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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 July 2007, 15:49 GMT 16:49 UK
The 'Lost Boy' of Sudan returns
By Jane Little
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

John Majok is one of more than 3,000 Sudanese "Lost Boys", young refugees who were given the opportunity to resettle in the US.

After six years, he returns to the Kenyan refugee camp where he grew up to get married.

John's mum, John Majok, John's sister and niece
John's mother and sister are the only surviving family members
He looks so incongruous, striding over the ditch in his black suit and red tie, mobile phone at his ear, a long arm waving to the skinny, barefoot boys running towards him.

John Majok, 26, is returning to the refugee camp at Kakuma for the first time since moving to America nearly six years ago.

There are thousands of small mud-walled houses here that provide homes for some 60,000 people from Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and beyond.

And this is home for John, or at least the closest thing he and his people - from the Dinka community in South Sudan - have had to a home since they fled their own during the 21-year civil war.

He is greeted now with great pride and joy.

"This is my mother, this is my sister," he grins as he is engulfed in exuberant embraces.

John's mother and sister are the only surviving members of his immediate family. He lost seven of eight siblings during the civil war, in which millions were killed or displaced.

Dangerous escape

He was six years old when he was separated from his family, joining thousands of others who subsequently became known as the "Lost Boys of Sudan", made famous once the world woke up to what they had gone through.

A map showing Sudan and Kenya
They fled their burning villages and trekked through desert and jungle for months, pursued by armed militia, lions, hunger and disease.

John recalls walking over the bodies of boys who had given up the fight.

He counts himself among the lucky ones.

He made it to this hot, dusty corner of Kenya in 1992 and the United Nations Refugee camp at Kakuma was born.

Later he was one of more than 3,500 Lost Boys - and 89 girls - who were given the chance of an education and a new life in the United States under a resettlement programme.

I met him in Tucson, Arizona, soon after his arrival in 2001.

He went on to get an honours degree at university and now works in Washington DC for a non-profit foundation, where he recruits professionals to go back to start rebuilding Southern Sudan. It is a process that was made possible by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005.

But his own success came at a price: separation from his mother and sister again - and from the girl he had met weeks before he left, whom he intended to marry.

"I saw her and said: 'You are still young but you have my word'. Since then we have been going out over the phone," he says.

He has come back to fulfil his promise.

Meeting Yom

Later John and 12 male relatives crowd into a hot, dark room decorated with tinsel, to meet his fiance Yom.

John Majok - one of the lost boys, meeting Yom
John admits that arranging his marriage has been expensive
The ritual dictates that they cannot be alone together for the first meeting.

Female relatives accompany Yom, who sits silently in her chair.

Her elaborately braided hair obscures her lowered face - she must not look directly at John.

His cousins tell me that they have been courting her on John's behalf.

They reported back to him that Yom would make "a good wife".

Then the protracted negotiations typical of Dinka marriages ensued.

The wealth of a Dinka man is measured by how many cattle he has. John's dowry is set at more than 100 cows.

Later he admits that it has cost him between $20,000 and $30,000 dollars to get married.

Forced marriages

Many other Lost Boys are also taking out bank loans to pay for brides in the camp, who are seen to be girls of good virtue.

Such inflation is worrying aid agency officials who say it is encouraging forced marriages.

"The higher the amount of money you pay, the younger the girl you get and that is where our concern comes in," says Mohammed Hussein, who heads the camp on behalf of UNHCR.

For the Dinka, they care less about money than the manners and the character
John Majok
He adds that he has been an unwelcome guest at a number of weddings which he broke up because they involved under-aged girls.

John's is not a forced marriage and Yom is 23.

He says the outsider does not always understand Dinka culture and he rejects the idea that the Lost Boys are exacerbating the problem.

"For the Dinka, they first want the family background - they care less about money than the manners and the character," he says.

He says it was very important for him to come back to marry someone who shared the same cultural tenets.

Future plans

Yom is delighted he kept his promise.

She is intensely shy and does not speak English but she tells me through her cousin that she is excited about her wedding.

"I knew that he would come back and that is why I waited," she says.

Yom wants to move to America but she knows very little about it
While they share a strong commitment to their Christian faith and Dinka values, there is now a cultural and educational gulf between them.

John is one of the leading voices of the Lost Boys, and has worked for a senator and addressed Congress.

Yom wants to move to America but she knows very little about it.

Her cousin tells me she left primary school before she got a diploma.

After the marriage, John will probably struggle to get her a visa to join him in the US.

The US visa process could take years.

That said, he is a man of focus and determination, who believes that his God spared him for a reason.

If there is a way to succeed, John will find it.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 19 July 2007 at 1102 BST.

It will be repeated on Monday, 23 July 2007 at 2030 BST.

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