Not far from a youth center Mercy Corps built in the town of Turalei is the ancestral home of the second-tallest man to ever play in the National Basketball Association (NBA).
Manute Bol is best known for using his 7-foot-7 frame to block more than 2,000 shots during a 10-year professional career. But he's also a devoted activist for southern Sudan. To raise money and awareness for his homeland, he's marched in a three-week "Sudan Freedom Walk" from New York to Washington and boxed in a Fox-televised celebrity match.
Now 45, Bol lives most of the year in Kansas, but we heard he'd returned to Turalei (for the funeral of his half-brother, he told us) and he graciously received us when we dropped by unannounced late this afternoon.
Sitting under a tree in a specially sized lawn chair, he greeted us with a "What's up, guys?", told us he was enjoying his brief visit to Turalei ("It was cold in Kansas"), and said he was looking forward to being the guest of former teammate and current Warriors General Manager Chris Mullin at the Celtics-Warriors game in Oakland later this month.
Some excerpts from our discussion:
You did a lot to raise awareness of displaced Sudanese during the war. Just now off the main road we saw busloads of people returning to Turalei.
Yes, they started coming back last week. They don't have a lot — no food, no shelter. But it's good for them that they come back, because Khartoum was very difficult.
Are you still involved in activism around Sudanese issues?
Yes. I talk about Darfur a lot. In January, I went to the Iowa caucuses and did a rally for the Sudan Peace Initiative. If you become president, what can you do for Darfur and southern Sudan? That is the question.
What changes have you seen here since the peace?
There's a big difference here. People are walking free, you're getting your own thing, nobody bothers you. That's the way it used to be.
What is the role of Mercy Corps and other NGOs in strengthening the peace?
I didn't know about you guys until last year. But when I came to town, I saw you guys had built things. You guys can build schools, build wells.... The refugees (who've just arrived) are struggling this year. Next year, they will find their own thing and live better.
Do you think all the talk in the U.S. about Darfur distracts people from the issue of peace in Sudan?
They should be talking about both. Right now, in the U.S., all they want to ask about is "What's going on in Darfur?" They think the CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement) was signed, there's peace, everything's okay. They're wrong. You can see it. Southern Sudan is not right yet.
Do you think the peace in Sudan will last?
If the northern Sudanese want to be with us as Sudanese, they have to prove themselves. If they want us to be unified, they need to prove themselves (to the southerners).
How do you see the role of sports in southern Sudan's development?
Nothing's been done. It's hard. USAID and Nike built one basketball court in Juba. You need to build some courts. We will try, too. I'm talking to the NBA about it.
I'm surprised to see there isn't a court here.
This is only the second time I've stayed here for a while. I was here for three-and-a-half months starting last August. I used to stay for only one or two days, because they were bombing the place.
Are you playing basketball these days?
I got in a bad car accident (in April 2004) and lost the use of both my hands (he raises his arms to show his disfigured hands), hurt my knee and broke my back. I was in the hospital for six months. These days it is very hard for me to walk.
Do you still keep in touch with (former NBA player) Charles Barkley?
Yes, but I have not talked to him in a while. Charles changes his phone number every week.
Has he invited you to appear on "Inside the NBA"?
No. I wonder why. I think it's because he knows what I will say.