African Postman: Valentino Achak Deng Helps Build the Future in South Sudan


Several years ago, I read a book called What is the What.” It is the extraordinary autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, as told to novelist Dave Eggers (Eggers says he wrote it “in Valentino’s voice” but it is partially a novel, too). Valentino was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, who literally ran from his home village of Marial Bai into the bush when rebel soldiers arrived. He was a young boy. Sudan‘s civil war dragged on horribly for twenty years or so, ending in 2005. Marial Bai was destroyed, its residents killed or abducted, and Valentino (Achak) never saw his parents, nor many of his childhood friends, again.

Valentino Achak Deng, far left, in front of the schools he has built in his Sudanese hometown of Marial Bai. (Photo: Nicholas D. Kristof)
Valentino Achak Deng, far left, in front of the school he has built in his Sudanese hometown of Marial Bai. (Photo: Nicholas D. Kristof)
Valentino Achak Deng and Dave Eggers in California, 2007.
Valentino Achak Deng and Dave Eggers in California, 2007.

I could not put this book down. It gripped my heart – the emotional impact was so great: the terror of the boys as they fled through the dark, afraid to stop, their numbers growing, sometimes preyed on by lions – and humans. I remember one point in the narrative where the boys were so hungry they climbed trees and ate birds’ nests and their occupants. Then there was the frustration and hardship of nine years in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, before Valentino was able to migrate to Atlanta, Georgia (where his early years as a young man were not without their pressures and disappointments).

The end of the book simply made me cry. So…read it. And be inspired.

You will have to read the book to figure out the meaning of the title. It is quite profound...
You will have to read the book to figure out the meaning of the title. It is quite profound…

When “What is the What” was published, Valentino and Dave Eggers set up the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation with funds from book sales in 2006. Its first project was the Marial Bai Secondary School, which opened in 2009 and is the first high school in the entire region. Yes – in his old village, now in South Sudan. In only its fifth year in operation, the school is already making an impact in the new nation. The Foundation aims to keep education as its main focus.

Of course, this is a non-governmental organization that depends on fund-raising.  You can read much more about the VAD Foundation and the school, and see lots of great photos, at the website: http://www.valentinoachakdeng.org You can donate funds and also there are volunteer opportunities at the school. The Foundation is on Facebook and on Twitter (@VADFoundation) and you can join their email list for updates. You’ll be impressed.

And it’s Christmas. I hope you might feel generous towards the young people of Africa’s newest nation, which has a bright and promising future. This hope fuels Valentino’s determination to bring strength out of sorrow. Hope and renewal springs out of war, hardship and bitterness. The children of South Sudan need our support.

Students graduating at the end of November meet with state officials in Aweil, South Sudan. (Photo: The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation Facebook page)
Students graduating at the end of November meet with state officials in Aweil, South Sudan. (Photo: The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation Facebook page)

Here is my review of “What is the What,” which I wrote about three years ago: https://petchary.wordpress.com/book-review/what-is-the-what-by-dave-eggers/

Students at harvest time. The school has a farm which has suffered drought and floods but still provides sustenance and income for the school. (Photo: VAD Foundation)
Students at harvest time. The school has a farm, which has suffered drought and floods but still provides sustenance and income for the school. (Photo: VAD Foundation)
Valentino Achak Deng.
Valentino Achak Deng drove many miles from Uganda to Sudan and back with construction material for the school, to save money.
Major emphasis at the school is being placed on providing girls with access to education. Currently, less than one percent of girls complete secondary school in Southern Sudan. The Foundation is raising funds to construct a boarding facility, to provide female students with a safe learning environment and an alternative to early marriage. (Photo: VAD Foundation)
Major emphasis at the school is being placed on providing girls with access to education. Currently, less than one percent of girls complete secondary school in Southern Sudan. The Foundation is raising funds to construct a boarding facility, to provide female students with a safe learning environment and an alternative to early marriage. (Photo: VAD Foundation)

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