Manute Bol was once the NBA’s tallest player, standing an impressive, neck-straining 2.31m.
But now he faces a truly giant task by helping reconciliation efforts in south Sudan where a bloody, 20-year civil war claimed 2 million lives, including 250 members of his own family.
“My dream is to build schools across south Sudan because with education you can have a decent life, find a job and improve,” said the 46-year-old, taking shade from the fierce heat in the capital of this autonomous region. “But we must also support the people of Darfur because, just like us, they too have suffered.”
Bol enjoyed a fairytale career in the US after being spotted by an American college coach playing small-time basketball in a tiny Sudanese village.
He spent a decade in the NBA turning out for the Washington Bullets, Golden State Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers and the Miami Heat.
His ten years away coincided with the 1983-2005 conflict fought between southern rebels and forces of the central government.
“What happened to us in the south is now happening to the people of Darfur,” said Bol who is investing large sums of his personal fortune as well as reputation in humanitarian efforts.
Thousands of refugees from Darfur have fled to the south where various organizations, such as the US-based Sudan Sunrise, work with them.
“We believe that reconciliation is fundamentally essential for the future of Sudan,” said Tom Prichard, the director of the organization.
“There is now a chance which wasn’t present in the past. We must seize this opportunity to establish good relationships between the north and the south,” he said.
Sudan Sunrise says it has enlisted voluntary workers from Darfur amongst students at the university here to help rebuild schools destroyed in the war.
“The response was extraordinary,” said Prichard, mindful of the suspicions between the Muslim north and predominantly Christian south of the country. “Lots of Darfur students came immediately to get involved.”
Rudwan Yaqoub Dawod, a 25-year-old student from Darfur, said: “I was frightened that they would detest me, that they would hate us for what we had done during the war.”
“But, in the name of all the people from Darfur, I am sorry. At the time, we didn’t understand. Today, we know the shame caused and they have accepted me,” he said.
Bol never went to school and spent his time tending cows until the day came when his basketball talent was spotted.
According to the UN, only two percent of children in south Sudan finish primary school.
“The children are the future of Sudan, regardless of the region they come from,” Bol said.