THEY POURED FIRE ON US FROM THE SKY
The true story of three Lost Boys from Sudan
Written by Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, and Benjamin Ajak with Judy A. Bernstein
About the Book
Alepho, and Benson were raised among the Dinka tribe of Sudan. Theirs
was an insulated, close-knit world of grass-roofed cottages, cattle
herders, and tribal councils. The lions and pythons that prowled beyond
the village fences were the greatest threat they knew.
changed the night the government-armed Murahiliin began attacking their
villages. Amid the chaos, screams, conflagration, and gunfire,
five-year-old Benson and seven-year-old Benjamin fled into the dark
night. Two years later, Alepho, age seven, was forced to do the same.
Between 1987 and 1989, thousands of other young Sudanese boys did
likewise, joining this stream of child refugees that became known as
the Lost Boys. Their journey wouldtake them over one thousand miles across a war-ravaged
country, through landmine-sown paths, crocodile-infested waters, and
grotesque extremes of hunger, thirst, and disease. The refugee camps
they eventually filtered through offered little respite from the
brutality they were fleeing.
Poured Fire on Us From the Sky, Benson, Alepho, and Benjamin, by
turn, recount their experiences along this unthinkable journey. This is
a captivating memoir of Sudan and a powerful portrait of war as seen
through the eyes of children. And it is, in the end, an inspiring and
unforgettable tale of three young boys who, cast against all elements,
had the will, the tenacity, and the very good luck to survive.
TEACHING AND READING
In the Classroom
This disarmingly intimate memoir delves beyond headlines to bring readers deep into the heart of the Sudanese conflict – and into the flight of three children determined to escape it. It deciphers Sudan’s struggle from the inside. Who is fighting it? Why? Who are the victims? How did these boys survive without food, without family, for so long?
At the same time, the journey of Benson, Alephonsion, and Benjamin over these many years and these thousand miles reveals how small minds comprehend and process the violence of war. Their story also begs the question: Can and should the international community intervene? What can be done?
Have students bring in recent
news articles and clippings regarding developments in Sudan. Try to
piece together the conflict from these accounts and clippings. Discuss
the history of Sudan’s war. How do the students feel about the
conflict? What do they think it is like to grow up during wartime? You
may also invite them to bring in articles regarding intervention or
immigration. Do they think intervention important? How do they feel
about refugees, like the Lost Boys, seeking asylum in this country?
USING THIS GUIDE
To the Teacher:
Reading and Understanding
the Story examines the reader’s comprehension and retention of
the book itself, and of the war as Benson, Alepho, and Benjamin relate
it. Students should refer to the narrative to answer these
questions. Themes and Context encourages students to use the
book as a lens into larger ideas, events, and issues. These questions
encourage students to think freely and independently on the war in
Sudan and the broader moral and political debates stemming from it.
Teaching Ideas offers course-specific projects, essays, and
discussion questions for classes: English/Language Arts, Geography,
History, Science, and Social Studies.
READING AND UNDERSTANDING
Ask students to define the
following terms with reference to the book: Dinka; SPLA; refugee;
jihad; genocide; murahiliin; UNHCR.
Look at a map of Africa.
Locate Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Kenya. Identify the Nile River. Find
Sudan’s capital city, Khartoum. Try to locate Bhar al Ghazal (the
region where the Dinka live).
Before this phase of the
Sudanese war, a treaty had brokered peace between northern and southern
Sudan. What was the name of this treaty? (See Judy Bernstein’s
Describe the landscape in
which the authors grew up. What was their village life like?
Benson recalls first learning
of the war around village fires. What does he learn from the tribe
For much of his journey,
Benson wears red shorts. Where did he get these? They are almost ruined
one night. What happens to them? Why does he treasure these shorts so
Along their journey, Benson,
Benjamin, and Alepho meet many kind family and friends. Who is Monyde?
Who is Yier? Why are they important in this story?
Despite their clear
desperation and young age, time and again the boys find villages
turning them away, denying them food, and directing them back into
enemy hands. Why do the villages do this?
Yier recalls the government
storming Wau Wau University. “We were led to the dorms and
questioned: Do you know the leader of the rebels, ______?” What was
the name of this leader?
As the refugee camp takes
shape at Panyido, the UN begins sending food relief. What do they send?
How does this diet differ from the usual Dinka diet? What are some of
its mis-intended consequences? (see p. 92)
Benson writes “I have many
bad memories that I will never erase from my brain” but of these, the
flight from Panyido stands out. Why were the Sudanese forced to leave
Panyido (Ethiopia)? The refugees had only one means back into Sudan.
What was it? What were the perils of this flight?
Who was Mr. Hyena? Why did the
refugees call him that?
Name two positive aspects of
Kakuma life for the Lost Boys. Name two negative aspects of it.
At Kakuma, refugees receive
food in the form of grain rations. Though the rations are small, many
still end up selling some portion of these at the market. Why do they
do this? What are the consequences when the camp learns of this
underground grain market?
The journey through the
refugee camps and finally, to America introduces the Lost Boys to a new
language (words like “dessert” and “because”), a new culture,
and many new things. Recall two episodes where the authors encounter
new objects or concepts. Describe their initial reaction in each
BROADER THEMES AND
FAMILY AND FRIENDSHIP.
Robert E. Lee once said “What a cruel thing is war...to fill our
hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors.” After reading
this book, do you think this is always the case? How does war impact
families? How does it shape friendships? What qualities does it bring
out in people throughout the story?
RITES AND INITIATIONS.
“My mother wore the radiating scarification mark on her forehead as a
sign of her bravery” remembers Benson. Rites and initiations are
important aspects of the Dinka culture. Explain two different cultural
initiations common to the Dinka. What is the role of such rites in a
culture? Do you know of any such rites, initiations, and/or identifying
marks in your own family or culture?
GROWING UP. Though torn
from their homes and their families, the Lost Boys were still very much
children. From their early childhood in the village to their
adolescence in the refugee camps, we watch them grow up in this story.
Can you relate to any of their experiences growing up? What about
the games they play? How do they view and interact with the opposite
sex? How do their views of education relate to your own? How do
their perceptions of adults and authority figures change through the
Benson’s father attempts to describe the enemy to his children. He
explains: “The government troops are Arabs and call themselves
Muslims. The Arabs wear a long white dress with a large handkerchief
tied on their ears…They speak a strange language that we cannot
understand.” But when he continues he says: “You must beware. Some
of the Muslims are traitors from Dinka tribes; they speak the way we
do.” Imagine Benson’s confusion. Are friends and allies easily
distinguished in war? Consider how we try to describe and define people
“other” than our peers and ourselves. Do physical traits define who
we are and who we are not? Link this idea to recent other conflicts and
wars: Rwanda; Vietnam; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
LIFE AS A REFUGEE. Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya is the light at the end of a long and dark journey for the Lost Boys. They risk everything and endure unspeakable pain, hunger and thirst, just to enter the camp. Yet the camp presents them with its own menaces and challenges. After several years in the camp Benson decides he hates it than “more than anyplace.” What makes him say is this? How do the Kenyans and the camp administrators treat the refugees?
What is life like as a
Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister in Nazi Germany, once declared:
made the Reich by propaganda.” Throughout They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky, we
see government and rebel forces alike manipulating facts and media to
their own ends. Consider the role of propaganda in the book. How
and why do you think leaders use propaganda? What is its purpose? What
is its impact? Have you ever heard of or encountered propaganda in your
own media? What about in the government?
GEOGRAPHY AND CULTURE.
When the Sudanese government institutes Sharia law over all of Sudan,
the Dinka tribes grow angry. Benson recalls the village elders
complaining: “We have too much to do with our cattle, our
plantations and hunting….” What is Sharia Law? What are some of
the reasons the southerners resist it? What role do you think physical
and geographic constraints play in determining the ideals and
traditions of a community?
Ask students if they know of
any immigrants, in their family or community, who came to the US from
another country? Have them interview these individuals about their
journey and present that person’s story to the class. Allow students
to decide the medium for their presentation. For example, they can
create a video-audio montage, enact it before the class, or rewrite
that person’s story as a first-person narrative.
interventionism make major news headlines these days. Have students
select one of these issues and research both sides of the debate. Then
have them select a position, write a position statement on the issue,
and then team up to “debate” the issue in class.
Have students create a Kakuma
Camp newspaper. Possible sections could include: Arts and Leisure,
Sports, International News, Op-Eds, Marketplace (which could include
articles on food rations or the state of trading in the Kenyan
Make a map of Sudan. Have
students chart out the major cities, rivers, mountains, and deserts.
Have them demarcate the northern/southern divide and indicate the
primary religion, resources, and activities of each region.
“Piecing together Africa”.
As the boys recall the landscapes they cross in they journey, they
reveal Africa to be a land of rich and varied terrain – far more so
than American students sometimes think. Create a large outline map of
Africa. Cut out the countries and divide these among the students.
After researching their country(s), students should report back with
their cutout clearly indicating the major physical and geographic
traits of that area. Now reassemble the map (preferably on a large
surface). Have the students examine the reassembled map and try to
understand the great geographic differences and divides of this
The southern tribes resist
Sharia Law because, in part, as farmers and cattle-herders: “We
don’t have time to pray five times a day.” Have students research
Islamic countries and report back on the major geographic features of
these countries. What are the major resources, commodities, and
products of these nations? Does physical geography correlate to
cultural geography? Ask them what role they think geography played in
shaping traits of their own communities.
Colonization, violence, and
civil war represent only a part of Sudan’s history. Create a Sudanese
cultural timeline around the classroom. Assign students to specific
periods in Sudanese history and ask them to research major events and
cultural elements in that era. Have them create posters and/or dioramas
replete with images and any objects they might find that illuminate
their portion of the Sudanese timeline.
History is always being
created, and sometimes revised, by its sources. In August of 2005, John
Garang died in a plane crash in Sudan. Have students locate accounts of
this plane crash. Be sure they consult a variety of news media
publications: left, right, American, British, African, Sudanese. Have
them read the different accounts out loud to the class. Do these vary
at all in facts or in tone? Discuss the importance of noting, and
cross-referencing, sources in historical research.
“We were all heads and hipbones.” Along the journey, the boys describe unimaginable hunger, such that they become like “stoneheads” teetering along. Investigate the impact of hunger on the human body. What are the caloric needs of the body? How does hunger impact body functions? How does it affect mental capacity? Have students consider their own diets and create caloric scales. Balance their daily intake of calories versus those the boys received (through their rations) at Kakuma.
Have students identify the
major illnesses and diseases that appear in this story (e.g.
dehydration, snake bite, yellow fever, dysentery). Have them create a
medical chart of these diseases. What are the causes? What are the
symptoms? What is the treatment?
The UN is a large and complex
organization. Have the students research and create an organizational
chart of the UN system. How is it organized? How is it governed?
How is funded? Where do groups like the UNHRC fit in this scheme? How
are such subsidiary bodies programs administered, funded, and
Have students read the UN
Convention on the Crime of Genocide. What organizations report on
instances of genocide today? Find examples of such reports in recent
times. Distribute a template to the students and have them complete a
rights report on one of these recent crises.
Though governments, and
economists, dislike them, underground economies can be necessities –
at least to the producers and consumers within them. Why do the Kakuma
refugees sell some of their precious rations? Why does the UN consider
this wrong? Have students consider the case of Kakuma trading and set
up a mock trial/debate that argues the social and economic consequences
of such markets within aid-dependent economies.
FOR FURTHER RESEARCH AND
wbr>html CIA Factbook: Sudan
wbr>su/ USA State Department: Sudan
www.unhcr.org United Nations High Commissioner
Passion of the Present
wbr>org Genocide Intervention Fund
www.SaveDarfur.org Save Darfur
www.CrisisGroup.org International Crisis
Human Rights Watch
Films and Video
POV – Lost Boys of
The New Americans
Berkeley, Bill The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race, Tribe, and Power in the Heart of Africa
Basic Books 2002
Bixler, Mark The
Lost Boys of Sudan University of Georgia Press
Bok, Francis with Edward
Tivnan. Escape from Slavery St. Martin’s Press
Deng, Francis Mading. The
Dinka of Sudan Waveland Press, Inc. 1972
Jok, Madut Jok. War and
Slavery in Sudan University of Pennsylvania Press
Nazer, Mende and Lewis,
Damien. Slave: My True Story Public Affairs
Scroggins, Deborah. Emma’s War: An aid worker, a warlord, radical Islam and the politics of
oil – A true story
of love and death in Sudan Pantheon Books