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Nurturing His Tribe In Sudan From Afar

May 23, 2007
By SUSAN CAMPBELL, Courant Staff Writer

If all things were normal in southern Sudan, as a chief of the Kuku tribe, Shadrack Jolobi would be serving as the main dispenser of welfare and justice. He would preside over disputes among his 60,000 or so fellow tribe members. He would mete out punishment, reward and help where needed.

But these days, the chief, a 35-year-old father of two, lives on Park Street in Hartford, and he's left wondering how do you provide - from afar - for people as troubled and far-flung as his own? And where do you begin?

It's not that his people don't need him. A prolonged war and residual political strife, famine and drought have decimated his Kajo Keji area. If the tragedy of Darfur has the world's attention, Jolobi's tribe to the southeast shares the same burdens. Families are scattered around the world. Jolobi himself - the ancestral chief's role came to him after his father's death in '91 - came to Hartford from a Ugandan refugee camp in 2003. His plane landed in a snowstorm - something he'd only seen in books - and while he'd been given a jacket, it was nowhere near enough to keep him warm after a boyhood spent at the equator.

The cultural shocks came one right after the other, but these days Jolobi knows the vagaries of New England weather, and having learned English in school back home, he moves easily through American society. After a peace agreement was signed in 2005, Jolobi can return to Sudan, but without an infrastructure there, he sees little reason to do so. His homeland lacks hospitals, schools, marketplaces and passable roads. The citizens who didn't flee the conflict - and new refugees who have replaced those who did - exist on donations and subsistence farming.

How do you lead a people through all of that? And when do implied promises of ancestral roles end?

Jolobi is still the chief, and so he's going back next month with a 40-foot container filled with clothes, toys, blankets, sheets, computers, printers, household goods and garden implements such as shovels and rakes.

The container is nearly full of items he's collected in the last few months; he's still taking collections at Gold Coast Transportation at 2944 Main St. in Hartford. The container leaves for Kenya in a week or so, on a trip that will take about a month, Jolobi said. Through donations, and by living frugally - he works at a recycling company in East Hartford - Jolobi has been able to raise $3,000 for shipping costs to Mombasa on the Kenyan coast. He still needs $5,000 to move the container from Kenya to Sudan. Political problems and bad roads push transportation costs to the limit, said Jolobi, an active member of Hartford Areas Rally Together's immigrants rights committee.

But he's determined. He will be in Sudan to meet the container when it arrives, and he will help distribute the goods to people who need them. Somehow, he says, the money will come.

"I have a feeling for my people," Jolobi said. "I came here, and I have a job. I can work. I can buy whatever I want. There is a sense of reaching people down there who don't have what we have. We have a culture of sharing. We have so many things here."

Because his tribe relies so heavily on the land, shovels, hoes, rakes and similar tools are especially important, he said.

"People love their land," he said. "You know it's a good place. We have got the land. If you have land, you have everything. Everything is in the land - food, water, coal, diamonds."

He knows a 40-foot container of donated goods is only a start. The Kuku need far more. Jolobi would like to see a sister-city relationship develop between Hartford and his city. He'd like to bring Sudanese students to the States to study medicine, and then let them return home to set up hospitals and clinics, which are sorely lacking these days.

"That's my big picture in southern Sudan," he said. "If we train our own people, we can start from there."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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