Introducing Lual Mayen
Lual was born in South Sudan during the ongoing civil war. His family had to flee on foot from South Sudan to Uganda 25 years ago, where he grew up in a refugee camp. He witnessed violence overtaking South Sudan and the killing and displacement of millions. This inspired him to teach himself how to build and design video and board games in hope of changing the perception and beliefs of his people, particularly the children that like him, are gowing up in refugee camps. His games use actions like disarming bombs and rising to the higest rank of peacebuilder to teach this young population skills and values around peacebuilding and conflict resolution. In his own words, my video, board, and mobile games seek to provide an entertaining and informative community activity that changes the focus from destruction to the construction of peaceful communities. Lual took the time to speak at Humentum’s 2018 Annual Conference and joined us again in the SocialEx studio for a two-part series. Part one below focuses on his story, and part two (coming in November) will focus on his games.
Watch Social Ex Episode 2, Lual Mayen: Part 1
This 25 min video version of our SocialEx Podcast, Humentum’s Monthly Podcast, includes photos from the refugee camp where Lual grew up and some of his early work in Uganda and South Sudan building video games.
Listen to Social Ex Episode 2, Lual Mayen: Part 1
This 25 min audio version of Episode 2 of Social Ex, Humentum’s monthly podcast can be found on Soundcloud and accessed below. Audio versions of our eposides will soon be available on itunes as well.
Caitlin: Lual is a former South Sudanese refugee who is now an entrepreneur building video and board games for peace and conflict resolution. Recently Lual joined us at the Humentum Annual Conference for a session about his story and work. People loved it and were hungry for more. So we wanted to invite him to the podcast and do a little more on his story, and talk about how he got to where he is today. Lual, thank you so much for joining us!
Lual: Thank you!
Caitlin: Alright let’s get started! If you wouldn’t mind starting by telling our listeners a little bit about your background. Where did it all begin?
Lual: Thank you so much for having me here today. I’m so happy today to join you, this has been one of the things I’ve really wanted to do. The Humentum Annual Conference was really amazing. Sharing ideas and getting to meet with a lot of people who believed in video games as a tool of change was really good for me. A little about myself. My name is Lual Mayan and I’m from South Sudan. We got our independence in 2011 from Sudan because of the long war before that. We wanted to become an independent country. During the war in South Sudan, which began in 1983 and affected a lot of people, my family lived in Jonglei States. A civil war broke out that was fueled by the Sudanese government and became a tribal war. a lot of people were killed my parents wanted to flee in 1993 to find a place where they could live in peace. They had to walk from South Sudan to Uganda and it was not easy; there was no water on the way, there was no food, it was really a hard time for them and they didn’t know actually where they were going. They were just trying to find a way of escaping from the war. My mom told me in 1993 I was born on the way there between the border of Uganda and South Sudan. It was not easy for her carrying me the whole way [after giving birth in transit]. We ended up settling into a refugee camp in Uganda to a settlement called Mungali and then we moved to another refugee camp in Northern Uganda. There was a rebel leader in Uganda called Joseph Kony – he’s still there – so we had to move from one refugee camp to another where I ended up growing up and going to school. That’s a little bit of my story from South Sudan to Uganda.
Caitlin: So you really grew up in Uganda?
Lual: Yes in Uganda, in a refugee camp. You know the thing is a lot of people think being a refugee is a temporary thing. It’s not temporary. My family moved there in 1993 and today they’re still there, so it’s not temporary. I realized this was going to be my only home to live in, so if this is going to be my home, I have to use all the resources I have and utilize what I have whether it’s enough or not.
Caitlin: So what was the day to day experience for you and other children growing up in the refugee camp?
Lual: Some of them [the children] were born Uganda some of them were born on the way like me. It became a new environment to us. There was no day-to-day activities [we could do] because your is family focused on something they could do to survive, the food you need to survive. [Education wasn’t a first priority]…educated teachers for example…if you’re in a middle class, maybe the top class students would be the ones teaching you [at the middle level]. There were no qualified people to teach so at the end of the day most of the children didn’t know the importance of education. People are free most of the day and for girls especially it was so bad. They end up married and pregnant early. There’s nothing to occupy your time, nothing to open your mind to the future and possibilities.
Caitlin: There was nothing to really open their mind or teach them about the future but I remember you said there were a lot of activities taking up their time, like football, games…?
Lual: Yes football is very important to the children. Everything revolves around football, that was doing a lot of good. Right To Play was bringing in professional football players and bring us together, it was the only thing helping us come together. When I grew up it was a little different for me than other kids in the refugee camp because my parents were so hard on me about school. They would tell me to go to school everyday. I’d go to school, come back, sometimes I wouldn’t go because there wasn’t anything going on there. My parents were trying to make us better people. Even if it wasn’t a choice to be in the refugee camp, what they were telling me it [education] was really important for all of us – for me and my future and my brothers. I realized education was good for them, so I started going to school and then from there I started realizing I was very skillful. I made a small box and made it like a phone. People would come and watch it around 8 p.m. in the refugee camp, they would watch things on my phone that I created.
People were so happy about what I was doing. From there I developed a passion for computers so one day I told my mom to buy a computer for me. She said “what are you going to do with the computer?” I said “I love it, I really want to do something with it.” She said “okay, fine.” she spent almost 3 years looking for the money to buy a laptop for me. After three years of [working on embroidery and selling it], she had the money. She brought me a computer and said “here it is, so you can decide now what you’re going to do with it.” I told her thank you …and then what is the next step? It was hard to get internet. I was thinking “what am I going to do with this?” but I had the product. So I would take the computer for charging at an internet cafe and have only enough for two hours, and then go back and charge for 2 more hours. Then one day at the internet cafe a friend showed me a very good video game called Grand Theft Auto.
Caitlin: That was your first experience with a video game?
Lual: Yes, that was the first one. I played it everyday and worked on it. You know, at that time I thought video games weren’t made by people, they must be something from Heaven that fell from the sky [laughter]. I really loved Grand Theft Auto, the graphics playing it. It was a war game. I started trying to learn more about video games.
Caitlin: But you didn’t know anything about computer programming still at this time, right? This wasn’t something you were learning in school?
Lual: Right. I would go to the Internet cafe, put them on my computer and then watch tutorials. I was teaching myself and it was hard. My main focus wasn’t peacebuilding, I thought maybe I could develop video games for fun. But after that war broke out in South Sudan in 2013 300,000 people were killed. My new focus was leaving the refugee camp and maybe going back to South Sudan and working there. I couldn’t work in Uganda, I had to work in South Sudan every weekend and then go back to school in Uganda. My mom couldn’t afford my tuition for school, so that is how I was paying.
Caitlin: So you were working in South Sudan while studying in Uganda, to pay for your own tuition. And were you studying computer programming at that point?
Lual: Yes. I could do the tutorials on my own, and go to school, so it was all really helping me a lot. Back in South Sudan, there was a ceasefire in 2014, so the rebel leader and the government came together and we thought there was going to be a permanent peace dealing in South Sudan. Everyone was excited, but then again in 2016 the war broke out. I was in South Sudan at that time. Even more people were killed. I realized that peace is built over time, that true peace is built over time. Watching people die and kill themselves – it’s something that affected me and my family and every person, including the children, in South Sudan. So signing a ceasefire isn’t it, peace is something we have to start with the children. Some of them were born in war and raised in war. True peace is something more than that, it has to come from grassroots and the youth. 73% of the population in South Sudan is under the age of 30.
Lual: That’s a big population, and these children are the people used as a tool of war. And that’s why the majority of the people are affected the most [the large population of children are affected the most] and the most important thing to do is to change young people’s mindset. We needed something to occupy the children and to engage them and help them and then I realized me playing video games like Grand Theft Auto really helped occupy me – i could be on it everyday!
Caitlin: It was addictive [laughs]
Lual: right, Right so I thought how could we engage them, change their mindset and teach them something about peace building. If you go in South Sudan you see people playing with toy guns. Children with toy guns in school because … children are so creative, they can use anything. If they don’t have anything to do…
Caitlin: And they’re fast learners.
Lual: Yeah they’re fast learners, so when they’re young they’ll take guns, I’d play with them and try to shoot guns [as a child], it was the only activity we could do. So how about bringing them [children] something educational that can actually prepare them for peace in the future. That’s when I really came up with the idea of using video games as a tool for change. They have access and can play with phones so instead of waiting around for a ceasefire I realized we can make video games as a tool for change to help with peacebuilding.
Caitlin: So how did you envision children in refugee camps being able to access the game mostly was phones? Did they have cell phones?
Lual: Right so when – that’s a good question – when I did my first game, Salaam, I didn’t know much about the game industry. I just did it for the people in the refugee camp. I made an applique [an app] that was very light, only 7 MB, and you can transfer it using Bluetooth or transfer it to any device and play it on any Android. I developed the game this way for so long, tested it, and started distributing it to most of the children in the refugee camp. The first feedback I got from some of them [was that they] were so inspired. They were like “how did you do this?” In a day, a hundred of them would come to me and ask how I made it. It became more helpful to them to realize this can be done. It was something very important for the refugees to realize this could be done by someone who is living with them in the camps. They would come to community centers and play the game together and play different kinds of games. They were really so happy with what I was doing. They could all play it together. About 3,000 people downloaded it on the Android phone in the refugee camps. From there, the game [his first game, Salaam] went off! I was invited to South Africa, people loved it, I was so excited.
Caitlin: And this is all while you were still in school, right? Working in South Sudan and visiting the refugee camps with your new game, and going back to Uganda for University?
Lual: Right. I went to South Africa and connected with the game community there. They were like wow, this is good. We’re going to put in our time to advise you on the next step so that really created a lot of chances in terms of developing games. My game has similar mechanics to other ones out there, which we’ll talk more about later.
Caitlin: So what was the next step for you after releasing Salam and visiting South Africa, and after you graduated?
Lual: To be honest I I don’t know whether I had a real dream or not for the next step because I was locked in a cycle where I cannot set a goal. I was more just saying “let me do this and see what comes after.” I didn’t have the next step to follow, I wasn’t thinking what is the next thing.
Caitlin: Right. How did you end up coming to the United States?
Lual: In 2017, what ended up happening was there was a program called PeaceTech Lab in Partnership with C5 Capital and Amazon Web Services at United Institute of Peace. – it’s a program that brings companies that are using technology for change together. They found out about my game and were like “wow, this is great ,we want to bring you to the US.” I was still in the refugee camp and they reached out to me and said what you’re doing technology is great. So I first came here with C5 Capital and Amazon Web Services for three months. They helped me to scale my business and meet with other venture companies that really helped me out. From there, World Bank approached me for an internship program, so I did that next.
Caitlin: What was that experience like, coming to the US and getting to meet the game development community here?
Lual: Coming to the US was amazing to me. I couldn’t believe I was going to the US, even when I got my Visa I couldn’t believe it, I said “I have to be on a plane to believe it.” It’s a country that is well-respected because it has a lot of creativity and resources. I was really excited about it. When I got here, I got to meet with so many game developers who I’d already connected with online. Getting to meet them physically in person and going to GDC in San Francisco and things like that was so incredible to me. I really appreciate the game community for welcoming me into the industry because it was not something I ever thought could happen, someone from the refugee camp could be welcomed into the big game industry. I went to Epics Games in North Carolina and met the developers of the game Fortnite and I never thought I would actually be able to see that myself. My biggest fear with it [meeting others in the game community] was [proposing my idea of] using games for peacebuilding. It’s a little bit of opposite from what the big game companies are about, but they said this is good, the whole industry depends on how people use games creatively for good. It’s [the United States is] a country that really provides opportunities for people to grow.
Caitlin: As someone who isn’t really familiar with the current game industry, what does that mean [that peacebuilding is opposite from what they are about]? What is the gaming industry about right now?
Lual: That’s a good question. The current game industry, the big companies that make video games like Battleship stimulation, there’s a lot of video games for war. The current industry depends on what people love, it’s really huge, it’s really into violence. It’s a big industry that is always attracting a lot of young people.
Caitlin: It sounds like you’re an exciting place in an exciting industry. Thank you for sharing the first part of your inspiring story as to how you got to where you are today!
Our next episode with Lual will discuss his games – both of his games – how they were created, how they are played, and where you can access them. Thank you again so much Lual for being here, and please subscribe to Humentum’s podcast, Social Ex, for the next part of the series and all future episodes.
About SocialEx, Humentum’s new Podcast
At Humentum, we believe the power of our relief & development community is in the individual professionals and experts working hard everyday towards social good. We wanted to showcase that exchange, expertise, and experience – your experiences – on a platform that would allow in depth discussion and exploration. Have an idea for a topic or guest you’d like to hear? Are you that guest? Let us know your thoughts.