Jul 12, 2015 by

Paying It Forward


Nicholas Kristof travels to South Sudan to revisit Valentino Deng, a “Lost Boy” of Sudan who runs a remarkable school amid civil war.

By Adam B. Ellick and Jessica Naudziunas on Publish Date July 11, 2015. Watch in Times Video »


MARIAL BAI, South Sudan — If there’s a world center of despair, it may be South Sudan, enveloped in an increasingly brutal war in which children are raped and then burned alive. But against that grim backdrop, one local man has undertaken a journey that is an affirmation of hope, inspiration and the transformative power of education.

Valentino Deng, 37, a former refugee from this town, has returned from America to build a remarkable high school here — with the royalties from “What Is the What,” the best-selling book about him by Dave Eggers.

Valentino, an old friend of mine, says his life was transformed by education and the generosity that people showed him, first in refugee camps and then in America. So now he is paying it forward, and he argues that education is the most potent force to overcome his country’s poverty, tribalism and AK-47s.


“Not everyone had these privileges as I did, so I feel I must not let anyone down,” he says. “There is no better way of sharing the American blessings.”


Valentino Deng was 7 when he fled Marial Bai, in what is now South Sudan, and eventually ended up in America. He later returned home and built a successful school with royalties from a best-selling book about him by Dave Eggers. Credit Nicholas Kristof/The New York Times

At night, hyenas cackle beyond his new school’s dormitories, and there’s no Internet or running water. But this boarding school has emerged as one of the best schools in South Sudan, with about 1,000 students from around the nation vying each year for 150 places in the ninth-grade class.

Valentino was a child here in Marial Bai, but a Sudanese militia attacked the area when he was 7 years old. He fled and became one of the legendary Sudanese “Lost Boys” who drifted unaccompanied through endless perils — from land mines to crocodiles — to refugee camps first in Ethiopia and then in Kenya. Valentino saw friends devoured by lions and massacred by soldiers.

But Valentino was blessed as well as cursed. In the normal course of events, he might have ended up herding cattle. Instead, he learned to read and write at a refugee camp school, by scratching letters in the dust with his finger. Then he applied for refugee status in America, and he says he made a pact with God: If you let me get to America, I will use those connections to help my country.

Ultimately, the United States accepted him and he settled in Atlanta in 2001. Increasingly, he decided that what his homeland most lacked was education.

“I was hiding in this bush from someone on horseback shooting, and I had nothing to fight back,” he remembers. “So when I went back I was looking for a solution. And I think the solution is education.”

After “What Is the What” came out in 2006, I moderated a panel where Valentino pledged to use the book’s royalties to build a boarding school in his hometown. Then I visited Marial Bai a few years ago and wrote a column; generous Times readers responded with hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to complete the school and allow it to operate without charging tuition.

Still, the challenges are enormous. Valentino believes that educating girls is crucial to moving away from a culture of warfare, so he was determined to enroll 50 percent girls in the school. At that, he has failed. Only about one-third of the student body is female, even though he accepts almost every girl who applies.

The problem is that in South Sudan, girls’ education just isn’t a priority. In 2010, only 400 girls enrolled in 12th grade in the entire country. Parents often believe that girls should be marrying, not studying.

Susana Ajak Wol Athian, a 10th grader in Valentino’s school who dreams of becoming a doctor, said her parents — who are illiterate — have decided to sell her to be the bride of an uneducated and much older man, for 25 cows. She did not go home on her last vacation for fear that her parents would forcibly hand her over to the man.

“I don’t know him,” she says. “I don’t want to marry him.”

Valentino deals with other headaches as well: powerful officials who want their children admitted (he tells them that everything depends on a child’s score in admission exams); teachers who prey on schoolgirls (he fires them); a collapsing economy that creates few jobs (he teaches students to start their own businesses); and surging prices (students cut costs by growing much of their own food, while keeping an eye out in the garden for spitting cobras and black mambas).

Valentino was also appointed last year to be minister of education for Northern Bahr el Ghazal, the state in which his school is located, responsible for 875 public schools in the region. He inherited a plush office, but no plumbing or Internet.

And of course he misses America and its charms. Especially chicken chimichangas.

Yet if South Sudan’s civil war is a reminder of the peril of illiteracy and tribalism, Valentino’s school is a tribute to the power of education and inspiration. Many South Sudanese, after moving to the United States or other countries, ended up returning to their homeland to give back. Their initiatives include the One Tree School Project, Building Minds in South Sudan, Water for South Sudan, Bor College High School, the Sudan Development Foundation and Marol Academy.

One of the most common questions on Facebook and in lectures is how I avoid being overwhelmed and discouraged by the horrors I report on. Sure, the violence can be heartbreaking — a week ago, I reported on South Sudan soldiers raping, castrating and killing children — but for every brutal warlord, there’s a great soul like Valentino struggling to build as others destroy. (For those who want to help Valentino, visit his website, VadFoundation.org.)

Because of this school, I see rays of hope here. The head girl, Victoria Ahok Kuach, says she aims to be the first albino member of Parliament in South Sudan. Dennis Longoben Tulyaba, whose family was displaced by warfare, hopes to be a lawyer. Mary Awet Kuom, whose father was killed in war, has turned down four offers of marriage and seeks to be a doctor.

“Boys and girls are equal,” Mary declared firmly — and then she amended that to make clear that girls are a little more equal. “I can do better than any boy,” she scoffed.

In these kids, I see the same vision as in Valentino that schooling is the best antidote to cruelty, poverty and war.

So congratulations, readers, on what you’ve accomplished here. It’s true that South Sudan is torn apart by atrocities, corruption and famine, but side by side with the worst of humanity, you find the best. In this school, you see refracted a land of hope.

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