My Experience with the Banaa Scholarship Program

Makwei at the Chalkboard

Two years ago we asked Makwei to write about his experience with Banaa. The following is his response.

Five minutes ago (April 25th, 2011) I handed in my last term paper for Creative Writings class for the spring semester, 2011 and I am now sitting in the Gelman library. It has been long way for me since I wrote my first term paper way back in the fall of 2008. Back then I was a freshman and a total stranger to the country and to this city.

Shortly before the fall semester started, I had arrived from Africa on the Banaa Program scholarship as the first scholar. Though I thought I had a pretty good idea of what awaited me on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, I was not adequately prepared for what I found. Moving from a refugee camp in the remotest part of Kenya to a modern city like Washington DC was never an easy transition. For one, people were totally strange to me, considering that it was rare to see or meet a white person in the part of the world I came from.

Tall buildings also made it hard for me to navigate my way around campus: God knows how many classes I missed or was late to attend just because I could not locate the building, or the room within the building, I was in just yesterday or few hours earlier. And if locating the classroom was a headache, so were the first classes too. In Africa, teachers used to dole out notes to the students, and there was less work to be done as one textbook used to take a whole year to be completed. Moreover, the student-teacher relationship, especially how  lectures were given and Q&A are organized, were done entirely in a formal way.

But that was the very opposite of what I was confronted with in my first semester on George Washington University campus. The work was enormous in terms of reading assignments, papers, and quizzes. There were never any formally organized lecture notes for students and I was left to fend on my own. The teacher-students relationship was too causal for me and I was shy of embracing it till later.

Banaa recognized by CGI-U received the Outstanding Commitment Award from President Bill Clinton at the 2010 CGI-U conference. Pictured from left to right: Evan Faber, Zach Hindin, and Makwei Mabioor Deng.

I also struggled to get much of the jokes and gist of the professor’s lecturers because much of it was invariably based on American cultural and historical contexts that I had no prior idea of. Whenever such examples or contexts popped up, I used to call up Evan Faber, the Banaa official, or rush to the Wikipedia page, that Zach had earlier introduced me to, to get a rough idea of the cited incidents/event/jokes/examples.

Luckily, the Banaa team did their utmost best to smoothen out my transition. Students on campus were very kind too to help me out especially in locating buildings on campus, directing me to classrooms or tracing books in the library. Slowly but surely, I was able to adjust and orient myself to the new situation. Today, however, I am fully acclimatized into the American way of life and the busy life on campus.

My journey with Banaa, however, commenced in late 2007 while I was a high School teacher in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. Three years earlier, in 2004, I had finished my high school under the Jesuit Refugee Scholarship and did very well to get accepted into any university in Kenya. All along since primary school I had always wanted to be a lawyer and was looking forward to get into law school in Kenya.

However, my ambition of pursuing further studies was thwarted by lack of school fees as my mom could not afford a living, let alone sending me to the university. Consequently, I settled into teaching, first in primary school before moving on to high school. Teaching enabled me to help my family and myself with the meager incentive of $70 per month we were given. Yet, deep down in my heart as I was teaching all those years, I never gave up hope of one day attending college, graduating and making changes to my living condition as well as contributing to the reconstruction of my war-ravaged nation of Sudan.

That glimmer of hope was rekindled in November of 2007 when I came across the information about Banaa: The Sudan Educational Empowerment Network scholarship program. Gabriel Alier Mach, a colleague teacher and an old dear friend, approached me one morning in school about the essays he was working on. Upon further inquiry, I came to know about the scholarship and saw the forms that Gabriel Alier was filling out.

Makwei and Evan Faber, one of the co-founders of Banaa, discussing Makwei's book "Pioocku Thuongjang: The Elementary Modern Standard Dinka"

Makwei and Evan Faber, one of the co-founders of Banaa, discussing Makwei’s book “Pioocku Thuongjang: The Elementary Modern Standard Dinka”

But it was not until the following year, 2008, that I finally made up my mind to apply for the scholarship. First, it was the end year and I was busy preparing my students to afford ample time to fill out the forms and write the essays. Secondly, I was very skeptical about the authenticity of the scholarship itself as many other scholarships of such kind had often time turned out to be hoax. To ascertain myself and to dispel some of my reservations, I decided to write directly to the organization requesting for more information about the scholarship and the application forms. Neil Padukone wrote back to me, offering the explanations I requested and sent me the application forms. Though still not entirely convinced, I decided to go for it.

By Christmas time, I decided to forgo of the merry making and other expensive celebrations associated with Christmas, saved up my little money and by January 26th, 2008, as the deadline of January 31st was approaching, I electronically submitted in my full application. Only a week later, one evening while relaxing at home with my friends and brothers, I received a call from Jeff Deflavio, a Banaa official, informing me about the selection process and especially the fact that I had made it to the final stage: I was among the finalists.

I was both delighted and bewildered. Delighted that I was in the process of not only getting to attend college but to do so in the USA. Talk of killing two birds with one stone and you get it here. Could I have asked for more, I wondered to myself. Taken aback because, though I had received a message from Neil Padukone way back then, this was the first time I was putting a human voice to the whole process. It was the day it both became a reality more than a program on paper. Then, on top of that, I was actually competitive enough to be among the finalists and so stand a chance to get selected.

There was a lot of skepticism though from friends and family members about the program viability and authenticity. Though many Sudanese were in the USA by then, none had done it the way I was doing it, that is through scholarship. The doubts only died down after I received the money to get my passport from Juba, South Sudan. I had convinced myself that if it was a hoax or a trafficking as some friends had confided in me, I did not think that they would send me money. Besides, I had gone to the internet cafe to ascertain the name of the school, George Washington University, from the Directory and the name of the school admissions officer too. There was a perfect match!

After getting my passport from Juba and processing the visa from the US embassy in Nairobi, I finally flew to the US, through London Heathrow Airport, and landed in Washington DC on the evening of August 28th, 2008. That was only three days before fall semester classes began. And once they started, I have been in class ever since for the last three years. Double majoring in Philosophy and Economics, I am now a rising senior, one week to go before finishing my junior year.

Like many college students across the nation, I have had my ups and downs especially with the heavy workloads, stresses over term papers and late homework or readings assignments, not to mention the anxiety over final exams. By May next year, 2012, should everything go according to plan, I would be graduating from college, thanks to the Banaa program scholarship.

Makwei speaking at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Banaa Summer Summit

Makwei speaking at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Banaa Summer Summit

But that will not be the end of the journey for me. While I have been studying here in the US for the last three years, many events have been taking place back home in my country. The South Sudan referendum was conducted and Southerners opted for separation. The election was successfully conducted, for the first time, and a government is in place now. Presently, the new interim constitution is being drafted as the country awaits its formal separation from Khartoum on July 9th, 2011.

In spite of that, many problems still abound. There is an on-going war in Darfur. South Sudan is mired down in cattle rustlings and tribal conflicts that have of late degenerated into armed rebellions in many parts of the yet-to-be independent nation. This is in addition to rampant illiteracy and general under-development across the merging nation. This is where the Banaa program scholarship comes in, particularly as far as long lasting peace and sustainable development are concerned, both in North and South Sudan.

As a graduate of George Washington University, I envisage myself returning to Sudan with the relevant skills and resources to promote reconciliation, sustainable development and a long lasting peace in the country, thanks to the Banaa Scholarship Program. It is my sincere hope and wishes that other South Sudanese and North Sudanese may have the same chance, as I had had under the Banaa program scholarship, so that they would join me to implant and propagate in Sudan the Banaa vision of peace and development through education.


Makwei Mabioor Deng

First Banaa Scholar

George Washington University Class of 2012

Makwei is now the Country Fellow for the International Growth Centre (IGC) in South Sudan.


Filed under Scholar Posts

2 responses to “My Experience with the Banaa Scholarship Program

  1. Bal Paul Gatkek

    I’m a South Sudanese refugee currently residing in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. I would like to know how many students which can be sponsored by BANAA in any academic year. Secondly where can the application forms be collected if one is interested in applying for the scholarship. Thanks!
    If you would like to provide me with such information, my telephone number is +254714231761

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