Luol Deng returns to Sudan for the first time since he fled 20 years ago
By Tim Franks
Luol Deng is getting drenched. While most sports stars spend their off-season on the beach, Britain's NBA superstar is soaking up a Southern Sudanese wet-season deluge.
There is a solemn ritual to it. A United Nations Refugee Agency official hands him an umbrella. Luol accepts it, waits a few seconds, quietly walks over to a line of dripping schoolchildren and then hands it over. The children gaze up, and up and up, smile, and take shelter.
Luol ambles back to the centre of the muddy field, where the welcoming ceremony continues. Within a minute, as his XXXL t-shirt turns ever darker with rain, a further umbrella is proffered, only to end up in the hands of another teenager.
Now that southern Sudan's most celebrated refugee has at last returned home for the first time in 20 years, columns of children run through their sweetly drilled routine. "Welcome, welcome," they sing. "We are happy to see Luol Deng today". As they sing, they march in lilting step.
LUOL DENG - THE FACTS
Career highlights: 2004-05 NBA All-rookie first team and 2007 NBA Sportsmanship award
Luol Deng does not seek the attention. Great Britain's best basketball player is on a six-year $71m minimum contract with the Chicago Bulls, is lionised by President Barack Obama and counts Michael Jordan as a friend.
But he also knows that his story - a child who, at the age of five, became a refugee - is rather ordinary here. Yes, he had to flee the civil war, which was in the process of killing two million people. But he was lucky enough to be able to escape with the rest of his family and end up in Britain, where the Dengs were granted asylum.
So Luol has been cautious, almost to the point of prickliness, about being feted for his first return to Sudan. But now he has been handed a megaphone to address the hundreds of children surrounding him in an uneven rectangle.
He thanks them for "the best welcome I ever got in my life ... and I'm so happy that I got it from home". Then he switches gear. "If you work hard, if you listen to your teachers, listen to your parents," he tells them, wheeling round to address the four sides, "you could be standing here".
Children from the Buluk A1 Basic School in Sudan welcome Luol back to Sudan
"Every one of you guys is capable of being somebody special. Maybe you will be the president of this country and one day you gonna lead us. You gonna lead us, and we're going to have a great country."
The reference is lost on no-one. In January, Southern Sudan is due to hold a referendum on independence from Khartoum - perhaps the most significant single part of the "Comprehensive Peace Agreement" of 2005, which brought decades of civil war to an end.
The Lost Boys
Hundreds of thousands of refugees have already returned. Many, though, are staying away. Among them, are some of the vast group known as "The Lost Boys". They were children who ran, literally, as their villages were attacked. They hared off into the desert and the bush, often not knowing whether the rest of the families were alive or dead.
After years of aimless wandering, many of them ended up in Kakuma Refugee Camp, over the southern border, in Kenya. And many of those have stayed ever since.
Luol Deng meets 'Lost Boys'
United Nations Refugee Agency,
for whom Luol has worked in the past, has brought him and his older brother Ajou to Kakuma. On a hot morning, Luol meets about 20 "Lost Boys" under the shade of a broad tree, within the camp. He speaks to most of them in Dinka, painstakingly translating for us.
"They came to the village and burned the houses," Luol explains, as Angelo talks to him in a flat, quiet voice. "He just got up and ran, ran for his life. He was 12. He left with nobody. He went to the jungle. Then he went to Ethiopia. He got here in '92. He has no people back in Sudan. So he's going to stay here."
Building the future
Southern Sudan has a further problem. It still has some of the worst levels of development in the world. Information is scratchy, but recent relief agency figures have given the region the highest mortality rate in the world for women in childbirth. One in five children die before their fifth birthday.
For that reason, Luol Deng is far more than a tourist. Several hundred kilometres to the west of the capital Juba, deep in the bush, is Udici Basic School, which was laid waste during the war. Now
the Luol Deng Foundation
has helped to reconstruct some of the school buildings.
Another welcoming ceremony ensues, with wildly foot-stamping dances, and an elegant older woman ululating. Next to the brickwork are the small, mud huts, where some of the pupils and their families live. They make the bare walls and metal desks of the nearby classrooms appear all the more impressive.
Luol reflects quietly on the scale of the challenge: "The school still has a lot of things to be done. Hopefully we will continue to fund the school and do things slowly."
Duck and cower
A bumpy, 75-minute drive from Udici Basic School, lies another, rather more trivial sign of Sudan's lack of development. At a junction in the city of Wau stands Southern Sudan's single set of functioning traffic lights.
Luol, though, has not come to Wau for the thrill of waiting dutifully at this unique red light. Wau holds another significance on his journey.
It's like an angel coming through your house. He's gone through the same struggles we've been through.
Ras Korby, musician
It is where the Dengs lived before the violence of the civil war forced them to flee. "This was my mum's bedroom," recalls Ajou, Luol's older brother, pushing open the stiff door of the room where Luol was born. "There was a hill outside, where there were fights. We used to duck under the bed. And then when you came outside you could see the bullets. That was when we were ready to move and get out of here."
'Not a fool'
Now that he has returned, albeit for only a few days, Luol is attempting to suck every last drop from his time in Southern Sudan. It is that which brought him, late on a Saturday night, into the "recording studio" of the Southern Sudanese Artists' Union.
Luol has folded his 205cm frame onto a plastic chair in the corner of the tiny, sweltering shack. Before him, six young musicians jam.
They sing first about the forthcoming referendum and then, clapping and grinning, they launch into an a cappella panegyric to their guest. "Luol Deng! Luol Deng! He plays for Chicago Bulls, and he goes by the rules. And he's not a fool. Luol Deng! Luol Deng!"
Luol Deng is serenaded by the Southern Sudanese Artists' Union
The leader of the group and the founder of the Artists' Union, Ras Korby, is also a refugee. He is moved by the presence of Luol. "It's like an angel coming through your house. He's gone through the same struggles we've been through. Now he's come back to think about other people who have suffered, and that's so sweet."
For the first time on the trip, a crack appears in Luol's understated composure. He confesses to feeling a little overwhelmed.
"I never been... I never been in a place where I walk in the street... " He draws breath and looks away. "I'm getting a little emotional... I never been in a place where I walk in the street and I actually feel home. You know I don't feel like a refugee."
That is not to say that he is ungrateful for the welcome extended to him in the USA and in Britain. Indeed, on his return from Africa, his unusual off-season continues with a series of games for Team GB, as they seek qualification for next year's EuroBasket tournament, but also for the 2012 Olympics.
As he explains: "England has done so much for me and my family, I always feel I want to give back in some way. The only way I can give back is through basketball."
And so, on a Saturday night, in Birmingham's National Indoor Arena, he plays all but the final nine seconds of the game against Ukraine. It's a tough match but deep in the fourth quarter, he breaks free. He jumps, rocks back in the air, and sinks a three-pointer.
GB are on the verge of qualifying for the European Championships
Ukraine hurtle down the other end of the court. One of their players holds the ball wide on the right. Luol is supposed to be marking another Ukrainian out on the left. He edges ever so slightly away from his opponent, as if uninterested, shyly casting his eyes floorward. It is enough to lull the Ukrainian with the ball into attempting a fast cross-court pass.
Luol snaps his body out of reverse gear, makes the interception, charges the full length of the court, and slams the ball through the Ukraine basket. He allows himself a luxurious swing from the rim.
Even if Team GB qualifies for the EuroBasket tournament, there is no guarantee from Fiba, the world governing body, that Britain will take part in the Olympics in 2012.
Fiba says that it wants to see further evidence that the sport is taken seriously in Britain. There is still the possibility that basketball will be the only sport in which Britain, as host Olympic nation, fails to appear.
There would be a hole, in 2012, should an athlete with this sort of story, and this sort of talent, be unable to compete.
Luol Deng is one of the athletes being tracked for World Class 2012 in partnership with the British Council.
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