Published December 24, 2011
I had planned to spend my Christmas vacation with St. George's School of Medicine in South Sudan, but instead, South Sudan came to me. I am assisting Fox News Contributor Ellen Ratner with a young blind boy named Ker Deng.
Ellen and her brother brought Ker to the United States last August. Ker doesn't like to talk about the details of the day he lost his vision, but he has told us that he was hung over a fire and peppers were rubbed in his eyes. Ker and his mother are two of the tens of thousands of South Sudanese held as slaves in Northern Sudan. Ker's mother is still there.
My week with Ker began when I picked him up in Boston at the Perkins School for the Blind, the same school that educated Helen Keller. He remembered me from South Sudan this past summer. The last time I saw him, he spoke as much English as I speak Dinka. This time he said, "Cho!" and then he was speaking so quickly I had to ask him to slow down.
In just over four months he has become fluent. He now speaks his native tongue, Dinka, Arabic and English. He is sitting next to me as I write this, working on his Braille. He loves music and is learning to play the piano and guitar. He offered to teach me "Mary Had a Little Lamb today." I protested that I don't know how to play the piano. He said, "Cho, it's easy. My teacher at Lighthouse taught me," and he took my hands and showed me the notes.
He is a gifted drummer, but he told me yesterday that he is bored with the drums. He admitted his favorite Christmas Carol, however, is Little Drummer Boy. "I love rumpa pum pum," he said.
Ker has great intellectual curiosity. Our first dinner conversation covered Jesus and Malaria. Ker asked, "Why don't some people believe Jesus is the Son of God?" I told him that I didn't know, but maybe it was because people expected something different from the Son of God. I explained this in the context of South Sudan, and how his people had been hurt by Northern Sudan. I asked him, "What if the people were looking for a leader to make the North pay—to bring the north to justice. But what if this leader said, 'Forgive, forget and turn the other cheek?'" He said, "Not forget!!! Do not forget!!!"
After Jesus, he moved onto Malaria. "And what about the Malaria? It is very bad in Sudan. Many people die from it. The Mosquito is very bad," he said. I explained how blood travels around his body like highways and asked, "Remember the traffic jam we were in today? How the car went very slow?"
"Yes! I remember." He pretended the car was his finger moving slowly across the table.
"Well, that's what Malaria does," I said. “"It makes your blood go slow."
He told me that he got Malaria every year during the rainy season. He also had seizures from it. He tried to describe what happened to him and then I took his arms and made them move like a seizure. And he said, "Yes! This is what happened." Then he made the motion of something coming out of his bottom, (as though he had lost control of his bowels), and said, "I couldn't control it." I told him that he is a miracle. He smiled.
He said, "If you sleep next to the cows, the mosquitoes would not bite you because the cows. . . " and he gestured with his arm as if it were the tail of the cow. "I slept with the animals for ten years," he said.
When I tucked him into bed he asked if I could find his pet goat in his bag. He still sleeps with the animals.
The next morning over breakfast he asked, "Why am I black and you are white?" I explained the recipe . . . DNA and the ingredients, the cells, the Melanocytes, and how he has a different recipe than I do and that his Melanocytes are busier than mine. I showed him the palm of his hand and told him that it was a part of him where the Melanocytes are not so busy, and compared his hand to mine.
Thanks to his doctors, Haller and Hammersmith at the Wills Eye Institute in Philadelphia, Ker sees colors and shapes. We hope for more.
Ker was asked at a holiday party the other night what he most liked about America, and he said, "cold water." He has told me how he was always thirsty and hungry, but thirsty is worse. "When we walked from the North there was no water and we drank from the rainwater in the street." He motioned as though people were walking in the water and then he said, "We drank it. There was nothing else."
Whenever I lead him to the bathroom, he says "Water" so I’ll know to help with the seat up or down. After our first discourse over seat up or down, he explained why he says water. "Sometimes my mother would give me [urine to drink] and I would say, 'Why are you doing that?' And she said, 'There is nothing else and I don’t want you to die.'"
Yesterday while we were at Wills Eye Clinic, looking down at the streets below and waiting for his doctors, he told me he wants to find his mother. I explained that his friends at Christian Solidarity International (the same organization that secured his freedom) are working as hard as they can to find her and bring her home. "I want my mother to see America," he said.
Despite the trauma and loss in Ker's short life, I have never met anyone with so much joy—with so much capacity to give joy. I don't remember a time when I have laughed so much like tonight when I served him salad and he said, "Cholene! This is for goats. Green is to wear, not to eat." Or as we were taking the clothes out of the dryer, "Oh no, please do not put woman clothes with men clothes."
The other morning I played Handel’s Messiah for him. He held the music right up to his face, smiling as "Unto Us a Child is Born" blared out. "Cho, will you put this on my iPod. I want to listen to this song." I said, "Ker, this song makes me think of you. Unto us a child is given. You are a gift, Ker."