APPRECIATION - Remembering Dr Lueth Garang
By Atem Yaak Atem - March 9, 2017
When I received a text message from a friend in Juba carrying the news of the passing away of Dr Lueth Garang, I was struck by sadness. Late Lueth Garang was one of the people I have known for a very long time. He was a friend. More than that, the departed compatriot was truly a decent man. At a time when people see and feel evil things happening around them, their consolation is when they see good people in their midst; the presence of the righteous ones often inspires hope while their exit opens a space for despair and loneliness; it also weakens the defences in the war against the forces of darkness. Where and who are the replacements for the departed good people? The good fight must not relent but its soldiers are leaving the stage. For good. Very sad indeed.
Long, long time ago, Andrew Lueth Garang, as he was then known, was one of my role models. When I was a student at Atar Intermediate School in the early 1960s, Lueth had just gone to Rumbek Secondary. It was what he did and the people who knew said about him that won me to admire him, at a distance.
Late Lueth Garang and late Achol Deng Achol, the future diplomat- were some of the students at Atar and later in Rumbek, whowere household names in their former school. The two students- among several others- had left behind them huge footprints. Some of us who hailed from the same district as the pair, looked to them as exemplary students and therefore role models. (Achol had left a message engraved on a wooden desk about himself which read “Voracious reader”. And he was. Years later as a law graduate and a trainee diplomat, Achol advised me to read Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus which I did and found the tragedy- the story of a man who made a pact with the devil in exchange for supernatural powers- was a thought provoking as well an entertaining morality tale. As an arts student then, I should have known and read the play before being told to do so).
Although I had not met Lueth Garang in person his fame as an ideal student had been established in our school. Students and teachers who knew him talked of him as an exemplary student; an excellent essay writer in English; scorer of high marks in every subject; disciplined, punctual and tidy to a fault; a skilled basketball player.
Naturally, such positive reports tended to attract a horde of admirers of the subject. (There were other students in other schools, Rumbek, for example, whose distinction as accomplished essay writers went beyond the confines of their own schools. One of those was Abdon Agaw Jok, an alumnus of the neighbouring Obel Intermediate School; so was late Isaac Odhong La, future diplomat who hailed from Doleib Hill village near Malakal).
The legend Lueth left in alma mater was reinforced by his works which eloquently spoke for him. The exercise books he passed on to some of his friends bore witness to his personality: neat and beautiful handwriting; the textbooks he used, looked pristine and well-kept (because he used to cover them with newspapers and wrote his name- only once on each of them, unlike some of the students who made sure that any space without texts or illustrations in the books they used had to be filled with their names, often scribbled in eyesore of characters), and so forth.
Lueth Garang was said to have been a member of Boy Scouts, an organisation which I wished to join but unfortunately was no longer available during our time.
The turbulent 1960s
The 1960s were turbulent times for the people of what is today South Sudan. In those days, the territory was in the grip of nationalistic fervour which as a consequent its elites were up in arms against the central government in Khartoum which in turn, retaliated brutally. For their part, students in intermediate schools all over the South, Juba Commercial and Rumbek Secondary, often went on politically motivated strikes. Those schools, with Rumbek Secondary School playing the role of the elder brother, became a catchment from where the inchoate Anya Nya insurgency drew its future fighters.
Those strikes were just a smokescreen for the students to swell the ranks of the rebels. Students who remained behind during such closures, blacklegs as they were known, lived with eternal shame as they were branded traitors.
During one of the early 1960s strikes, Lueth Garang was among the students who left the country for East Africa. Some of his colleagues who had abandoned school were John Garang, Moses Majok Ayuen Kur, among many. A proportion of those student later became prominent guerrilla commanders and others fell as martyrs. Their wonderings in the region took them first to the Congo, by then independent but stewing in its own turmoil, Uganda, Kenya and later, Ethiopia. The government of the ageing Emperor Haile Selassie treated the Southern Sudanese refugees more leniently than was the case with the other leaders in the emerging East African nations with the exception of Tanganyika, soon to be Tanzania.
In Kenya, the three were among the students who were arrested by the government of the newly independent nation. The government was about to return the students to Sudan for being illegally in the country. The vice president and home affairs minister, Oginga Odinga, set them free. Grateful to the socialist leaning minister, the students lost no time and secretly trekked to Ethiopia.
Out of Nigerian frying fan
Through someone within a Church organisation in Ethiopia, Lueth Garang was able to find his way to Eastern Region of Nigeria. There he went to school. Soon there was trouble. In 1967, there was a military coup, followed by a counter-coup in quick secession. Then there was the massacre of Easterners in the north of the country, a development that ignited a full scale civil war. The Eastern Region declared itself independent of the rest of the country. It became known as Biafra, a phenomenon that lasted for only three years. By 1970 Biafra was no more, crushed by the Federal Government of Nigeria with the support of the Soviet Union, Egypt, UK and of course Sudan (morally). Lueth had to hurriedly leave Nigeria, back to Sudan.
Back to Rumbek Secondary
By that time Rumbek Secondary School had been relocated to Omdurman in the North because of the civil war in the South. After reporting to the ministry of education in Khartoum, Lueth Garang was sent to Omdurman to resume his schooling there. The new regime which was initially socialist in orientation, offered opportunities to citizens from the South in education and especially scholarships abroad and state jobs- such as foreign affairs and military- which were previously monopolised by the North.
It was in Omdurman I came to know Lueth personally. A reserved and conscientious student, his friends nicknamed him Ojukwu after the leader of the Nigerian breakaway region of Biafra, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. The Nigerian politician and soldier of Ibo descent was a darling of most Southern Sudanese- several children were christened Ojukwu- at the time as he was seen as a champion of secession, their cherished goal. Lueth who knew more about the realities of the Nigerian conflict and the war in Sudan than his fellow Southern Sudanese, was reticent to accept the sobriquet.
Medicine as a chosen career and fixation with hygiene
After passing Sudan School Certificate examination, Lueth applied to study medicine in the former German Democratic Republic, GDR. Wilhelm Pieck Universität Rostock which he joined in 1969 was one of oldest universities in Europe. It was established in 1419. After receiving his bachelor of medicine and surgery degree, MMBS, in 1974 he proceeded to study for a master’s in the same field. Lueth Garang was awarded a master degree in 1977. On return to the country, he did his housemanship in Khartoum. Dr Lueth Garang was sent to Juba which in turn deployed him to Bor civil hospital in the early 1980s.
Lueth was a cherry picker regarding friends and the company he liked to keep. His social circles were rather limited, not that he hated people; he was uncomfortable with humourless or argumentative types. He did not suffer fools gladly, too. One of his chums was the no-nonsense civil servant, Isaiah Chol Aruai who was a middle ranking government official in the province.
During my brief visit to Bor town in 1982, Dr Lueth invited me to his house. While we were waiting for a meal that was being prepared by a female relative of the doctor, (Lueth was the most eligible bachelor in town and soon married before the end of that year) I told him that I had heard many people making an allegation to the effect that “you always faint when you see a fly”.
“Acïkë pïr”, he replied in Dinka, with a smirk, meaning that they (those who made the allegation) had lied.
I was soon thrown into laughter when, after seeing a fly on the wall, not far from where we were sitting, he abruptly sprang up, picked a canister of insecticide which he sprayed onto the poor creature which came down rolling, drugged dead.
Late Lueth’s fascination with hygiene and tidiness, both personal and public, was seen by some people as an attitude bordering on obsession. In practice, that habit sometimes brought him into conflict with some people. During my sojourn in Bor, I was told by one of his subordinates at the hospital that the doctor’s strictness with punctuality and cleanness had earned him a few real enemies within the health workforce.
Years later, I was again surprised to learn that his idiosyncrasy for tidiness was to some people a defining attribute. In 1988 when the SPLA forces of Infijaar brigade bivouacked at Mareng, about 15 kilometres away from Bor town then under the control of the government of Sudan, Dr Lueth Garang was stationed at nearby Kolnyang as physician attached to the forces in the area. He invited me and my colleagues Captain Paul Mabor Aliab, Captain Biliu Deng, to his home. When I passed the invitation to the two men, Paul shot back with: “Is this Lueth who was always seen either washing or ironing his clothes?” Of course Paul was talking about the time they were fellow students at Rumbek Secondary in Omdurman.
Interpreting a personality
Some people tend to judge dandies or persons with special habits that appear to be eccentric to others, as being devoid of seriousness. That is not always true. Dr Lueth Garang was a victim of that misreading of personality. He was absolutely normal by any standards of categorising and labelling personalities. The man was far from being a frivolous person. Probably his candid-talking manner in which he preferred to call a spade a spade instead of constant resort to euphemisms and PC (politically correct) usage was mistaken for being unapologetically blunt, a trait he shared with his friend, late Majok Ayuen.
If one were to go fault-finding with the two departed friends, the charge that could some truth to it was aduruk, which roughly translates to “an act or behaviour which is slightly mischievous”. Such a practice is usually amusing and is rarely intended to offend the recipient of the joke or prank as it may be.
That observation- being frivolous- was far off the mark: the two men were universally known for their honesty: not beating around the bush about obvious facts. (And also for their unswerving patriotism for which they were willing to sacrifice even their own lives).
In regards to Lueth’s passion for neatness, someone with a turn of mind that sees the world through symbols, this particular characteristic could be substituted for honesty. Figuratively and literally, the doctor was a very clean man who hated any conduct that went contrary to probity. In that moral world, he was uncompromisingly against theft, grand or petty; from the public or from an individual. Dr Lueth Garang hated corruption in any form and under any name. In that, he was a very clean person. Those who worked with him can bear witness to this assertion.
Patriot and optimist
As a patriotic person, Dr Lueth Garang abandoned his secure job when the second civil war broke out in 1983. (There is no suggestion here that the citizens who were not only members of the SPLM/A were in any way lacking in patriotism; many members of the internal cells engaged in risky activities on behalf of the movement whether at home or abroad. The rural populations fed recruits and guerrillas whom they accommodated in their homes, and so forth). Lueth was one of the doctors who went to serve the rural population first before they joined the rebels ranks. He underwent military training and was commissioned as an officer in the SPLA whose members he served at various war fronts.
The struggle for freedom and human dignity, long and debilitating as it was, spawned- along the way- despair and scepticism among a sizeable portion of participants, some who decamped to the enemy- about the viability or even its worth and the costs. Throughout the struggle, Lueth Garang was not only steadfast; he was an inveterate optimist who believed that the SPLM/A’s losses in the early 190s would be reversed.
Fast backward to the early 1990s, the dark days following the split within the SPLM/A. Lueth, I and several fellow members of the movement were staying in Langata, a suburb of the Kenyan capital Nairobi. News coming from the war front was not good at all; the enemy had rolled back its losses, recapturing all the major provincial and district garrison towns; the SPLM/A had lost its radio station and Khartoum was then free to lie with impunity.
Boma on the Ethiopian border and Nimule to the south were the only bases that remained under the SPLA. Not only did it appear the struggle was coming to a sad end; some fellow Southern Sudanese- in league with the enemy embassy in Nairobi- were celebrating those losses. And the folks did not try to hide their joy as they would sometimes be seen sneering at us- whenever they heard of disasters that had hit the SPLA at the war front- in the marketplaces such as at Wimpy on Kenyatta Avenue. Hope was becoming a rare commodity. Although troubled by such treacherous behaviours, Lueth like some of his comrades never despaired as they waited for the time they would have the last, best and loudest laughter.
During those trying times he never ceased to remind people who cared to listen, with his constant and seemingly boring statement: “Things will be OK. Leave the monsters alone”, a reference to turncoats. And indeed, the good news began to come in from the frontline in drips. The first piece of the glad tidings was the defeat of Khartoum’s massive campaign to retake Nimule, then a logistical lifeline of the movement. Then the SPLA’s initiative which pushed the enemy back to defend its biggest stronghold, Juba, followed. Being a gentleman, Lueth did not tell the erstwhile doubters “I told you so”; he joined all of us while we were celebrating the triumph of our revolution over the forces of oppression, racism, religious bigotry and intolerance.
Manner of man
Lueth was a proud and modest person at the same time. Whether he was dealing with superiors or equals, Dr Lueth Garang would not accept anything that smacked of humiliation. Always content with his position in life, the good doctor, under no circumstance would bow low for personal benefits or advancement. While some of his comrades desperately and determinedly sought favours from the powerful, Lueth stuck to his career which he loved and proficient at.
Despite the fact that he and the former leader of the SPLM/A John Garang were good friends, age mates and former schoolmates, and that Lueth admired Garang’s role in the liberation struggle, he studiously shunned being sucked into the circles of the cabal around the Big Man.
That he did not become part of the courtiers despite his “right” credentials listed above, was not an accident. As stated earlier on, Dr Lueth Garang was not a suitable cabal material. The inner sanctum around Big Men (Big Women) the world over and throughout recorded history, more often than not, is mostly populated by a strange mix of snitches, incompetents and imbongis (Zulu for praise singers), constantly at war among themselves for influence and with the outsiders on the one hand.
Dr Lueth Garang had none of those demeaning “qualifications” which sometimes serve their holders to prosper and even become fabulously rich and powerful in their right.
That he died poor should not surprise those who knew him well.
In a society such as that of South Sudan where competence, professional qualifications and honesty sometimes almost count for nothing, people of Dr Lueth Garang’s high moral standing often are bound to remain at the margins. I was hardly surprised- on my return from Australia to the then Southern Sudan just a little before independence in 2011- when I met Dr Lueth Garang in Juba. During a chat, he told me he was getting paid for doing virtually “nothing” in the public health service sector’s primary care unit.
He had a desk, alright, in a room he shared with other officials but no specific assignment or any job description. He wanted to do something practical but it seems no one saw an experienced, honest and hardworking doctor as an asset. Although he did not tell me, he was obviously unhappy that his skills were not being utilised for the good of the people he loved to serve.
Adieu, Daktari! Sure, you have done your bit and the good you have done will not be forgotten.
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©Atem Yaak Atem 2017
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