Two men to share stories of adventure, hardship and unity
One man is a mountain climber, inspirational speaker and cultural anthropologist. The other survived a 1,000-mile trek through war zones in Africa as a young boy, and has since written a best-selling book about his experience.
The two men, now close friends and Encinitas residents, collaborators and housemates, will share their divergent tales of adversity as part of the Viewpoints lecture series at the Village Community Presbyterian Church, 6225 Paseo Delicias, Rancho Santa Fe, at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 28.
Alepho Deng, a native of South Sudan and one of the “Lost Boys” who fled from that country’s civil war, and Jeff Salz, who began traveling the world at age 17 and has led numerous mountain-climbing expeditions in South America, the Himalayas and elsewhere, have appeared around the United States in the two-man performance piece they co-wrote, called “Across Worlds,” which Salz has dubbed “lecture theater.”
One of the themes of their talk in Rancho Santa Fe will be that people may be separated by small things, like their cultural preferences, but united by big ideas, such as values and aspirations.
“We are united by a common spirit. Human beings from dissimilar cultures can unite around very high goals and understandings,” said Salz. “The reason that’s important is that the world is now being shattered by fundamentalism, greed and tribalism.”
On a recent morning, Salz and Deng spoke with a reporter on the deck of the Encinitas house Deng shares with Salz and his girlfriend. They were joined by Judy Bernstein, a Rancho Santa Fe resident who met Deng shortly after his arrival in San Diego in 2001.
Bernstein helped edit the stories of Deng, his brother, Benson Deng, and cousin, Benjamin Ajak, which were published in the 2005 memoir “They Poured Fire On Us From The Sky: The Story of Three Lost Boys From Sudan.” A 10th anniversary edition of the book is due out next year.
A film version of the story of Sudan’s Lost Boys, “The Good Lie,” starring Reese Witherspoon, is set to come out in October. The plot centers around an American woman who helps a groups of Sudanese refugees.
While the film is not specifically based on the trio’s book, Deng did voice-overs for the movie. He said, “I feel 90 percent of the story resembles our story.” The film’s screenwriter, Margaret Nagle, met with Bernstein, and she also read an early version of the book, Bernstein said.
Since his arrival in the United States, Deng has spoken at hundreds of schools and colleges. The Sept. 28 appearance in Rancho Santa Fe marks a return of sorts. One of his earliest speaking engagements was at the Rancho Santa Fe Rotary Club in 2003.
“I was probably dead by nervousness. I don’t remember anything I said,” he said.
Deng was only about 5 years old when attacks by soldiers on his village caused him to flee for his life. Along his trek, he witnessed acts of violence, along with people starving and dying of thirst. He made it to a refugee camp in Kenya, where he lived for nine years before emigrating from Africa to the United States.
Along with public speaking and writing his book, Deng has tried his hand at acting, including a turn as an extra in the film “Master and Commander,” and he also worked for Kaiser Permanente for five years as a file clerk.
He returned to South Sudan once, in 2008, when he visited his mother, who had moved to the capital, Juba.
He and Salz share a goal of establishing a residential “peace academy” in South Sudan, to provide shelter for war orphans in his native country, and hopefully instill lessons of peace and reconciliation in future generations.
As for his own plans, Deng said one of the lessons he has learned from his friends, Salz and Bernstein, is that it is good to have a map of where his life is going, even though he was raised to focus on the here and now.
“As Lost Boys, we didn’t have a map, we just walked, that’s only to survive, so I still carry that part of me,” Deng said. “I want to continue to tell this story. I don’t know where it’s going. Maybe that’s the future. Maybe I will look back 40 years from now and say, ‘I did it, I told this story.’ My story is everybody’s story, people relate.”
For tickets to the Sept. 28 talk by Deng and Salz, visit www.villageviewpoints.com or call (858) 381-8070. The lecture series is jointly sponsored by the Village Church and the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation.