“[The girls] had these remarkable stories that had never been told before. As we got to know them and felt we had their trust, we began collecting their stories, and we wanted to find a way for them to be heard.”
Sudan’s thousands of “Lost Boys,” are the subjects of numerous articles, books and films, but the “Lost Girls” are relatively unknown. Educators Leah Bassoff and Laura DeLuca have spent many years supporting survivors of the conflicts in South Sudan, and their new book, Lost Girl Found, is a compelling introduction to South Sudan’s history and culture as well as an inspiring example for those young girls who have yet to tell their stories. In addition to donating the proceeds of Lost Girl Found to Africare, Leah and Laura were generous enough to discuss their work and their motivations with us.
First, could you tell us a little bit about yourselves?
Leah: Of course. I’m a middle school English teacher from Denver. Laura and I have both worked with young people from South Sudan who had arrived in the Boulder-Denver area, mostly with Lost Boys, helping them get into college and get established with homes.
Laura: I’m an anthropology lecturer at the University of Colorado Boulder, and I’ve worked in various parts of East Africa – Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, Fulbright Scholar in Tanzania, and I spent time in South Sudan in 2005.
How did the two of you decide to collaborate on this book?
Leah: Laura and I met at a women’s empowerment conference in Denver for Sudanese women where Laura was a presenter. We were familiar with all these amazing Lost Boys stories, but we didn’t really know much about the girls that had survived the conflict.
Laura: Boys had started coming over to the U.S. around 2000. At first there were more than 4,000 boys and only 89 girls.
Leah: All of a sudden girls began arriving in Denver. They had these remarkable stories that had never been told before. As we got to know them and felt we had their trust, we began collecting their stories, and we wanted to find a way for them to be heard.
The book follows the character Poni, from before the violence through her struggles to rebuild her life. Is Poni’s story true?
Leah: Originally we wanted to do non-fiction, but to weave all these stories we’ve heard and all the important themes of resilience and education, we decided it would be best to fictionalize using everything we had learned. I have more of a knack for fiction, and since I’ve never been to Africa, Laura was really the eyes and ears for the book.
Laura: To me, the facts must be accurate, but young people want to be captivated. It’s hard for textbooks to do that.
Were there particular reasons why you wanted to write for younger readers?
Leah: We still hope adults will read the book, but when the idea first came up to write for young people, something clicked, because both Laura and I are educators. We got very excited about making something we could take into schools.
Laura: I teach some discussion classes with first year college students. I know the facts, but I want to inspire my students. Leah has incredible talent as a writer, and I was attracted to the idea of sharing these stories and the theme of withstanding hardship in a way that captures a student’s attention.
Leah: The book does deal with serious topics, but we were very careful to be vague when we needed to. There are people surviving war who are the same ages as our students, and in a way there is an obligation to connect with that. We wanted that “eye opening” experience, to point out that there are aspects of Sudanese culture that are very different from ours, but also that in many ways these young people want the same things we do. They want education, freedom, peace.
How did you choose Africare as the destination for your proceeds?
Leah: We initially wanted to give the money to Sudan and girls’ education, but a lot of very well-meaning people and NGOs are unable to succeed for more than a few years. We wanted to identify an organization that was well-established, that we knew would be around in 10 years. When we saw Africare’s ratings online, we made our decision.
Laura: I’ve known about Africare for a long time. It was important to us to choose an organization that emphasized collaborative, locally-driven projects like Africare. We know it just doesn’t work to come in from the outside as experts and tell people what to do.
What do you hope the book will accomplish?
Leah: I wanted to communicate the power of storytelling. Groups that are discouraged from telling their story lose power. The boys have these remarkable amazing stories – and their stories should be told – but the girls’ stories should be told as well. I’m hoping more girls will tell their stories.
Laura: Ditto to what Leah said! I also want to push my field of anthropology to include fiction, or as some people say “faction.” A story can be a better way to learn about history and culture. I want to inspire people to learn more about South Sudan, and to do that it’s important to have a story driving things.
Thanks Leah and Laura. We’re proud that you chose Africare to be associated with your book, and we appreciate that you shared your story with us!
To learn even more about the Lost Girl Found, visit Leah Bassoff’s website at www.leahjbassoff.com.