Manyang Kher: ‘Lost Boy’ who wants to serve South Sudan hot coffee

Manyang Kher: ‘Lost Boy’ who wants to serve South Sudan hot coffee
Manyang Kher, a former refugee boy wants to set up coffee shop in Juba. Photo: Kevin Ogutu]

Opening lines from one of the documentaries of ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ are heart wrenching. It is a narration by one of the ‘Lost Boys’ that gives a picture of the circumstances as seen through the eyes of a boy, about five years old.

“My village, really, was beautiful. Very green and very beautiful. Aargh! The young boys lived in the cattle camps. When the village was attacked I was not at home. I was looking after the goat and the calf. I heard the sound of the guns. Immediately you feel in your body that is dangerous. My parents, all died. They took the young girls and used them up…”

34 years later I have the honour of interviewing Manyang Kher, one of the ‘Lost Boys’. He was only four in 1988 when he left for Ethiopia together with thousands of other young boys.

With a chuckle, he tells me that they are no longer lost boys.

“Do I look like I can’t find my way around?” He asks, and we both laugh. But his laughter masks a lot that he had to endure as a minor refugee, all alone in the company of other children like himself. It is a story that remains just that to those who were never in his shoes.

But for him and other survivors, it was such a great honor to be alive, after the war that forced them into the jungle, through a treacherous 1,000-mile journey to Ethiopia.

“Life was harsh, for those who were lucky to have survived the long trek. You ate one meal a day, and your healthcare is not good. People died of cholera. Some committed suicide; there were outbreaks of skin diseases. And because of lack of proper healthcare program and compromised hygiene, people especially children died in their hundreds,” he says.

He was born in Jonglei State, in a place called Akobo. But because of the civil war, this was never going to be his home for a long time, as they would soon find out.

“We were separated. Most people pushed the kids up, while they remained behind. They were hoping that the war would end and they would come for their sons and daughters. But the war would take eternity. And that is how we became known as Lost Boys. We don’t like the term but that is how they refer to us. We owe Gambela a lot. It has hosted a lot of people, given us the opportunity to come back to our people here in South Sudan,” he says.

They had education courtesy of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) who gave majority of the children basic knowledge, according to Kher.

In 1991, war in Ethiopia sent the young refugees fleeing again and approximately a year later they began trickling into northern Kenya. Some 10,000 boys, between the ages of eight and 18, eventually made it to the Kakuma refugee camp—a sprawling, parched settlement of mud huts where they would live for the next eight years under the care of refugee relief organizations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

The IRC began working in Kakuma in 1992 to assist the Lost Boys and other refugees fleeing the fighting in Sudan. Its programs expanded over time to include all of the camp’s health services: treating refugees who arrived malnourished or sick, offering rehabilitation programs for those who were disabled, and working to prevent outbreaks of disease.

Older boys took part in IRC education programs, and received support to learn trades and start small businesses to earn money to supplement relief rations. The IRC also helped these young entrepreneurs start savings accounts and access small loans to invest in their futures.

In 2001, close to four thousand Lost Boys came to the United States seeking peace, freedom and education. The International Rescue Committee helped hundreds of them to start new lives in cities across the country, and Kher was among the lucky ones to have got the opportunity.

But being in America had its fair share of problems. The relatives and friends back at the refugee camp kept calling asking for money. Kher and his friends started thinking of a long-term solution to the financial hardships that were bedeviling their people.

“The first idea was creating Humanity Helping Sudan project. This was and still is a nonprofit with the mission to create awareness of the world refugee crisis, establish strategic humanitarian partnerships to empower displaced people to become se-sufficient for long-term sustainability,” he says.

Information available on its website show that it was founded in Richmond, Virginia, by Manyang Kher. It now has a long history of being a leading advocacy platform for refugees.

“We realized that international buyers could not connect with the coffee farmers in Gambella, who were doing their best to produce high quality coffee. In 2016 we launched 734 Coffee. This way, we would bridge the gap between the farmers and the international market, meaning higher returns,” says Kher.

But 734 is more than a number. It is a place of refuge. 7˚N 34˚E are the geographical coordinates for Gambela, a region in Ethiopia where over 200,000 displaced South Sudanese citizens now live after fleeing war, atrocities, drought, and famine in South Sudan.

He has a long-term plans which include educating refugees, young and old in traditional and vocational capacities.

734 Coffee contract coffee growers in Ethiopia to grow the coffee which is shipped in bulk to the U.S., from where it is processed and packaged for sale.

“Ultimately, we want to bring 734 Coffee headquarters to South Sudan. This means bringing South Sudan coffee home, given the production in Gambella, though is in Ethiopia, is done by South Sudanese refugees who are still there,” says Kher.

There is a separate income wing from sale of 734 Coffee to some subscribers. The objective of this initiative to provide scholarship funds through ‘Refugee Campus scholarship program’. The funds are collected from 80 per cent of sales in the subscriptions.

“Currently we have 10 South Sudanese students in various universities in Kenya and Ethiopia under this program. Ou ultimate aim is to reach a target of 50. But because this is a four-year project, we do not want to rush it because possibility of exhausting funds to the point that the program grinds to a halt,” he says.

By having the 734 Coffee brand headquarters in Juba, South Sudan from Northern Virginia where the business was registered, the objective and goals of the project will make more sense than it does now, because the South Sudanese will feel the attachment to the course, apart from actually being able to taste their own coffee.

It is Kher’s dream that the coming generations of South Sudanese do not live to have refugee camps as homes. But most importantly, he thinks education makes all the difference, and it is a good thing for one to acquire quality education.

Right now the law graduate teaches Human Rights at the George Mayer University in the US.

“Were it not for the education I got in the US, I would not be doing what I am doing today. The kind of education that was available at the refugee camps was not adequate, and that is why I want the generation after me to acquire quality education,” he says.

Many of ‘Lost Boys’ like Kher went on to earn college degrees and some even attained U.S. citizenship, while wondering whether they would someday have the opportunity to return to their homeland and reunite with the families they left behind.

Then, in 2005, news came that gave them hope: A peace agreement had been signed between North and South. The civil war, which had claimed more than two million lives, was over.

The tenuous peace held, and in 2011 southern Sudan held a referendum in which its people almost unanimously decided to secede from Sudan and form a new nation.

Some of the Lost Boys were among the many thousands of South Sudanese refugees who streamed home during these optimistic years. They were eager to use their education to help build the world’s newest independent country.