School for Hope
MARIAL BAI, Sudan
Southern Sudan is one of the most impoverished places on earth, and this remote town lacks electricity and running water and is 150 miles from the nearest paved road. Yet, thanks to a remarkable young American who grew up here — and to readers who backed him — the town has become a magnet for young Sudanese dreaming of an education.
From hundreds of miles around, boys and girls are streaming here in hopes of being admitted to a new boarding school. It is the brainchild of Valentino Achak Deng, whose flight from war and starvation is recounted in the best-selling book by Dave Eggers, “What is the What.”
Valentino was separated from his family during the civil war in Sudan and spent his childhood dodging soldiers, land mines, lions and other hazards. He learned to read and write by scratching letters in the dust at a refugee camp, and in 2001 he was admitted to the United States as a refugee. He worked his way through college — and then was determined to give back.
“Many people have placed confidence in me, trusted me, supported me, and so I felt a special responsibility,” Valentino said. “I wanted to show that there was a reason that I survived.”
Dave and Valentino devoted the profits from “What is the What” to starting the high school, and it is now choosing students for its second school year, beginning in a few days. More than 1,000 pupils, some of them adults whose studies were delayed by the war, are competing for 150 spots as incoming ninth graders.
I’ve known and admired Valentino for years and wrote about his school in December, prompting $400,000 in contributions from readers. So I decided to visit and see what the donations had achieved.
Valentino has hired first-rate teachers, constructed new buildings and erected two dormitories for girls (at least half the students will be girls). The night I stayed in a thatch-roof cottage — teacher housing — a truck arrived with the dorms’ beds and mattresses, purchased in Uganda. Almost nothing is available locally.
The girls will sleep 25 to a room, but the dorms will greatly expand educational opportunities for young women here. Last year, in all of southern Sudan, only 11 girls sat for high school graduation exams, according to government statistics.
One of southern Sudan’s most wrenching statistics is this: Based on official data, a girl there is far more likely to end up dying in childbirth than she is to gain a primary education.
The upshot is that this one school, serving students from all over southern Sudan, will considerably expand the number of girls graduating from secondary school. American donors can sponsor the girls, for $300 per year, through ValentinoAchakDeng.org.
This school is free, the only hope for brilliant students who have no money for tuition, but the pupils do the cleaning and maintenance themselves. Valentino’s connections help bring American volunteer teachers in the summers; they put up with bucket showers, pit toilets and wilting heat, while gaining the ferocious loyalty of the students.
The rest of the staff is unusual, too. The cook, Achol Mayol Juach, was kidnapped by slave traders in 1986, when she was 7, and was enslaved in the north for nearly two decades before escaping with the help of an aid worker from Christian Solidarity International.
Valentino aims to make the school multiethnic, including Muslim Arab students associated with northern tribes that ravaged the south during the civil war. He has students engaged in service projects, like building huts for displaced people, and he is focused on nurturing leaders who can build a more peaceful and prosperous country.
Operating a school in such a remote area is a dizzying challenge. Computers must be powered by a generator or solar panels. Government officials pester Valentino to admit their children, and he must delicately explain that admission depends entirely on entrance exam scores. (He does give preference to one group: orphans.)
Recent donations have enabled the school to build a library, which is starved of books, but there is no local postal service for American friends to send books. Valentino looked into the possibility of having books mailed to Kenya and then trucked in, but found he would have to pay prohibitive import duties.
The school is not a solution to Sudan’s troubles, and it will educate only a tiny proportion of Sudanese youngsters yearning for a better future. But it is an exhilarating glimmer in a land laden with troubles. It’s a sign of Americans and Sudanese working together and making a difference. And it’s a reminder that sometimes the world’s most desperate and desolate places are the ones brimming with magnanimity and hope.