“Hey Kevin, what are you doing for summer break?” asked Mbonisi 'Bo' Sibanda, my fellow full-time MBA classmate.
“Hey Bo! How are you? I don’t know yet, I was thinking about doing some volunteer work. I’d like to go back to Africa, maybe even South Sudan. I've heard they are dealing with a bad famine.”
“Cool! Let me know if you want to go to South Sudan. I have a close friend that works with refugees and I could talk to him for you. He’s also a big track and field star, I think he’s getting ready for the Olympics now.”
Very neat, I thought. I’d enjoy visiting South Sudan, plus I could set something up to help their people out. I’m pretty sure it is the most illiterate country in the world.
“Thanks buddy. Please do. I’d like to meet your friend,” I said.
The year before, I was stationed in Europe as a Marine Ground Supply Officer. My job was to oversee all Marine assets used for crisis and humanitarian operations in Africa. At the time, South Sudan was going through a famine, a horrible famine that was only exacerbated through an ongoing civil war. I unquestionably placed my best efforts, perhaps naively, in preparing for a call that would never come.
I remember leaving the conversation I had had with Bo with an immense feeling of possibility in the contributions that were within reach. I’d been a free man, honourably discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps, for the past 9 months. I’d spent that time trekking, driving, riding, and flying from Frankfurt to Sydney. For that 9 month recess, I chased happiness and comfort. The very best daydreams returned when I started putting the needs of others first.
One month after my first conversation with Bo I landed in South Sudan.
“Vaccination records,” the immigration officer demanded. He was hunched over the desk. His cheek rested on his left palm and his right palm was extended out towards my chest.
“Sure, here you go.”
The officer grabbed my yellow CDC immunisation record booklet. His yellow eyes squinted as he confidently riffled through the pages. He handed my yellow booklet back. “Have a nice day.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
He never looked at the part where the yellow fever vaccine was written, a requirement for clearance into South Sudan. He can’t read. At least the Ebola checkpoint officer had a thermometer that makes a noise when someone had a fever.
I walked through customs and immigration into Juba, South Sudan. Bo’s friend Yawusa and Honorable (his uncle) were waiting for me outside the airport.
“Good afternoon Honorable and Yawusa, it’s an absolute pleasure to meet you folks in person. Thank you for everything you’ve done,” I said.
“It’s our pleasure, Kevin. We’re excited to get started on this project with you. This is a really good thing you’re doing. There’s no libraries here and we’re so happy to maybe have one,” said Honorable.
We spent the first days enjoying each other’s company, discussing future plans, and learning about the history of the world’s youngest country.
Taking materials learnt from my full-time MBA, including Professor Guy Ford’s Creativity, Innovation and Business unit, and applying tips from Dr. Kevin Lowe’s Leadership Practice and Development unit, we worked through a plan of action and milestones.
Yawusa and I were then able to secure a meeting with the Honorable Dr. John Gai Yoh, the South Sudan Presidential Advisor for Educational Affairs. We discussed politics, upcoming legislation, and the war. At the end of the meeting he blessed our NGO and offered his continued assistance.
Less than one month after our meetings with various politicians and civic leaders, Yawusa and I were able to secure legal registration of our NGO, the South Sudan Library Foundation. As we move one step closer to building the library, I hope we are able to make a difference by improving literacy among the people of this amazing country.