12 Aug 2020


Mathew Mading Riak, The First South Sudanese Pilot

"...the secondary school students of those days were more mature, united and nationalistic than their contemporaries of today, lamentably, even of the universities of today do not measure to them."

By Prof Peter Tingwa

I read an interesting story about Mathew Mading Riak, the first South Sudanese pilot, in your Featured Stories by his nephew Dr. Ater Yuot Riak in the Gurtong on 31 March 2019. Since I hold fond memories of Mathew, I very much wanted to add a few little tidbits to Ater’s story about him. I remember Mathew as a physically strong person, full of life, love, energy and compassion. He was our protector in a school full of bigger boys and bullies.

When I joined first year in the Nugent School at Loka (Loka Intermediate School) in 1952, Mathew was in the third year. With the eyes of a small boy, I saw him as a big and a well-built person bursting with physical power and energy.

His daily companion was one called Henry Rin Bol. Both of them possessed slim and short ebony sticks with ivory at both ends, which when it suited them, they would place them in their armpits and would strut in the dormitory compounds, I think emulating the young men back at home in the cattle camps.At some nights he would not shy from taking off his clothes and walk about proudly.

But what I and many of my young age mates remember about Mathew that he was our protector and defender from older boys. Mathew would not stand by and see a bigger boy beating up a small boy. His presence around was always a very reassuring sign for us. He wanted and we called him ‘Uncle’; and often, while strutting and carrying his stick in the armpit, he would utter the words “Uncle is a bad wolf”, though there was nothing wolfish about him. As Dr. Ater said, he left Loka at the end of 1953.

When I joined Rumbek Secondary School in 1957, Mathew was again in the third year. By this year the Rumbek students had been politically sensitized and radicalized by the 1955 Uprising as well as the mistreatment that the government in Khartoum had meted to suspects in the uprising. At the time, Southern nationalism was growing and the Rumbek students saw themselves as the elites to lead the struggle against Northern domination. Though he was not in the front, Mathew’s class was full of politicized student radicals.

Those student leaders, as it came to pass, later played important roles in the Southern struggle against Northern domination as well as in the politics of South (ern) Sudan. Those who were prominent were: Pacifico Lolik, Philip Pedak, George Akumbek (Kwanai), Angelo Voga, Lawrence Wol Wol, Philip Obang, Justin Yac, Francis Adyang, George Muras, Enock Mading de Garang and many others. It was such that, whenever, you see one of those students coming to your class at prep time, you know that there is an issue for which you are soon going to go on strike or someting.

On the whole, however, the secondary school students of those days were more mature, united and nationalistic than their contemporaries of today, lamentably, even of the universities of today do not measure to them.

The next time I met Mathew was in Southern California when I was doing my doctoral degree in the University of California in Riverside. At that time, Mathew was training pilots in Orange County, about one hour drive from Riverside. Also at that time, Ambrose Ahang Beny, his wife Mary and children were living in Pasadena, north of Los Angeles. Every weekend we would gather in Ambrose’s house to share views on current issues, the Anyanya war as well as reminisce on the good old days at Loka and Rumbek.

One thing about Mathew was that, though he had a car, he did not like to drive in the freeways and traffic of Los Angeles. He used to say that in piloting an aircraft, you would not meet so many other aircraft, as you would of cars on the freeways. So, whenever we were to go to Ambrose, I would have to drive to Orange County to pick him up and drive through Los Angeles to Pasadena. I would also drive him back.

At some time during this period, Mathew got married to a Japanese woman by name of Nako. They were happy together and she was regularly with us in Ambrose’s house. Then Mathew started to toy with the idea of coming back to Southern Sudan. So, after he made up his mind, they agreed for Nako to go to Japan. We made a party for her and saw her off at the Los Angeles Airport. The understanding was that, she would join Mathew when he had settled in the South Sudan. But I think they never did meet again.

The writer can be reached at ptingwa@yahoo.com
+254 726 570 292 

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