When Charles Data ’04 finally got to go home after graduating from Colby, his first project in his first job was setting up a morgue in Juba, now the capital city of the world’s newest country, South Sudan.
The morgue was a converted container, not unlike a big truck body. “The hospital was in bad, bad shape,” he said during a visit to Mayflower Hill in January. “Dead bodies were stinking everywhere. Juba is very hot. It’s that crazy.” That was 2006—five years before South Sudan’s independence day.
Perhaps a makeshift morgue isn’t a universal symbol of hope and promise. But the story of South Sudan in the last decade is extraordinary, and the country’s progress is mirrored in Data’s career. Both begin with quick, nimble, visible improvements to help cement the peace and progress to more-lasting and consequential economic development initiatives.
For Data, just getting home was complicated. He fled southern Sudan with a brother in 1988, at age 7, after cross-fire from the war there became too dangerous. He and thousands of other refugees streamed across borders to neighboring countries. His parents split. His Sudanese father ended up in a refugee camp, and his Ugandan mother returned to her home village. After 10 years in Uganda, Data’s journey continued and his life changed dramatically when he won a scholarship to Red Cross Nordic United World College in Norway.
In 2000 he was one of the first Davis United World College Scholars at Colby. Despite working extra hours in the mailroom to send money home to buy medicine for his mother and to put members of his family through school, he graduated cum laude with majors in government and economics.
In 2005, when Sudan and southern Sudan signed a comprehensive peace agreement to end 22 years of conflict, Data was in Costa Rica earning a master’s degree in international law and human rights at the United Nations-backed University for Peace. But his compass had always pointed back toward Africa.
After seven years away, Data’s first stop was Uganda and his first priority was family. From there he applied for jobs in southern Sudan, eager to return to his homeland and to be part of its march toward independence. When online connections and letters failed to net job offers, he made the move in late 2005. He connected with a cousin and volunteered as a receptionist at a hotel in Juba.
Juba wasn’t badly damaged in the war, but there wasn’t much there beforehand, he said. “People-wise, population-wise, it would have been a city. Infrastructure-wise, it was a whole bunch of huts,” he said. “And that’s what I saw. There was very little sign of development.”
The hotel was actually an enclave of tents housing high-level government officials and international aid workers for $120 a night, and Data set up a small camping tent with a mattress there. It was a good place for him to share his résumé. As he surveyed opportunities, he decided he was best suited to provide immediate services through a donor-funded non-governmenal organization (NGO).
Early in 2006 he was hired as a program development officer for a contractor funded by USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives. Transitional initiatives are America’s first response in post-conflict environments like South Sudan’s, he said, and they play a critical role in the jarring shift from war to peace. “When conflict takes place, people lose hope. And when there’s peace, no matter how rudimentary it is, there are a lot of expectations that come, especially from citizens and especially in terms of service delivery. They expect something, and they need something quick, and they don’t want long-term, perfect planning,” Data said.
His charge: “Find out from the [local] leaders what needs to be done, and help them do it.” Most projects he worked on ranged from $10,000 to $100,000—renovating schools, setting up government offices, drilling communal wells, expanding the emergency ward at Juba’s hospital.
Establishing the morgue.
In 2007, as the USAID program was wrapping up, Data joined a Dutch NGO for the next step in his country’s development. “I was to work more now with communities to try to identify income-generating opportunities for them, so they could move on with their lives.” It was time to transition from international aid as handouts to aid for economic development. “To revive what was there before the war and to build on it,” he said.
The idea was to develop value-chains, where farmers didn’t just grow tomatoes, for example, but had buyers who had trucks to get the produce to market before it spoiled.
Then he heard from a Colby classmate, Beth Holmes ’04, at the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management. He recalls her telling him, “By the way, we are bidding for a project in Sudan. Would you be interested?”
He was, and four years later he’s team leader of the Southern Sudan Microfinance Development Facility, where he directs a staff of five. They work with six lending entities and have overseen more than a million dollars in wholesale loans.
But more important than the dollar total, he said, is the support and training his organization provides. Having the right skills is even more important than the capital base at this stage, and that’s where his unit comes in, Data said.
A Colby connection can lead to a job, even in Juba, and a Colby education prepares one to adapt, and keep learning, he said. He went into microfinance saying, “I’m not a microfinance guy, but I’m willing to learn.” And it was not the first time he started a new job with little or no relevant experience. “Today this is what all the jobs look like. Looking back, I realize the best approach is to be careful, to have an idea of where you want to go—but you have to maintain some flexibility.”
“It’s working out,” Data concluded, acknowledging that the sentiment applies to both his career and his country.
“It’s really nice to see a country being born, if I can use that word. Obviously the challenges are tremendous. There are opportunities too in that whole process. ... At the national level a lot of challenges need to be overcome. At a personal level, there are a lot more opportunities than challenges.”