John Dau was 17 when he learned the alphabet and how to count, using his finger as a pencil in the sand under a tree at a refugee camp in Kenya.
By that age, Dau — one of the Lost Boys of Sudan — had survived civil war, disease, famine and more violence than most people could imagine.
He had sold his clothes for food, survived a crocodile-infested river, lived on wild fruits and reptiles, listened for the sound of frogs to find water, and found carcasses to eat by looking for vultures circling overhead.
Dau is now a global scholar-in-residence at Collegiate School in Henrico County, where he teaches responsible citizenship and values — honesty, integrity, creativity, respect, hard work and empathy — through African folktales. He imparts knowledge about the importance of water, leadership and social entrepreneurship.
He is the author of two books, he’s working on a third book about the wisdom of folklore, and he is the founder of the John Dau Foundation, which builds clinics and brings medical supplies and personnel to his village in South Sudan.
His foundation has fed 215,000 people, vaccinated 12,000 children against measles and whooping cough, restored eyesight for 600 people blinded by cataracts, and helped 27 people with cleft palates through surgery. Villagers have learned to manage malaria, pneumonia and diarrhea.
“God saved my life for a big reason,” Dau said. “I am fulfilling what God told me to do, and that is to help others.”
“Lost Boys of Sudan” refers to thousands of children who grew up in refugee camps to escape political and religious warfare in Sudan that lasted for 22 years until 2005, one of the longest civil wars on record. The conflict originated in southern Sudan but spread to other areas in the country and neighboring Ethiopia. Two million people died as a result of the war; 4 million were displaced.
Dau was one of 4,000 Lost Boys who were granted political asylum in the United States in 2001. Since most orphaned girls in his Dinka tribe — the largest ethnic group in South Sudan — had been taken in by families, they did not qualify to immigrate.
An untold number of the girls were exploited by their foster families and used as servants or worse. The number taken in by America was in the hundreds, not thousands.
“I picked one of them,” he said about his wife, Martha Arual Akech, one of the few Lost Girls of Sudan. The Chesterfield County couple have five children, ages 9 months to 10 years old. Their three school-age children attend Collegiate, living lives that could not be more different from those of their parents.
As a boy, Dau — whose Dinka name is Dhieu-Deng Leek — knew nothing about school. His village had no stores, shopping centers, hospitals or doctors. Everything came from the earth.
Boys were taught responsibility at age 5, watching over grazing sheep and goats. If they lost an animal, all the villagers would be angry at them and the boys would go to bed without food that night.
The boys often got lost in play — and lost many sheep, Dau recalled. Goats would wander off, and some would get eaten by hyenas.
When boys turned 8 or 9, they advanced to taking care of cows, while girls stayed home to help their mothers collect firewood and carry water in carved-out gourds.
“Not all families have goats or sheep, but all families have cows,” Dau said. “Children drink goat milk to make them strong, while cow milk is for everyone.”
As they grew another year or two older, the boys were given spears to defend cows from lions and hyenas. In groups of 10 to 12 boys, they drove hundreds of cattle as far as 15 miles from their village to graze on grass.
They watched over their herds from atop anthills and spent their days telling stories — Dinka folklore, each with a moral value. The boys came back to the village at night and learned more fables from their parents, so they could impress their friends the next day.
At age 15, boys went through a Dinka ritual to become men. A fearless elder man with steady hands used a knife to cut their foreheads seven times from ear to ear. The boys couldn’t cry, because men don’t cry. If they cried, they would spoil the family name and bring shame to the community, Dau said.
Once cut, they were banished into the forest with a spear for two or three months. Elderly men and women brought them food made from ground corn flour and mashed with water and sometimes beef. Only when their wounds healed were they allowed back to the village.
Dau never went through the ritual. In 1987, when he was 12, his village was attacked by northern Sudanese in the middle of the night. “Troops came shooting, looting houses, killing people and livestock,” he said.
As Dau ran from his home, a male neighbor pulled him into tall grass. Since the village was attacked from the west, they headed east for two or three days. They met with a fleeing woman and her two daughters. All three females at some point were abducted by northern soldiers.
Dau and his neighbor ran into a group of 19 refugees and boys from another village. During their three-month journey by foot to Ethiopia, some were attacked and eaten by animals; others died of starvation. Once, with no water for two days, they drank human urine out of desperation.
Only four of 27 people survived and made it to a refugee camp. In the four years that Dau was there, the camp grew to 27,000 boys, ages 5 to 15, along with some adults and girls. The refugees were given dried corn through the World Food Program and secondhand clothes.
Two to three boys died every day from measles, chickenpox or wild animals, Dau said. “The Ethiopian government was good to us.” But after a few years, it was being overthrown by Ethiopian rebels based in northern Sudan, and the refugees were told they needed to return to their country.
They and thousands of others from other camps made it to southern Sudan, where they spent three days trying to find a way to cross the crocodile-laden Gilo River. Attacked again by northern troops and Ethiopians, they had no choice but to jump in the river and try to cross it.
“Some drowned, some were eaten by crocodiles, some were shot, some were captured,” Dau said. “I saw a wife, son and daughter — all killed that night.”
Dau, who is 6 feet 8 inches tall, could swim the backstroke. About half of 27,000 refugees survived the trip across the river.
They were taken in by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, which was resisting the northern aggression. They stayed at the camp for nine months, but food was scarce. They sold their clothes for food.
The camp was bombed by aircraft afternoons and evenings. Some boys were killed. Forced to leave, they headed on a six-month journey to Kapoeta, a small town in southern Sudan. Many died of starvation and dehydration.
“Some were abducted to be used as lure for leopards,” Dau said. “Leopard skins are used as dowry, but only kings can wear it because it is so valuable.”
The boys stayed in Kapoeta for three months but again had to flee, this time to the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya. The year was 1992. Dau was 17 years old.
It was here that Dau learned his ABCs in the sand. About 20,000 children separated from their parents or orphaned made it to the camp. Most were boys; an estimated 1,000 to 3,000 were girls.
Education was their ticket to food and protection. Educated refugees could become food distributors, teachers, zone leaders or camp managers.
“That was our world, so we worked hard,” said Dau, who became a teacher, training people disabled from the civil war. He finished high school at the camp in 2000 and met Martha, his wife-to-be, there.
Accepted in 2001 to immigrate to America, Dau was among a group of 140 refugees who went to Syracuse, N.Y. Martha was sent at age 16 with her sister to a foster home in Seattle in 2000. She had been separated from her parents since she was 6 and her sister was 3.
“I will find you in America,” Dau recalls telling her.
People from First Presbyterian Church of Skaneateles, in Skaneateles, N.Y., near Syracuse, took Dau and two other boys under their wing, setting them up in an apartment and teaching them about American culture.
The boys marveled at switches that turned lights on and off, at spigots where cold water and hot water flowed together. Refrigerators were a new concept. And stores with a whole aisle for cat and dog food were equally as strange.
After three months, the boys were on their own.
Dau’s first job was grilling hamburgers at McDonald’s. He took a second job inspecting packages for UPS and a third job as a security guard for a parking garage, sleeping only two hours a night but happy and grateful for the prospect of a better future.
Yearning for more education, he kept the security job but quit the others so he could attend Onondaga Community College in 2002. He received an associate degree in 2004 and went to Syracuse University, where he worked his way through college and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in public policy in 2011.
Meanwhile, he had reunited with his parents in 2004. “I didn’t know if they were alive from 1987 to 2004.”
He also reconnected with Martha via telephone and traveled back to her village in southern Sudan to offer a dowry of 80 cows so he could marry her. All the elders had to agree to the marriage, which was sanctioned in November 2005. “Our certificate is written in our hearts,” he said.
The couple had an American wedding — paper certificate and all — in June 2007.
“When I got the phone call, I was very surprised, very happy,” Martha said. “When I left the refugee camp, the chances were that he wouldn’t make it.”
Tomorrow was never promised, said Martha, who had seen people die beside her. “I give my thanks to God. How did I make it out alive? Why did God choose me to still be breathing today?”
“In 1991, if someone had told me this is the life I would be living, I would have laughed. It would be a joke. To be here is peace of mind, where I can sleep at night and not worry about being attacked. ... We feel very blessed to be here. We are blessed to be raising our children in America.”
That same sense of gratitude is what drives her husband to help others, she said.
In 2007, he created the John Dau Foundation to build and run medical facilities in southern Sudan. One clinic was destroyed by rebels in 2013. The foundation regrouped and now operates 11 clinics there, thanks to the generosity of the American people, Dau said.
“America is doing a wonderful job,” he said. “This is a story of benevolence because of the American people.”
Americans do so much good around the world, but it is not reported, said Dau, whose full-time job is running the foundation.
“The people of my village love Americans. The big heart of the United States has been felt by my people, the people of southern Sudan. There is no way my people can give back to the American people.”
He said he cannot thank Collegiate enough for including him and his children in the school community. “America is the land where dreams are nurtured, where lost hopes are regained.”
Dau said he harbors no bitterness against the northern Sudanese Muslims and the war they raged against southern Sudanese Christians.
“I must use what is left of me not to think about what is lost,” he said.
“The best way to relieve stress and cure mental issues is not to go to the doctor. It is to do something in your community. ... I have channeled my attention into helping others.”
Success does not happen without struggle, Dau said. “Success and struggle are a package.”
“John is magical,” said Andy Stefanovich, a Richmond investor and entrepreneur. “For whatever reason, whether it is genetic or cultural, he does not possess the ability to take. He has this unbelievable capacity to give.”
Stefanovich and his wife, Jill, invited Dau and his family to their Fan District home for Thanksgiving. A total of 13 Dau family members arrived, bearing African food to share along with the turkey and mashed potatoes provided by their hosts. “We had a tribal Thanksgiving dinner; the best ever,” Stefanovich said.
“John is so refreshing. We all need to be a lot more gentle, humble and generous. ... We need to treat him as a local treasure.”
Dau, who came to Richmond from Syracuse nine months ago as a scholar-in-residence, gives the gift of his story, teaching values learned as a boy in his Dinka tribe.
“He is naturally gifted as an educator,” said Claire Sisisky, director of responsible citizenship at Collegiate. Students of all ages, from 5 to 18, connect with him, she said. “He brings an incredible gift, using the art of storytelling to teach ethics and leadership.”
He has a lot of experience as a father, and he is a mentor to many, Sisisky said. “He is an asset to our faculty and students. We have all learned so much from him.”
Charles “Charlie” Blair Jr., head of the middle school at Collegiate, said Dau has a presence, not just physically but also in spirit. “He is a wonderful role model.”
Dau told his story in a book, “God Grew Tired of Us,” published by the National Geographic Society. The title reflects how he felt that God grew tired of bad things that people were doing to one another, given the plight of his people and the genocide they faced during decades of civil war.
The book was made into a 2006 documentary film written and directed by Christopher Dillon Quinn and narrated by Nicole Kidman. The executive producer was Brad Pitt.
The documentary won awards at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, the Deauville Film Festival in France, and the Galway Film Festival in Ireland. It helped Dau raise money for the foundation to build medical facilities. Pitt and Angelina Jolie contributed $100,000.
“After all he has been through — facing the worst in humanity in the most profound ways — he remains an utterly positive person,” said Henrico resident Mike Henry, voice actor and producer for Fox Broadcasting Co.’s “Family Guy” animated sitcom.
Henry, who met Dau at the screening for “God Grew Tired of Us,” was inspired to bring Dau to Richmond a couple of years ago to speak at Collegiate when his son, as a fifth-grader there, read a book about rival tribes struggling to survive in Sudan.
“John made such a profound impact,” Henry said. “Everyone was blown away.”
Dau shoots video of students at school here. He travels every year to the new nation of South Sudan and takes videos of children there learning and eating, then shares the videos with both cultures. “What a wonderful connection of humanity,” Henry said about Dau’s transcontinental teaching moments.
Dau co-wrote “Lost Boy, Lost Girl: Escaping Civil War in Sudan” with his wife. It is their story, about how their lives were upended and intertwined. “This is a poignant story about persistence, showing how hard work can get results and even miracles,” according to book reviewer Renee Farrah Vess.
Dau’s third book is tentatively titled “Dinka Wisdom for All Ages,” a collection of stories that he and his friends shared while watching over cows.
“I hope middle schools in the Richmond area can see the value of Dinka wisdom,” he said.
Listen long enough and one sees Africa in his eyes.