Hauling school supplies, soccer balls and jump ropes, Phillips Bragg (’93) of Huntersville, N.C., made his first trip to Africa last month to see the school he, his wife, Leslie McLean Bragg (’91), and their friend James Lubo Mijak dreamed about for years.
Not quite finished but already welcoming students — and on Sundays, church-goers — the school is among the first built in Unity State in the new nation of South Sudan. Not only that, Phillips was told by a local near Nyarweng: “It is the first permanent building in this area since the beginning of man.”
That is a fact nigh impossible to verify but not outlandish when one hears Phillips describe “the ridiculously rural” area that in some ways remains “a desperate place.” It is where students used to have school under a tree, where huts need to be rebuilt every two years after the rains and where the South Sudanese rely almost exclusively on their traditional nomadic livelihood of herding cattle. “The people were beautiful. Where they can, they wear beautiful colors. And in Dinka (the local language), they said were grateful for the school,” Phillips said.
The dream emerged as the Bragg family grew close to Lubo, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who fled for their lives during the last civil war, dodging militia from Khartoum and lions in the scrubland. Lubo became one of the 3,800 Lost Boys the U.S. government invited to resettle in the United States. In June 2001, Lubo made his way to Charlotte and, eventually, to the Braggs and their St. John’s Baptist Church filled with caring parishioners. Phillips and Leslie answered the church’s call to be mentors. They became more like family.
“I have been a witness to their care and love since I came,” Lubo told me in 2011.
Lubo worked two jobs, including one at Bragg Financial Advisors Inc., and studied, earning a bachelor’s degree at UNC Charlotte. He yearned to see a permanent school built in his home village of Nyarweng in Unity State. Phillips and Leslie loved Lubo, and wanted to help. He was like a brother. They enlisted the Charlotte nonprofit Mothering Across Continents to guide them. The nonprofit shepherds dream projects that can serve as sustainable global models for change. Raising Sudan — now Raising South Sudan — was born. Phillips committed to help raise the money for a school in Nyarweng and another one an hour away in Aliap championed by Lost Boy Ngor Kur Mayol.
Today Lubo lives in South Sudan and works for the government as a community development officer assigned to a Chinese oil company about three hours from the new school. He showed Phillips around his country, and everywhere the two went they ran into someone who knew Lubo from the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Lubo arrived there in 1992.
Phillips said he was amazed and heartened by the work that has been done in Nyarweng. But he knows the school will be an ongoing commitment. “It’s discouraging how helpless the people are in this place. It’s so war torn. They’re not in a position yet to do for themselves with the illiteracy rate of 90 percent, and a lot of the younger people have grown up in displaced persons camps so they’ve never done anything for themselves. Our uphill battle of introducing microfinance — (it) has to follow literacy. They can go hand in hand a little bit. These people who say, ‘You need to teach the man to fish,’ I totally agree but they can’t even read the instructions.”
Phillips believes an educated population will be important “not only for the governance of their country and preservation of their new democracy but to do business. We feel like we’ve done the right thing.”
“It’s been really hard, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “It’s hard asking your friends for money when you have no good evidence that you can pull it off, and it’s hard after one school to say, ‘Hey, we want to do it again.’”
But one thing Phillips, Leslie and Lubo have shown: One can have faith in the unseen and deliver on the promise.