Valentino Achak Deng, the Sudanese Lost Boy who collaborated with Dave Eggers to produce the 2006 National Book Critic’s Circle Award for Fiction Finalist, What is the What, spoke to a packed hall Monday night about his experiences in America and the foundation he has set up to renew Marial Bai, his hometown that was burned down in the Sudanese Civil War. Deng focused the majority of the discussion on the secondary school his foundation was establishing near Marial Bai, and only briefly discussed the years he had spent fleeing from Sudan to Kenya.
Deng opened the discussion with some humorous stories about the difficulties of adjusting to American life after spending years in a refugee camp. One of his first jobs was working at a Christmas gift shop in Atlanta. “I remember asking so many questions about Santa Claus,” said Deng, adding that he found it impossible at first to understand Southern accents. While working at Best Buy, Deng decided he wanted to start a speaking program where Lost Children “would discuss their experiences.” Interwoven into these stories were the horrifying statistics about the war. He spoke to churches and schools in addition to doing odd jobs, Deng said, “because I need war to stop in my country. Over 4 million South Sudanese had been internally displaced and more than a million have left the country.”
Deng explained the circumstances that led to him collaborating with Dave Eggars to produce his memior, the book that Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times labeled “a startling act of literary ventriloquism.” Deng had decided that he wanted to write a book about his struggles, but worried that he didn’t have the expertise to do so. Mary Williams, the creator of the Lost Boys Foundation who had been working to integrate the Lost Boys into American life, was able to schedule a meeting with Eggers, and the partnership was born.
The proceeds from the book have been used to fund the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, and are responsible for the founding of a secondary school in the Marial Bai area. “When I left Marial Bai, it had been burned down completely,” Deng said. “Now, Maral Bai has the first secondary school in the region.” He presented a slideshow with pictures of students and residents learning, dancing, working, and lounging about, and delivered commentary throughout. Discussing a picture that had men laboring with pick axes near the foundation of a building, Deng said, “The truck driver had to drive for weeks to transport concrete over the dirt roads.”
Deng established the school because there are few opportunities for Southern Sudanese to receive education above primary school, and Deng borrowed much of the curriculum from the school systems in Kenya. The secondary school will place a premium on educating women, Deng said, “because Sudan is still a male-dominated society.” Even girls who are able to attend school are forced to fetch water, pound grain, and watch over children, and they are given few incentives or opportunities to pursue their schoolwork. Pausing the slideshow at a picture of a group of smiling female students, Deng discussed his plans to establish a dormitory for all the young women, so they would be able to focus on their studies. “Girls education,” he acknowledged, “is one of the most challenging things.”
Deng concluded his speech after approximately 45 minutes, and opened the floor up to questions. Asked about the prospect for South Sudanese independence, Deng said he didn’t wish to delve too deeply into politics, but that “in the year 2011, South Sudanese will vote on their independence.” He expressed hope that whatever the result of the vote, it would be respected by the Sudanese government.
“Whatever I do, however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories,” Deng said in his memoir. Last night, Deng did just that.