The late NBA legend Manute Bol has become an icon. And as South Sudan stands ready to become the world's poorest nation, there is hope and heroism amidst the horror of daily life.
As South Sudan celebrates independence this July 9th two very different groups are turning to the late Manute Bol, as a symbol and inspiration.
What they are doing may not only create a graphic that may become as omnipresent on college campuses as the bearded Che Guevara, but more importantly, it might help provide a rallying cry for Sudan's emerging Arab Spring.
The first group, from NYC-based design firm Zago, chose the image of Manute Bol to launch the 'welcome193' campaign. Welcome193 is an initiative to send an 'internet wave' around the world on July 9th to welcome South Sudan into the global family of nations.
"We chose Manute for his sheer size, literally for the shadow he cast, and for his ability as a basketball icon to connect the general population to a relatively unknown global news topic of South Sudan's independence. Then as we went we learned that his heart and his dedication to South Sudan cast an even longer shadow than his lanky 7'6" body and we knew we were onto something," says Gordon Kindlon a creative lead for welcome193.
The second group, is a network of pro-democratic, non-violent Sudanese youth founded in Khartoum, with a growing involvement elsewhere in Sudan and around the world. Girifna (meaning "fed up" in Arabic) members first simply rallied against Omar al Bashir, Sudan's infamous president, who is under indictment by the International Criminal Court, for war crimes in the Darfur, and now apparently unrestrained in the oppression of the people of Southern Kordofan and elsewhere.
Three months ago, Girifna made a bold pledge to help complete the construction of the Manute Bol Primary School in Manute's home town of Turalei, and have volunteered for the multi-year project to help all 41 schools that were Manute's dream. On May 21, when Omar Al Bashir's regime attacked and occupied the oil rich border region of Abyei, as many as 15,000 Abyei refugees fled to Turalei. Manute's school in Turalei was for a time the only shelter for women and children who had nowhere else to go. Manute's school, already a symbol of reconciliation and the only real building in his home village, has been transformed from schooling 350 children of all faiths and ethnicities to a local institution schooling over 700 children and a relief center.
In response, Girifna and other youth organizations called a press conference in Khartoum announcing their "Reconciliation Convoy" (with a banner displaying the famous photo of Manute and Mugsy Bogues, (a contemporary of Manute who at 5 feet 3 inches was the shortest player in the NBA) to announce their door to door campaign asking for donations of food and clothing for the Abyei refugees.
Girifna members were unsure what the reaction would be, and were pleased that a strong majority of cold contacts in Khartoum responded positively to the opportunity to help the Abyei victims. But this bold humanitarian effort was perceived as a threat by Bashir's security forces, who sought to decapitate it by arresting the leadership. Three key leaders escaped to South Sudan (think car chases and safe houses), where in Wau, Southern Sudan, they arranged for the purchase of a truck-load of relief which they (with the help of Manute's legacy organization based in the U.S., Sudan Sunrise) delivered to Abyei refugees and needy locals in Turalei on June 30.
In addition to mobilizing aid victims of Bashir's regime, Girifna members have spoken out against ongoing and escalating violence in Southern Kordofan and elsewhere, and for this crime of protesting genocidal slaughter, 17 Girifna members were arrested. This July 7th, several of the Girifna members go on trial in Khartoum for their protests.
On July 9th, these two groups will come together... Girifna is sending a delegation to Juba, South Sudan, to join in the celebration of the South's independence. Girifna members will be proudly carrying the "Welcome 193's" posters of Manute. As Darfurian, and Girifna member Rudwan Dawod puts it, "he's our hero too."
Southern Sudanese and Northern Sudanese are turning to Manute Bol for inspiration as they fight hunger, illiteracy, and oppression. You can help by visiting www.sudansunrise.org and making a small, medium or large contribution to continue Manute's legacy of building schools, offering relief to the neediest, and helping to make the Sudan the next bloom in the Arab Spring.
John Zogby is an independent pollster and author of The Way We'll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream (Random House). He serves as Chairman of Sudan Sunrise, founded by Manute Bol and Reverend Tom Prichard to develop schools and other reconciliation projects in South Sudan.