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A Heartwarming Work of Edifying Genius

Valentino Deng, the central figure in Dave Eggers's What Is the What, is turning the dream of education into a reality for Sudanese...

Valentino Deng, the central figure in Dave Eggers's What Is the What, is turning the dream of education into a reality for Sudanese youth.

In What Is the What, Dave Eggers chronicled the Job-like trials of one of the "lost boys of Sudan," a young man named Valentino Deng. Deng escaped the Sudan and made it to the United States, where he met Eggers, who turned his story into the award-winning book. With the funds from the book's successful run, Deng and Eggers started the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation. Deng has since returned to the Sudan to lead the foundation's first project, the building of a school in Deng's village of Marial Bai in southern Sudan, the first secondary school in the region. Deng returned a trip to the United States last month, in an attempt to raise money to pay for the construction of more buildings at the school, including a girl's dormitory.GOOD: So, is the second phase of construction done?VALENTINO DENG: It is an ongoing effort. But we have just finished quite a good number of buildings. We opened the school in May. We have nearly 100 students enrolled and taking classes. We have four teachers. We brought in volunteer teachers from the U.S., Canada, and New Zeland during the summer, and then we are continuing with our construction.G: What classes do you offer?VD: It's everything: math, chemistry, physics, agriculture, history, and English grammar and composition.G: What is the ratio of male to female students? I imagine enrolling girls isn't easy.VD: It's one of our most challenging tasks. I wanted to admit 50 percent girls to our school. But I am faced with challenges. Most of these young females work so hard in their communities. They are the ones who fetch water for their families. They have to go to the well and carry water on their heads. You can imagine how much work that is to fetch water for showers and for cooking and for washing utensils. After school, the girls have to pound grain and cook for the family. These girls have to go to the forest to collect firewood. They have to look after their younger siblings. They have to do homework. Many families are not willing to send girls to school. And many of these girls are faced with the cultural practice of being married off before they finish primary school. So to protect them, we are building a girl's dormitory for them, to give them a more conducive learning environment. They only go back to their families during the holidays. And then on campus we will have academic programs for them so they can focus on their studies. That's challenging. With the current economy, I'm not able to raise funds to do that. That building isn't even started. That's why I'm on this tour, to raise money.G: So that's your big priority?VD: It's my big priority. These young women have to be given access to education, they have to be protected. Maybe after high school they will have grown to be responsible young women. Now they are still so fragile and innocent.G: When you were thinking about how to go back and help your village, what made you pick a school?VD: Southern Sudan is coming out from war. Many people were denied access to education. It's been difficult for the government to explain its policies to the people because the literacy rate is so low. If I educate young people, we will have opened their minds and they can in return realize their potential talent. I want to be engaged in something that can bring about a better future for the country. We hope our students can continue to universities. We will educate doctors, teachers, nurses, businessmen. Education is one of the methods of maintaining peace. Another reason is that the government of Southern Sudan and multilaterals that are investing in education have established thousands of primary schools, but little was being done about secondary school education. And we have to do something about that. I could not wait until I had the resources and the connections to do that.G: Are you seeing effects already? Is it improving the community?VD: It is. The money we invested in construction went to the local market. I am already seeing tea shops and more supplies in the market. We are the largest employer in the area. I see some shops started by the school, [where] the students buy tea and breakfast, supporting the community. And then I told you about people resigning to government to go back to school. That is how much people value education. I see students running and smiling, happy to be in school.G: When you finish this next round of construction, what's next?VD: I want to replicate this project. If you give me millions of dollars, I will build you 10 of these schools. We have 10 states. We can build 10 in each state. But I am patient, but I know that it takes time. This school will help us learn a lot, and then we can go on to build schools in other locations.

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