Walking, always walking. Seeking an education in Sudan, caught up along the way in fierce battles between government troops, resistance fighters, militias, criminals and other desperadoes. Godfrey Bulla’s goal: a Ministry of Justice in an independent Southern Sudan.
The civil war, which began in 1983, forced Godfrey to flee Southern Sudan. He has walked thousands of kilometres since then, searching for an education. He settles his glasses proudly on his nose. “I was almost blind”, he says, “without an operation and these glasses I would not have been able to study anymore”. He has been running for most of his life. Always hungry for education. “To become someone, to get yourself heard, you have to study.”
Fleeing the SPLA
Godfrey was just seven years old when the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) invaded his small town of Torit. Taking a few belongings, he fled into the jungle with his mother, brother and two sisters. His father was not home that day and it was years before they would see him again.
“I was walking through the bushes when I suddenly saw my uncle’s body. Decapitated.” Panicked, the children wanted to run on. “Mum, we have to go on, the bombers are approaching”, they pleaded with their mother. But she insisted that their uncle’s body must be decently buried. Using an iron bar they found in an abandoned house, they dug a deep hole and erected a cross on the spot. The grave remains to this day.
They walked for four weeks. When the pain became unbearable, their mother boiled water to soak their swollen feet. Godfrey was most scared of the wild animals. “We once faced a lion. It roared so hard, it shook the earth.”
His family settled into a life of dull routine in a refugee camp near Mboki in the Central African Republic. In 1992 he was one of the chosen few to be enrolled in primary school. They taught French there. Education became his obsession. Eight years later he graduated top of his school year, but his mother did not have the money to pay for further education. “I want to go to Uganda to look for a school”, he told his mother one day in the refugee camp. She feared for the dangers he would encounter on his journey, but knew she could not prevent her stubborn son from undertaking it. “How will you pay for it?” she asked, hoping to put him off his plan. Godfrey sold cigarettes and kerosene on the street for a year. He took the money he had saved and left his mother behind in tears.
Eyes on the Goal
Walking, always walking. Caught up in the fierce battles between government troops, resistance fighters, militias, criminals and other desperados. New dangers awaited him in his home country. SPLA-fighters press-ganged him for the army. “But they found out I had an eye problem and so I was not allowed to join the infantry. Instead I had to carry food. After three months I managed to escape.” Godfrey resumed his long march, walking to north Uganda with his backpack over his shoulders. He did not know anyone there, nor did he speak the language. He was utterly alone, but he had a goal.
Without a penny to his name he reached the Ugandan city of Hoima. He presented himself at a high school where he was allowed to follow lessons in return for cutting the grass around the buildings. His marks were poor for the next two years He found it hard to follow the lessons in English, and was tired. “My muscles hurt at the end of the day and it's hard for me to study”, he explained to his teachers. They helped him out: Godfrey no longer had to cut the grass. He did much better the next year. “The teachers gave me sugar and an allowance, that’s how I kept myself alive.”
The following year the French embassy in Kampala organised a school competition. Godfrey seized the chance to shine. He was finally able to use the French he had learned back in the Central African Republic. He recited a French text perfectly, his school won the competition and Godfrey received free schoolbooks as a prize. “The school decided to pay for everything for me. I had finally achieved my goal. I could now spend all my time studying.”
Back in Sudan
Luck remained on his side: In 2005 he passed his exams. It was the same year that Northern and Southern Sudan signed the peace agreement that would lead to a referendum six years later. Full of confidence Godfrey walked back to the capital of Southern Sudan, Juba.
“I knew that in Sudan the best schools were reserved for Arabs only. That’s why I first wanted to become a journalist, to be able to express the will of the people.” He worked for the Juba Post for three years. There he faced a new challenge: he had increasing difficulty reading the letters on his computer screen. A medical examination discovered he suffered from cataracts. How was he to go on?
Godfrey barely remembered his father. Then he unexpectedly ran into him in Juba. “He fell to the ground and cried, and then he slaughtered a white goat for me. I told him: “Father, I need money to continue studying.” His father wanted to talk about the past, his family, his lost son, and the war. But Godfrey craved only education and needed the money. He persisted, his father paid for his studies, and another donor helped pay for an eye operation. He started studying law at the University in Khartoum. He now spoke English, French, Arabic, and his tribal mother tongue.
Godfrey was chosen as a student leader. He argued for the rights of the Southern Sudanese in the North. “We Southerners in Khartoum have to know everything about Islamic law. Why do Northerners have to learn nothing about the system of law in the South?” he asked himself two years ago. “We Southerners do not feel free and safe in the North. The secret service keeps an eye on us everywhere on campus”.
When members of the United Nations Security Council paid a visit to Khartoum in 2009, Godfrey and his supporters fought with the police who wanted to prevent them from giving a petition to the UN-diplomats. The southern students also refused to study Sharia law, “with which the North is trying to indoctrinate us.”
His long marches have taken Godfrey a long way. Southern Sudan, which first asked for independence from the North in 1948, has made history this year. The southerners have voted for independence and“The moment of truth is finally there“, says Godfrey in Juba. His thoughts go out to the nearly two million people who died during the civil war. He is full of praise for his ancestors who took up arms against the North. He solemnly vows to follow in their footsteps. Sudan will be hearing more from Godfrey. “I first want to get my law degree here in Juba”, he says. “Then I’ll become a human rights activist, to teach my people their rights. If I have achieved that, I will be ready to become Minister of Justice.
Translation by David de Jong Image: Petterik Wiggers
In 1973 when I was twenty I began my long journey through Africa. Ten years later I became a correspondent. My travels have not ended yet. Traveling is what ultimately makes me happy. Nothing feels better than not knowing where I'll be sleeping the next night.And nothing is more satisfying than finding a place to stay overnight with Aricans. Africa is a continent overflowing with humanity, enough to keep me going for years yet.
Africa is about people. Politically it's often cynical and childish, Africa's real power lies with its people. Many Africans have the courage to press for change despite the fragility of their living situations. These are the people I want to portray. One11 gives me the chance.