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Lost Boys
Cousins August Mayai (left) and Gabe Majok, two of the co-founders of the nonprofit Machara Miracle Network.

Out of Africa

Former “Lost Boys” from Sudan are helping transform hardship into hope for their homeland.

By Linda Marion

Planet Earth has always been home to conflict—at least ever since early humans learned to desire others’ partners, possessions, or power, or to decry their beliefs, ethnicity, or way of life.

In spite of humanity’s innumerable attempts to bring “peace on Earth,” conflicts have persisted to the present day (and will undoubtedly continue into the future). Depending on various factors—location, intensity, number of deaths—some conflicts grab more attention than others. But after a while, the longest running simply become noise in the background, and the world’s populations tune out the din, turning a deaf ear and a blind eye to those crises that no longer occupy the front page of newspapers or Web sites.

The civil war in Sudan is a prime example. Essentially a struggle between the southern, non-Arab populations and the northern, Arab-dominated government in Khartoum, the war broke out in 1956, shortly after Sudan gained its independence from Great Britain. The first phase of the war lasted until 1972, when a fragile agreement brought a halt to the conflict, only to have it reignite in 1983 when the government instituted a policy of imposing Arab culture, including Islamic (sharia) law and religion, on the predominantly black African, Christian south.

Thousands upon thousands of southern Sudanese fled and sought asylum in neighboring countries, such as Chad, Egypt, and Kenya, creating a refugee crisis of astronomical proportions. While a peace agreement was finally signed in 2005 between the north and south, the western region of Darfur remained restive due to decades of government neglect, drought, and desertification. There, a struggle between local tribes and government-backed militias has been raging since 2003.

Some of the residents of the Apuk Padoc district. Photos by August Mayai

Throughout the conflict in Sudan, now focused in Darfur, acts heinous enough to be classified as “genocide” by the United States and other countries have been heaped on a population unfortunate enough to be caught up in the conflict. The atrocities that have been and continue to be committed have set the international community to wringing its collective hands over its inability to resolve the situation, for whatever reason.

Yet out of such shocking conditions the occasional uplifting story emerges, giving others a reason to hope.

One such story is that of Augustino “August” Mayai BS’06, one of the thousands of so-called “Lost Boys of Sudan.” Born in Akop, southern Sudan, in 1982, Mayai knew nothing but war throughout his childhood. When he was 7 or 8, his village was attacked; chaos ensued, families became separated, and August and a cousin, Gabriel Bai Geng “Gabe” Majok, fled, not knowing what had happened to their parents or siblings. They joined a group of other boys and survived as best they could, living off the land, eating roots and insects, and enduring the ever-present threat of human assaults, wild animal attacks, illness, starvation, and dehydration. Many of the boys died or were killed along the way. Of the estimated 40,000 boys who had banded together, only about half survived the journey out of Sudan.

August and Gabe ultimately trekked more than 700 miles to a refugee camp in Kenya, where they stayed for about 10 years. Both were able to attend an English-speaking school, which would serve them well in the future.

In 2001, the International Rescue Committee, in collaboration with the United Nations, brought a group of “Lost Boys” to the United States. About 140 boys and young men, including Mayai and Majok, were relocated to Salt Lake City. Those 18 years and older were kept together in apartments, essentially living on their own, while the younger ones were placed with foster families.

Mayai adapted fairly well, and quickly (“in about five months,” he claims) to a new culture and way of life, although it wasn’t easy getting used to a cold climate (he had never seen snow) or contending with street traffic (there were no cars in his village). “When in Rome, do like the Romans,” he says, in explaining how he coped, at the same time admitting that some of the other boys are still having a difficult time adjusting.

Mayai soon enrolled at Salt Lake Community College, where he received an associate degree, then transferred to the University of Utah (in 2004), where he majored in sociology.

Assistant Professor of Sociology Rebecca L. Utz—a medical sociologist, with training in gerontology, demography, and sociology of the life course—was his mentor at the U. Utz had just begun her tenure in the department, and Mayai was one of the first students she encountered. “His English wasn’t that polished,” she says, “but when he began to tell his story, I said, ‘Wow.’ He’s far more polished than others would be, given his education and background.”

Over the next two years, Utz says she saw him “undergo incredible growth and maturity, and a marked increase in his understanding of the spoken and written language. He also gained poise in social settings.”

Mayai was very determined and disciplined in his studies —“the kind of rare student who tried to write a paper ahead of time,” says Utz, by giving her a draft and asking for advice, wanting to flesh out his ideas before starting a project. “Unfortunately, too many students are still writing their papers one hour before class,” she observes.

For his senior honors thesis, Mayai proposed to interview the Lost Boys still living in Salt Lake City—to ask about and catalogue their health problems and other concerns. He learned that many didn’t know how to access the health care system or surmount other institutional barriers such as lack of health insurance and were still struggling to adjust to a new culture. Some were not eating regularly, and others suffered from symptoms reminiscent of post-traumatic stress disorder. The results of Mayai’s thesis have been presented at several national and local research gatherings, including an assembly on Capitol Hill in 2006.

In anticipation of continuing on to graduate school, Mayai applied to some of the best sociology programs in the country, including the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he was accepted and is now a doctoral student, specializing in demography.

“Wisconsin has a fabulous [sociology] program,” says Utz, “one of the top-rated in the nation.” To help Mayai get into graduate school, she wrote a “very frank” letter of recommendation, noting that he was not the typical applicant and might need more guidance than others, but that “he is a superstar waiting to shine.”

Mayai is now doing research on demographics, especially child mortality and death rates in southern Sudan, where the average life span is about 50.

August’s cousin Gabe, meanwhile, received his diploma from Horizonte High School, attended Salt Lake Community College, and, in 2005, transferred to Colorado Christian University in Lakewood.

Mayai would like to teach international demography some day and “perhaps to do some work with the United Nations.” In the meantime, he focuses his energy on helping support the organization he co-founded with three other Lost Boys, including Gabe—the Machara Miracle Network, a nonprofit charity dedicated to addressing critical development needs in southern Sudan, including agriculture, health care, clean water, and education.

In 2006, Mayai returned to southern Sudan, after having been away almost 20 years, to discover that many in his large, extended family had been killed or died of disease, including his parents, because of the lack of adequate health care or clean water. Many years of war have devastated the region, which lacks the most basic infrastructure (see Statistics on Southern Sudan, below).

August has one brother, four sisters, eight uncles, and 10 aunts who still live in southern Sudan. He now returns to his village during the summer to visit his family and research the needs of the area so that he and others involved in the Machara Miracle Network—now a partner of Ascend Alliance, which specializes in sustainable development programs—can tailor the organization’s proposals accordingly. The all-volunteer charity is focused on raising funds to implement an ambitious five-year plan.

In spite of the seemingly insurmountable problems in his homeland, Mayai remains positive in outlook—an attitude that undoubtedly helped him survive under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

“I think there’s hope for the future, and for improvement in my country,” he says. “Someone has to make it come true. Little by little.”

—Linda Marion BFA’67 MFA’71 is managing editor of Continuum.

For more information about the Machara Miracle Network, visit

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The Machara Miracle Network’s Five-Year Plan

Volunteers from Machara Miracle Network and Ascend Alliance help residents of the Apuk Padoc district in southern Sudan install a well, bringing—for the first time—a supply of fresh water to the village.

The organization is committed to bringing hope and progress to southern Sudan, starting with the Apuk Padoc Community Development Program. Goals:

  • Raise $1,000,000
  • Implement first phase in 2009 (agri-wells, water gardens, and clean water wells for drinking; approximate cost $125,000)
  • Create economic enterprises that will be born from technological advances, with guidance and training from Machara and its partner, Ascend Alliance
  • Set up workshops in the community with hands-on training of technology workers and community members enabling replication, maintenance, and sustainability of technologies
  • Continue to grow the Machara Education Scholarship Fund
  • Build schools and further develop the education program, teacher training, and expansion of education throughout the community
  • Build a community center for social education (literacy for social change), which is critical for families to thrive, to facilitate cooperation between Western and Sudanese volunteers, and to receive further training for a self-sustaining community
  • Build a clinic for basic health care services, maternity needs, etc. (At present, there is neither trained medical staff nor any basic healthcare in the community.) Bring in trained doctors and nurses from other African nations who have the skills desperately needed

Statistics on Southern Sudan*

  • Chronic hunger stands at about 33 percent
  • 1.2 million people are facing food insecurity
  • One out of six women who become pregnant will die
  • There are only 10 registered midwives in the region
  • One out of every six children will die before his/her sixth birthday
  • The region has the lowest immunization coverage rate in the world
  • More than 50 percent of the population has no access to improved drinking water
  • Only 6.4 percent of the population has access to improved sanitation
  • While 1.3 million children are enrolled, only 1.9 percent complete primary school education
  • 92 percent of women cannot read or write
  • Only 27 percent of girls are attending primary school
  • Since January 2008 [three years after the peace treaty ending Sudan’s civil war was signed], 187,000 people have been displaced by tribal and armed conflict
* From the Office of the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sudan

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