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Island grad defies Sudanese regime

Oct 20 2012
Mading Ngor tucks into a burger at his favourite haunt, My Chosen Cafe.Ngor, a Sudanese radio journalist, back in Victoria to accept an Alumni Award from Royal Roads University. 

Mading Ngor tucks into a burger at his favourite haunt, My Chosen Cafe.Ngor, a Sudanese radio journalist, back in Victoria to accept an Alumni Award from Royal Roads University.

Photograph by: Lyle Stafford , Times Colonist

It's the yam fries that Mading Ngor remembers. Back when he was a student at Pearson College, that's what he would order at My-Chosen Cafe.

"This has a bit of a homecoming feel to it," he says, looking out the restaurant window at leafy, lovely Metchosin - so far from the Sudanese village he fled on the day of the massacre in 1991, so far from the beleaguered nation he once again calls home.

So why, it must be asked, did the 29-year-old trade the place he calls Paradise on Earth for a return to the poorest country on the planet?

"I had to go back," he replies. "I had to go back because I was mindful of history and my role in it." The Royal Roads grad is back in town to receive that university's inaugural Alumni Excellence Award on Monday.

The honour is nice on its own, but the trip also offers a break from the poverty of war-ravaged South Sudan, from the tension of being a won't-back-down journalist in a fledgling democracy with no history of a free press.

Ngor's story began that day in 1991, when his village was consumed by the decades-long strife that killed an estimated 2.5 million Sudanese. His father had already been killed by then. Mading, just eight years old, fled into the jungle with his mother and siblings.

They wandered for four years before landing in a Kenyan refugee camp, where he lived until a Canadian visa came through in 2001. High school in New Westminster was followed by the rainbow of diversity that is Pearson. Then came journalism school at Edmonton's Grant MacEwan University, followed by a Royal Roads communications degree in 2010.

Ngor returned to his homeland in April 2011, just before South Sudan officially won independence from Sudan. He quickly gained fame as the hard-hitting host of the Wake Up Juba show on Catholic-owned Bakhita Radio, frequently challenging authorities unused to such rigorous scrutiny.

"In a country where most people get their news not from the Internet, newspapers or television but from the radio, Mading Ngor is about as big as journalists get," declared a Reuters feature story this summer. "His brash, crusading reports and interviews on Bakhita Radio are required listening for politicians and the public alike."

Those in power haven't taken this lightly. In February, security forces literally grabbed him by the limbs and threw him out of the parliament building.

"He probably looks at the problems of South Sudan through the Canadian eyes," Reuters quoted the head of the parliamentary security committee as saying.

Ngor isn't sure if he can get out of his latest jam, one that arose a couple of weeks ago. After he criticized the terms of a deal that will see landlocked South Sudan resume shipping oil through Sudan - with which it almost went to war again in April - those in power tried to zip his lip.

"They called in my boss to tell him to shut down Wake Up Juba or there would be no Bakhita," he said Friday. The church wouldn't cave in to the threat.

Authorities then said Ngor could do his show, but only under conditions any journalist would find objectionable. This trip to Victoria comes at an opportune moment, allows him to buy time.

He remains defiant. "My allegiance is to the people and the truth, not the government," he says. It's the kind of statement Canadian journalists like to make, safe in the knowledge that even if they think Stephen Harper is a wiener, he's not going to boot their door. But it takes real courage to take such a stand in a place still learning the rules of democracy.

So why do this? "I feel obligated to contribute," Ngor says. His father and uncles died in pursuit of a free, vibrant country. "Instead of fighting on the battlefield, I'm fighting in the studio for the same cause."

Really, he says, the choice is not his.

"It's the burden of history that shapes everything I do. It's not by choice. It's by necessity."

Ngor will take part in Voices for Freedom, a conversation with Prof. David Black, at Royal Roads' Centre for Dialogue, Learning and Innovation on Oct. 24 from 7 to 9 p.m. You can follow it live online at livestream.com/royalroads.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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