Kuei Manyoun
Fri, March 7, 2014 at 11:49
Stephanie Hunt

Reverend Ian Mabey tells me about Kuei Manyoun, a South Sudanese refugee whose family attends his church.  Kuei's husband Yai Atem has recently published a book about his life as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.  "But Kuei has her own story," says Ian.  "She is a dynamic young person who is getting up off the canvas, creating her own business and doing exceptionally well."

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The Secret to Kuei's Success

The African Hair Braids salon is a difficult place to conduct an interview.  Officially closed to deal with the effects of overnight flooding, the salon is still a hive of activity.  Staff bustle to get the floors cleaned and stock dried out.  Friends and family drop by to say hello.  Passers by stop in to ask about the price of hair extensions or to book appointments.

Kuei Manyoun, the salon owner, seems unfazed by the activity around her.  Despite her uniform, Kuei looks like an African queen: statuesque and serene, her crimped raven hair tamed by a tortoise shell hair clip.  She quietly beckons me to a seat where we can talk, while she keeps a watchful eye on activities.

“From the first moment I opened I have never been quiet,” Kuei says.  The salon name might imply a small niche business catering to the local African population, but the reality is that 90% of Kuei’s customers are “white Australians” seeking the braids, hair extensions and dreadlocks that are her specialty.  The salon supports her 3 children, 2 already in private education and her husband, who is studying for his Masters of Law.

And, she says, the secret to her success is planning.  “Sit down, do a plan and empower yourself.”  She makes it sound so easy.    What has given this 34-year-old mother of three and refuge from bitter civil war such confidence and determination? 

Perhaps it runs in the family.  She is after all the daughter of a great General, a hero from the first Sudanese Civil War that raged from 1955 to 1972.  General Aqueila Manyoun Ayuen was assassinated six years before Kuei was born.  It gets a bit complicated because biologically she is the daughter of the General’s brother, who took in his brother’s wife and children after the General died.  But culturally she is the General’s daughter and she harbours a fierce love for the man she considers her father.

Kuei’s strength could equally be derived from the nurture side of the nature/nurture debate.  There’s that old maxim, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  Perhaps years spent running from war has given Kuei the resilience and wisdom needed to be a business success.

She was born in the 11-year lull between the First and Second Sudanese Civil War.  But by her fourth birthday, her hometown of Bor was at the epicentre of renewed fighting. The Dinka people were used to war by then, which probably explains why the family remained as unrest simmered around them.

When her uncle heard the Nuer rebels were marching on Bor, 12-year-old Kuei was taken south to the Ugandan border to live with her sister and brother-in-law.  Three days later 2,000 Dinka civilians were slaughtered in a single day.

The tentacles of the fighting reached south two years later.  “I remember the gunships coming,” says Kuei.  “We don’t know who is shooting who.  We were just running for our safety while the bombs dropped from the sky.”

The United Nations sent a convoy.  “We saw all these trucks and they load people like boxes,” Kuei recalls.  She and her sister were amongst those transported to Laboni Refugee Camp where she was reunited with her mother and other siblings.  Eighteen months later the family was moved to Narus Refugee Camp near the Kenyan border as political forces tried to amass the refugee population in a central place.

Life in a refugee camp can seem normal for a child.  “Wherever I go I have fun.  All I cared about was not hearing the sound of guns.  We went to school under the tree and had fun running around and skipping rope.  I had my skipping rope everywhere I went.  I kept it in my sock so whether we run day or night I will have my skipping rope with me.”

When the fighting reached east toward the refugee camp, Kuei carried her skipping rope for 3 days as her family walked across the border into Kenya.

Good genes and a character strengthened by adversity are not always enough to guarantee success in business or life.  You also need opportunity.  Kakuma Refugee Camp turned out to be the opportunity Kuei needed, and she grasped it with both hands.

Kakuma is not the sort of place one expects to find life-changing opportunities.  The brown, parched desert of northwestern Kenya stretches seemingly endlessly to a pale blue horizon.  The searing 40-degree days are made unbearable by regular dust storms.  Poisonous snakes, scorpions, malnutrition and malaria lurk within the row on row of UN issue shanty dwellings. 

But Kuei loved it.  “I thought I want to study.  I want to be somebody.”   And now that she could stop running, she set about doing just that.  She studied hard in the camp, and at 18 she was given the chance to attend boarding school in Kitale, 6 hours drive south.

Most teenage girls are distracted by boys, but Kuei was on a mission.  She rejected her family’s initial attempts to arrange a marriage.  And when Yai Atem caught her eye at the traditional dance night she looked the other way.  When Yai sought help from friends to write her love letters, Kuei tried to ignore them. “I knew something was happening but I didn’t want to listen.  I thought I have an opportunity to study and I don’t want to let it go.”

By the time Yai sent his brothers to ask for Kuei’s hand in marriage, she had also set her sights on migration to Australia.  So when her family did their research and declared Yai a good catch, Kuei said, “That’s fine.  But I’m not doing anything until I get to Australia.”

By the time Kuei’s approval for Australian migration came through Yai had migrated to the United States.  She called her family and spoke to her uncle.  “If this guy still a good boy then I will marry him.  If he is not a good boy and doesn’t go to school then I don’t want him.”

Yai was a good boy, and on May 14th 2004 they married.  The ceremony was conducted in Sudan according to tribal customs.  Neither Yai nor Kuei was in attendance.

For the next five years the couple saw each other often enough to bring two children into the world.  But practically speaking, Kuei started her business as a single mother.

Raising a family on your own is not unusual for Sudanese women.  “War never stops in African cultures.  It’s all men who go to war, so women have to be responsible for the whole family,” Kuei confirms.

But Kuei is not expecting this particular African custom to continue in Australia.  She spent 4 years finalizing Yai’s paperwork for migration to Australia.  When he arrived and had difficulty getting a job, she agreed that he should study for his Masters and write an autobiography while she continued to support the family.  But at some point she expects the tables to turn.

“He will get a good job, and then I will sell the business.  Yai will take responsibility for the house so then I can go to university.”  This is Plan A.  “But if Yai wants to do his own program and forget about what I have done…. then I will have a Plan B.” 

Whichever Plan prevails, Kuei hopes to study politics.  She believes that the South Sudanese in the west must play a part in addressing the ongoing conflict.  “Now we have got a country and they are not following the constitution.  The politicians won’t accept fault; they are not putting the problems on the table,” Kuei says with frustration.  “I must get to the table.  But I need to go back to school and then I will go.”

It is unlikely that Kuei will return to Sudan for good, she has three Australian children that will keep her here.  She says her son tells her, “Mum, I’m Australian because I was born in Australia and I speak Australian, but I’m South Sudanese because of the skin.”

Kuei tells her children about life in Africa.  “I show them my photos of when I was little.  I tell them the story of my life, the story of my Dad and my grand grandfather,” she says.  But the promise of the good life in Australia is stronger than the call of her African homeland.  “If South Sudan could become like Australia then I would prefer (my children) were Sudanese.  But I want them to have a good life.  I don’t want them to suffer.”

So Kuei will continue to raise her children as Australians and to seek her own success on Australian terms.  And she rejects any idea that the colour of her skin might limit her success.  “If Australian people don’t like African people, why did they bring me here?” she asks rhetorically.  “I’m not a success or failure because I’m African.  I’m here because I’m Kuei.”

Article originally appeared on The Most Interesting Person I Know (http://themostinterestingpersoniknow.net/).
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