NBA superstar Deng returns to his Sudan roots

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Luol Deng returns to Sudan for the first time since he fled 20 years ago

Luol Deng is getting drenched. While most sports stars spend their off-season on the beach, Britain's NBA superstar is soaking up a Southern Sudanese wet-season deluge.

There is a solemn ritual to it. A United Nations Refugee Agency official hands him an umbrella. Luol accepts it, waits a few seconds, quietly walks over to a line of dripping schoolchildren and then hands it over. The children gaze up, and up and up, smile, and take shelter.

Luol ambles back to the centre of the muddy field, where the welcoming ceremony continues. Within a minute, as his XXXL t-shirt turns ever darker with rain, a further umbrella is proffered, only to end up in the hands of another teenager.

Now that southern Sudan's most celebrated refugee has at last returned home for the first time in 20 years, columns of children run through their sweetly drilled routine. "Welcome, welcome," they sing. "We are happy to see Luol Deng today". As they sing, they march in lilting step.

Luol Deng does not seek the attention. Great Britain's best basketball player is on a six-year $71m minimum contract with the Chicago Bulls, is lionised by President Barack Obama and counts Michael Jordan as a friend. But he also knows that his story - a child who, at the age of five, became a refugee - is rather ordinary here.

Yes, he had to flee the civil war, which was in the process of killing two million people. But he was lucky enough to be able to escape with the rest of his family and end up in Britain, where the Dengs were granted asylum.

So Luol has been cautious, almost to the point of prickliness, about being feted for his first return to Sudan. But now he has been handed a megaphone to address the hundreds of children surrounding him in an uneven rectangle.

He thanks them for "the best welcome I ever got in my life ... and I'm so happy that I got it from home". Then he switches gear. "If you work hard, if you listen to your teachers, listen to your parents," he tells them, wheeling round to address the four sides, "you could be standing here".

"Every one of you guys is capable of being somebody special. Maybe you will be the president of this country and one day you gonna lead us. You gonna lead us, and we're going to have a great country."

The reference is lost on no-one. In January, Southern Sudan is due to hold a referendum on independence from Khartoum - perhaps the most significant single part of the "Comprehensive Peace Agreement" of 2005, which brought decades of civil war to an end.

The Lost Boys

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have already returned. Many, though, are staying away. Among them, are some of the vast group known as "The Lost Boys". They were children who ran, literally, as their villages were attacked. They hared off into the desert and the bush, often not knowing whether the rest of the families were alive or dead.

After years of aimless wandering, many of them ended up in Kakuma Refugee Camp, over the southern border, in Kenya. And many of those have stayed ever since.

The United Nations Refugee Agency, for whom Luol has worked in the past, has brought him and his older brother Ajou to Kakuma. On a hot morning, Luol meets about 20 "Lost Boys" under the shade of a broad tree, within the camp. He speaks to most of them in Dinka, painstakingly translating for us.

"They came to the village and burned the houses," Luol explains, as Angelo talks to him in a flat, quiet voice. "He just got up and ran, ran for his life. He was 12. He left with nobody. He went to the jungle. Then he went to Ethiopia. He got here in '92. He has no people back in Sudan. So he's going to stay here."

Building the future

Southern Sudan has a further problem. It still has some of the worst levels of development in the world. Information is scratchy, but recent relief agency figures have given the region the highest mortality rate in the world for women in childbirth. One in five children die before their fifth birthday.

For that reason, Luol Deng is far more than a tourist. Several hundred kilometres to the west of the capital Juba, deep in the bush, is Udici Basic School, which was laid waste during the war. Now the Luol Deng Foundation has helped to reconstruct some of the school buildings.

Another welcoming ceremony ensues, with wildly foot-stamping dances, and an elegant older woman ululating. Next to the brickwork are the small, mud huts, where some of the pupils and their families live. They make the bare walls and metal desks of the nearby classrooms appear all the more impressive.

Luol reflects quietly on the scale of the challenge: "The school still has a lot of things to be done. Hopefully we will continue to fund the school and do things slowly."

Duck and cower

A bumpy, 75-minute drive from Udici Basic School, lies another, rather more trivial sign of Sudan's lack of development. At a junction in the city of Wau stands Southern Sudan's single set of functioning traffic lights.

Luol, though, has not come to Wau for the thrill of waiting dutifully at this unique red light. Wau holds another significance on his journey.

It is where the Dengs lived before the violence of the civil war forced them to flee. "This was my mum's bedroom," recalls Ajou, Luol's older brother, pushing open the stiff door of the room where Luol was born.

"There was a hill outside, where there were fights. We used to duck under the bed. And then when you came outside you could see the bullets. That was when we were ready to move and get out of here."

'Not a fool'

Now that he has returned, albeit for only a few days, Luol is attempting to suck every last drop from his time in Southern Sudan. It is that which brought him, late on a Saturday night, into the "recording studio" of the Southern Sudanese Artists' Union.

Luol has folded his 205cm frame onto a plastic chair in the corner of the tiny, sweltering shack. Before him, six young musicians jam.

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Luol Deng receives a rapturous welcome in Sudan

They sing first about the forthcoming referendum and then, clapping and grinning, they launch into an a cappella panegyric to their guest. "Luol Deng! Luol Deng! He plays for Chicago Bulls, and he goes by the rules. And he's not a fool. Luol Deng! Luol Deng!"

The leader of the group and the founder of the Artists' Union, Ras Korby, is also a refugee. He is moved by the presence of Luol.

"It's like an angel coming through your house", he says. "He's gone through the same struggles we've been through. Now he's come back to think about other people who have suffered, and that's so sweet."

For the first time on the trip, a crack appears in Luol's understated composure. He confesses to feeling a little overwhelmed.

"I never been... I never been in a place where I walk in the street... " He draws breath and looks away. "I'm getting a little emotional... I never been in a place where I walk in the street and I actually feel home. You know I don't feel like a refugee."

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