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A dinner guest inspires a mission to help former slaves

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2003 - Summer


The night her husband brought a Sudanese guest home for dinner, Cynthia Hymes Bell, M.P.H. ’84, heard a story that inspired her to risk her life. The visitor that night in October 1999 was Francis Bok, a 19-year-old who told of being abducted during a militia raid on a Sudanese village marketplace when he was 7 and spending the rest of his childhood as a slave.

Bell’s husband, the Rev. Gerald E. Bell, had met Bok through his work as senior pastor at the Southern Baptist Church in Roxbury, Mass. “He was determined for me to hear Francis’ story,” recalls Bell. When Bok told of being captured, the Bells’ 6-year-old son, Noah, began to cry. “That’s not right,” he said. “How can people take people?”

People do take people in Sudan: 10,000 to 17,000 people are currently enslaved there, according to estimates by UNICEF UK, most of them caught in the animist south and taken to the Muslim north. Because he survived a decade of captivity (as an abused farmhand) and eventually escaped, Bok might even be counted as fortunate in the Sudanese context. Civil war lasting nearly 20 years has killed two million people and displaced twice that number in the nation of 37 million that lies south of Egypt.

The story that so upset Bell’s son had a profound resonance for Bell as an African-American whose ancestors were themselves enslaved. Her sense of connection led her to join a trip to Sudan co-sponsored by the Zurich-based human rights group Christian Solidarity International, and My Sister’s Keeper, a faith-based initiative based in Boston. In July 2002, Bell reports that she witnessed the “redemption” of about 1,200 people. For $33 per person, the group bought back slaves from Arab northerners who make their living as “retrievers.”

Bell’s task was to talk to the tribal chiefs to find out what would happen to returnees without homes. “Many of them had no place to go. Their villages have been bombed, husbands have been killed, their children are missing. Where is home?” Some of the people may have lost their homes in raids by militias protecting Sudan’s oil industry. Those militias have burned villages and killed and enslaved residents to clear the area along the pipeline into southern Sudan that brings in oil worth more than $1 million daily. Complicating the situation is that southern rebels are fighting the junta in power.

Bell was relieved to hear that the chiefs would accept the strangers into their communities. She then interviewed the women to help them develop ideas for supporting themselves. They asked for a gasoline-powered grinding mill for grain.

A few weeks before her arrival, the spot where Bell camped had been bombed, and she lay stark awake in her tent for three nights. “I questioned whether I would see my family again. … Prayer kept me from totally freaking out.” She believed she was in God’s hands.

Bell and three other Boston-area women who have visited Sudan are researching prices for a grinding mill and consulting with contacts in Sudan about the safest place to locate it. “We’re building relationships so we can go in and help, beyond the slavery issue,” says Bell. Bell and the others in Boston, members of “My Sister’s Keeper,” speak about Sudan at churches and receive donations there. The next step, says Bell, is to use her public health training to develop a plan to respond to the threat and the effects of HIV.