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Lumen Summer 2008 Issue
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One man, one mission: Ben Yengi

Kajokeji is a region in southern Sudan, populated by 100,000 refugees from a civil war that has killed more than two million people. It is also the birthplace of Ben Yengi OAM, a popular figure in the university, migrant and church communities of Adelaide.

His story is well known to most South Australians, although worth repeating for the benefit of thousands of alumni around the world unfamiliar with the courageous struggle of this 68-year-old Sudanese refugee.

Mr Yengi fled his homeland, initially to Uganda then to Adelaide, where he has carved out a life for himself, seizing the opportunity for a first-class education along the way.

His South Australian journey from high school teacher, to qualified psychologist and Environmental Science PhD candidate is a stark reminder of the privileges we take for granted in the developed world.

Mr Yengi spent 10 years fighting bureaucratic red tape to bring his relatives to Australia from a refugee camp in Uganda. His father, brother, sister-in-law, niece and eight cousins all died in the disease-ridden camp.

In 1999, seven members of his family arrived in Adelaide after being granted humanitarian visas. This was made possible thanks to the financial support of the University of Adelaide (Mr Yengi's employer at the time), Scotch College and a public fundraising drive.

But the fight for justice is far from over; in fact, it's only just beginning.

Ben Yengi has returned to his village, Lijo, to help rebuild the shattered lives of thousands of people in his homeland.

His goals are impressive, albeit overwhelming, and include a list of critical projects focusing on health, education, the environment, agriculture, transport and communication.

Top of the list is a combined hospital and health care centre to reduce infant mortality in the region, improve maternal health and also help protect the community from malaria and other diseases.

"HIV and AIDS are rampant in southern Sudan due to a lack of education and treatment to combat sexually transmitted diseases", Mr Yengi says. "We also need professional help for those people who are experiencing serious mental health illnesses as a result of the devastating civil war."

Every Saturday he is joined by scores of local volunteers - including children - who help collect and hand crush stones with primitive tools to build the hospital's outer wall. To date, more than 50,000 bricks have been made, but the equivalent of 2000 trips by four-tonne trucks is required.

Another 700 trips of the same truck capacity are needed to construct the hospital foundations.

A sanctuary for orphaned chimpanzees and a chapter of the Roots and Shoots program created by world-renowned primatologist Dr Jane Goodall is also on the agenda.

The program is a powerful, youth-driven global network of more than 8000 groups in almost 100 countries, all dedicated to caring for animals and the world environment.

Adelaide Zoo Director and Professor Chris West, who is also Chair of Zoology at the University of Adelaide, is lending his support to the project. His daughter, Tory, spent a month in Kajokeji this year, helping to implement the Roots and Shoots program.

Roseworthy Campus senior lecturer Dr Wayne Pitchford, an animal science specialist, is also being recruited to help relocate cattle from a valley near Lijo to a traditional grazing area, to make way for the chimpanzee sanctuary.

A multipurpose education centre to address the region's low literacy rate and develop training programs for trade skills is another priority.

"Education is the key to rising above poverty because without it, society cannot achieve a better standard of living," Mr Yengi says. "Educating the people of Kajokeji will be our starting point to rebuilding the lives and infrastructure after the destructive 20-year civil war."

The task ahead is enormous and requires a significant sum of money - $11 million alone just to achieve the key health, educational and environmental goals.

But one doesn't have to look far to see this African refugee's source of motivation.
Kajokeji has a population of about 128,000. Its health care is dependent on one dilapidated hospital with no doctor. The schools are in a shocking state, with children-teacher ratios averaging about 108:1.

Teachers work for the love of their country, depending on irregular payments of very little money - $120-$400 per month. The majority of teachers are not trained beyond high school.

Compounding this is the harsh reality that much of the overseas aid to African governments often goes into the pockets of a handful of politicians.

"There is no reason for lack of food security in many parts of Africa," Mr Yengi says.

To show the world that self sufficiency is possible, he has relied on his own physical strength and the help of friends to plant two acres of maize, sesame, sorghum, sweet potatoes, beans, mango trees, orange and guava trees and ground nuts. By 2009 he will have enough food to feed his village.

"Africa needs knowledge and new technology, not food aid. There is plenty of fertile land, but just one tractor for each farmer could make a huge difference to our country," he says.

Over the past year he has written countless funding applications to organisations around the world in his quest to rebuild his village.

He doesn't know when he will return to Adelaide. He misses his family dreadfully, but the task at hand could take five years.

"I hope Australia responds to the story of South Sudan. Imagine living in a place where basic necessities like education, health care and equality are not available. Imagine living through a war that has lasted for decades and devastated the lives of millions."

In January 2005 a comprehensive peace agreement was signed between the Government of the North and the Sudan People's Liberation Army of the South. This agreement has restored law and order, but the real work has only just begun. ■

To support Ben Yengi's projects, go to or email


Ben Yengi started work at the University of Adelaide in 1972 as a part-time tutor at the Centre for Australian Indigenous Research and Studies (CASM), becoming a full-time employee in 1974. From 1974 to March 2007 he held a number of positions at the University, including Manager of CASM and Acting Manager of the Thebarton Campus.

Donated bicycles are used to carry loads of bricks.

Donated bicycles are used to carry loads of bricks.
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Ben in Limi village with an elder.

Ben in Limi village with an elder.
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Lijo villagers with an assortment of donated mosquito nets.

Lijo villagers with an assortment of donated mosquito nets.
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Bicycles donated from Adelaide residents.

Bicycles donated from Adelaide residents.
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Locally-made bricks are used to construct volunteer accommodation.

Locally-made bricks are used to construct volunteer accommodation.
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