As the people of the Central African nation of South Sudan waged a 22-year fight for their independence, a great many inspirational leaders emerged.
Among them was Dut Jok, a member of the Gok Dinka tribe and a general in the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. He was a benevolent leader, much more than just a soldier. He helped supply food and other needs for his people, and aspired to make South Sudan a better place to live.
Until 1998. That’s when he was gunned down by Arab troops and sent back to his wife and four children laid out on a stretcher covered by a sheet.
On Friday night, in an arena about 7,500 miles away, Dut Jok’s two oldest sons will engage in a different sort of battle. Considerably less hostile, much less perilous, vastly less consequential.
Dau and Peter Jok will be on opposing sides in a basketball game.
Dau is a senior for the University of Pennsylvania team while Peter is a freshman at Iowa, and this otherwise ordinary nonconference game figures to be a seminal moment in their lives.
“I’m just going to be very proud, especially for Peter,’’ Dau Jok says. “He’s gone through a lot as a kid …
“There will be a lot of emotions. It will be a proud moment because it’s a symbol of how far we’ve come and what we’ve overcome and all the people who helped us. It all comes together for this moment.’’
Peter admits he has been looking forward to this game since he first learned about it last summer. He’s trying hard to treat it like just another game.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,’’ he says. “I’m going to enjoy it right from the time he comes here to Iowa City because I haven’t seen him for awhile.’’
Carver-Hawkeye Arena will be filled with friends and family members from all over the country but especially from Des Moines, where the Joks have lived since 2003.
Their maternal grandmother, who lives in Des Moines, will be watching them play for the first time. Their younger sister, Alek, will be there.
Their mother, Amelia Ring Bol, will not be able to see it. She is a member of the South Sudan parliament and will not be back in this country until next month. Younger brother Jo Jo also will miss it. He is a defensive lineman for the football team at West Des Moines Dowling and will be playing in the Class 4A state championship game that night.
Dut Jok will be there in spirit, as will their grandfather, Jok Dau Kachuol, a paramount chief of the Gok Dinka who also was killed in a gunfight in South Sudan in 2010.
Dau Jok says he will be trying not to think too much about all of that. He spends almost every waking moment off the basketball court thinking about his father and his grandfather and what has happened to his country and what he wants to happen.
“For the most part, basketball is a space where I go to not think about it,’’ he says. “It’s a refuge. It’s a refuge.’’
Coming to America
Dau was six and Peter was three when Dut Jok was killed. Dau recalls that when his father’s body was carried in, he immediately went to a corner of the room and grabbed an AK-47, vowing revenge.
Even before that, South Sudan was a dangerous place. Dau recalls watching an underground bomb explode in the middle of his youth soccer field one day.
Amelia eventually moved her family to another area of the country for a few years, then to neighboring Uganda for a year-and-a-half and finally to Des Moines, where sponsors helped her become part of a Sudanese refugee community in December of 2003.
Dau’s most vivid memory of that time? The weather.
They arrived in Des Moines in the midst of an Iowa snowstorm and they stared in wonder at something they’d never witnessed before.
“We all rolled down the car windows and tried to catch it and taste it because we’d never seen snow before,’’ he says.
The climate wasn’t the only thing the Jok boys needed to adjust to. They did not speak English and they didn’t fit in very well.
Dau says he and Peter “worked our butts off’’ to change that. They sometimes would stay up half the night studying, trying to learn a new language. Dau went on to become almost a straight-A student at Roosevelt High School and earned his way into an Ivy League college.
He says it probably was a little easier for Peter because he was younger, but he still had to work very hard at it.
Basketball also became a big part of the lives of both brothers.
Dau had been an accomplished soccer player back in South Sudan but he was initially ridiculed in Iowa for his ineptitude on the basketball court. He sometimes would go to the YMCA for eight hours at a time to work on his skills.
“Basketball started out as a way to make people respect me,’’ he says.
It served another purpose. It kept him out of trouble.
Dau admits that he had a lot of anger inside him, largely because he had come from a country where anger is part of the culture.
“Every day you were bound to get into a fight,’’ he says of life back in South Sudan. “If someone looked at you the wrong way, you got into a fight. If someone disrespected your elders, you got into a fight. That was the way they solved problems over there. In this country, you can resolve your differences with discussion or by calling the police or by calling 9-1-1. Over there, everyone is their own 9-1-1.’’
With Amelia becoming more involved in politics back in South Sudan, Dau took on one other role in the family.
“He was a dad because my dad had died,’’ Peter says. “He was the oldest so we looked up to him and had to listen to him. He was pretty much the dad of the house.’’
Peter says the siblings fought quite a bit when they were in high school.
“When he got ready to go to college, we got closer and closer because we would talk about a lot of stuff,’’ Peter adds. “Me and him have a really good relationship, also with my little brother and little sister. My mom is always back there so we have to be close to each other.’’
The two brothers still speak on the phone several times a week and Dau is constantly offering Peter advice on how to handle situations in the classroom and in life.
“He’s a real smart dude,’’ Peter says. “He barely ever asks me about basketball, but he asks me about school and life and all that.’’
South Sudan won its independence in 2005, but it still is a troubled nation.
Tribal violence and border conflicts continue. Fresh drinking water is in short supply. Famine and pestilence persist.
Dau Jok hopes to change all that. The anger and hostility he felt as a youth have been displaced by a determination to enact peaceful solutions.
When he was a freshman at Penn, he applied for and won a $10,000 grant from the Davis Projects for Peace. He used it to established the Dut Jok Foundation, whose stated mission is “to fight poverty and violence in post-conflict South Sudan by empowering the youth to become transformative leaders through sports and academics.’’
Only 2 percent of the boys and 1 percent of girls in South Sudan complete school.
Dau wants to build a large sports complex and a secondary school in his home country. His goal is to have them open by 2016.
After he graduates from Penn in May, he plans to spend a month in South Sudan holding leadership summits and sports camps, and continuing to lay the groundwork for his ambitious plans.
He could possibly win a Fulbright scholarship and continue studying in England, but his ultimate goal is to correct the problems that still plague South Sudan.
“When I started a non-profit in 2011, a lot of people laughed at me,’’ he says. “They said ‘Why don’t you wait until you graduate?’ or ‘Why don’t you wait until you’re 30?’’’
He knows the problems of his native country won’t wait.
“I’m kind of stubborn that way,’’ he adds.
Peter could eventually join Dau in his endeavors, although the Iowa freshman says “Me and him are like two different people. He’s more the serious side and I’m the goofy side.’’
Dau doesn’t envision that happening either, at least not yet.
“He needs to focus on basketball and school,’’ Dau says of his brother. “He has enough on his plate with all that. Right now he needs to focus on those things.’’
That is not to say that Peter does not admire everything his older brother is attempting to accomplish.
“I think one day he’s going to be president in Sudan,’’ Peter says. “He’s a really good leader. When I played with him at Roosevelt in my freshman year, he always had that leadership in him. I look up to him for that.’’
Before any of that happens, they have this little basketball game to play against one another Friday night.
Neither player starts for his team. Peter has averaged 9.8 points and 18.3 minutes a game in the first four games of his college career. Dau has played only eight minutes and scored three points in the first three games of this season although he is one of Penn’s team captains.
Peter already warned his brother that he needs to “bring his A game’’ to Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“It’s crazy,’’ Peter says. “I always made fun of him and told him if we met again in college I was going to kill him. I never knew we were going to play against each other. It’s crazy. It’s a great opportunity.’’