A weekend interview with ...
... Benjamin Ajak, co-author of "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky," an award-winning 2005 book about boys caught up in civil war in Sudan. Ajak was 5 years old when government troops destroyed his village. For years, he and thousands of other boys wandered from one bad situation to another. Many of them died along the way. Eventually, Ajak ended up at a refugee camp where he faced a tough choice: Hustle for money and feed yourself well. Or go to school and eat once a day. Ajak chose school.
Lakewood High in Pinellas is using Ajak's book to try to instill a love of reading into its students. You can read more about the program in Sunday's St. Petersburg Times. Ajak, who visited Lakewood High this week, talked with reporter Ron Matus about education and reading. His comments have been edited slightly for space and clarity. (Photo from Louisville High School student newspaper)
Why was the school at the refugee camp so important to you?
Well, school is very important to me, because I have no mother, I have no father, and I don't have any other close relatives. So I think that school is going to be my parents and is going to be my future.
How did you make the connection between school and a better life, and between reading and a better life. Did your parents teach you that?
When I seen what is going on around the world, I believe to myself that if I can make education a No. 1 key for me, and I could open my future door with my education, that would help me a lot. I just learned that on my own.
What do you think of the fact that everybody at Lakewood High is reading your book?
I feel that would be a great honor. Because what I need for that book to teach the people is how important the kids are, and how important education is. Because I don't want them to suffer like I have been suffering.
One of the students at Lakewood wanted me to ask you this: Do you read very much now? And if so, what things do you read?
All the time. Histories. I like to read non-fiction histories and true stories. I don't like to read newspapers. I don't like to read magazines. I like to read books. Newspapers are just like what happened two days before. I don't want to know that. I want to know what happened last time, before I was born.
Are you aware of South Africa and apartheid? I like to read about that. Do you know about the history about Kosovo? Do you know about World War II and World War I? I need to compare the history that my life went through, and what happened before I was born. I need to learn about the world. That's what I need to read about.
Did you continue your schooling in the United States?
I go to San Diego Community College. I'm studying humanities. I'm studying theology. And mediation. I have my certificate in international conflict resolution. I need to bring a better life to our present people.
Many kids say they don't read much. Some of the kids at Lakewood say they don't read much. What do you think of that?
A lot of kids, they take everything for granted. They don't appreciate it. I want them to come back and pick their life up. These kids that don't like to read, I like to inspire them by telling them my story and what happened to me. I want to tell them how important they are and how lucky they are to be in this country. High protection and free education for them. We want them to pick their life up, to be better people in the future. If they don't read, they're throwing their time away. And we don't have time to waste.
What do you think of American schools?
I think American high schools are very highly secured. American schools are good. Everything you want, you got it in there. I went to schools, they didn't have computers or anything. One book for the whole class. I didn't have a lot of books to write with. I used my fingers to write in the sand. Here in America, I can write on a computer laptop, and I can write in a notebook. And I can read a lot of books.
At the refugee camp, you had a choice between having a "business" and eating good, or going to school and eating once a day. Why did you choose that?
Food is a waste. You just need to fill up your stomach. But school is not going to be a waste for me. School is going to be my knowledge. They can take everything away from me, but they can't take away my education.
About a year ago, Oprah got into a little bit of trouble because she set up a school in South Africa, and she said she was frustrated by some American kids who don't seem to value education. Was Oprah right?
Big time. In my country, we have a shortage of schools. We don't have a lot of schools. Because our presidents are so corrupted. So they don't give freedom of education in a lot of countries, including my country. They take away the right of the child to go to school. A child like me running around, trying to educate himself, until I'm here now. Oprah has told the truth.