I hear about Aruna Kenyi before I meet him.
I’m at the Telling Room in Portland, a large upstairs room on Commercial Street facing the busy waterfront, where teenagers come to write with the support of professional writers. Patty Hagge is one teacher, a striking woman with pure white hair. She tells me about two writers who came to Portland and changed Kenyi’s life: Valentino Achak Deng and Dave Eggers. They spoke to young writers there and read from What is the What, Eggers’ book based on Valentino’s memories of Sudan. Here is the audio of their talk. “From the time Kenyi met them,” Patty tells me, “he said he wanted to write his story and we said, we will help you.”
Kenyi is the name every one calls him. And when he was seventeen, a student at Portland High, he completed a story called “The Photograph.” The Telling Room is also a publisher of the fine work of young writers and they included “The Photograph” in a Telling Room anthology, I Remember Warm Rain: 15 Teenagers, 15 Coming to America Stories. In the story, Kenyi describes the village of
his birth, Kansuk, and says he has no photographs to remember the village or any of his family. He fled from the village during Sudan’s war. He lived many years in a refugee camp in Uganda separated from his parents, without hope that they survived the attacks. He and his brothers applied to come to America, were accepted, and came first to Virginia, then to Portland. A letter came to him in Portland. Inside the letter was a photograph – one of his mother and father. They had survived and the photograph would lead Kenyi on the next journey of his life, a return to Sudan.
Kenyi is now a senior at the University of Maine, Farmington. In the summer after his junior year – the summer of the birth of an independent South Sudan – he went home.
Kenyi arrives at the Telling Room this cold November night. He comes tonight to tell us about his journey home. He saw his mother and father again. This is such a staggering thought to see your mother and father after growing up in war without them, not imagining they were alive. Kenyi does not talk about this. He only says, “I feel like I have a double life.”
He tells us about the school in his village. The school has become his bridge between village life and UM Farmington. In the village he would struggle to grow cassava and sweet potatoes. At the university he is studying Community Health Education. As an independent study course for the university, Kenyi began a fund raising project: Sudanese School Lunch Program.
When I think school lunch, I think of the American issue of replacing sweets with fresh fruit. In Sudan, the issue is that schools have no funds to provide lunch, and children can’t go home for lunch because sometimes they walked two hours to get there. Attendance is bad because in school the students are hungry. Kenyi also saw 100 children in a class and not many teachers because they often don’t get paid and teachers must have income to help their own children. Kenyi showed us his charts to track the fundraising project. He said that he had failed because the numbers were insufficient to feed the large numbers of children. No one in the room thought Kenyi had failed. He is exploring a way to support the development of a school garden; the Sudanese School Lunch Program campaign continues.
Kenyi continues to write his story. He returned to the memoir he began with his story, “The Photograph” and wrote Between Two Rivers. In the book, Kenyi lets the reader understand the war in Sudan through the confused eyes of a child. The book is full of places Kenyi escaped to, until the Army pushed him on: Kudaji, Bamure, Julimo, finally Kyangwali in Uganda where he lived five years. The line that stays with me is from “The Photograph”: “I just wanted my parents, that’s all I remember.” He is a writer of grace. His simple, direct language holds restraint and emotion.
After he completes his university internship, Kenyi says he plans to travel back to Sudan. He is also writing a new book. Again and again he thanks his art teacher at Portland High who guided him to draw before he wrote and the Telling Room mentors for nurturing his work.