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From Nick Kristof, this story.
A 30-year-old former refugee is putting together an extraordinary Christmas present: the first high school in his African community.
Valentino Deng is the central figure in Dave Eggers’s “What Is the What.”
After the Sudanese civil war struck his remote town in South Sudan, his friends were shot around him. He lost contact with his family. He became one of the “lost boys” of Sudan.
Fleeing government soldiers, dodging land mines, eating leaves and animal carcasses, he saw boys around him carted off and devoured by lions.
At one point Valentino and other refugees were attacked by soldiers beside a crocodile-infested river. He swam to safety through bloody water and watched as some swimmers were shot, and others were snatched by crocodiles.
But at makeshift schools in refugee camps, Valentino learned to read and write by forming letters in the dust with his fingers.
He turned out to be a brilliant student, with a cheerful and upbeat personality. And in 2001, the United States accepted him as a refugee.
Valentino earned the right to take it easy for the next 600 years; instead, he sets an astonishing example of resilience, compassion and charity.
He and Eggers channel every penny made from “What Is the What” to a new foundation dedicated to building a high school in his hometown in Sudan.
The school has begun to operate in the town of Marial Bai. It is a modern high school serving sdtudents from thousands of square miles around. It had a “soft opening” earlier this year, with 100 students. Valentino is hoping to increase the number of students to 450 in the coming months.
But there are dizzying challenges. He says
For now, I’ve enrolled 14 girls. But they go home, and then they have to take care of siblings, collect firewood, fetch water. So I’m worried about how much they can learn.
In addition, since a high school girl can fetch a huge bride price — about 100 cows — Valentino thinks the best way to avoid early marriage and give the girls a chance to study is for them to live in a dormitory on the school grounds.
Kristof reports that decades of civil war have left South Sudan one of the poorest places on earth. A woman in South Sudan is more likely to die in childbirth than to be literate.
In recent years, only about 500 girls have graduated annually from elementary schools in South Sudan — out of a total population of eight million.
Every step Valentino has taken has been worthy of Hercules. Building supplies have to be trucked in from Uganda through a jungle where a brutal militia murders, rapes and loots.
There is no electricity or running water in Marial Bai (the high school’s computers will have to run on solar power). When a microscope arrived the other day, a science teacher was overcome: he’d never actually touched one.
There is a certain American ethos: Valentino is requiring students to engage in service activities, such as building huts for displaced people. “We focus on leadership,” he explains.
Eight high school teachers from the United States, Canada and New Zealand traveled at their own expense to train teachers and work with students. They tell Kristof that the students are eager to learn — some of the kids wept when the volunteers had to leave.
What he’s accomplished …is astounding. A 14-structure educational complex built from scratch in one year. It boggles the mind.
He’s succeeded where countless NGOs stumble, aminly because he knows the local business climate and can negotiate reasonable local prices for materials. [NGOs are nongovernmental organizations.]
At the Least, You Can Buy the Book. Or…
Valentino is still of course fund-raising and looking for volunteer teachers. He needs $15,000 to finish a dorm for girls, and much more to dig wells and operate the school for the first three years.
Find out more about the school at http://www.valentinoachakdeng.org.
Valentino says, “I’m the lucky one. I must be the one who will make a difference.”
sole source: Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed column in the NY Times on 12/17/09. www.nytimes.com
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