000 and displaced 4 million. Some 35,000 Sudanese are believed to remain enslaved in north Sudan, according to Christian Solidarity International.