Whatever Happened To ... ... a Sudanese 'lost boy'

Valentino Achak Deng, far left, in front of the schools he has built in his Sudanese hometown of Marial Bai.
Valentino Achak Deng, far left, in front of the schools he has built in his Sudanese hometown of Marial Bai. (Nicholas D. Kristof)
By Kris Coronado
Sunday, September 26, 2010

Twenty-six years ago, Valentino Achak Deng was literally a lost boy -- one of more than 27,000 Sudanese children displaced by a civil war in their country. The brutal conflict lasted more than two decades, until a peace agreement was reached in 2005.

In the acclaimed 2006 book "What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng," author Dave Eggers shares Deng's story. While Eggers classified the book as a work of fiction for the literary license to create conversations and composite characters, the harrowing events depicted -- from Deng watching a gang of militiamen kill his people and burn down his village, Marial Bai, to his joining other young children (the "lost boys" of Sudan) walking cross-country through the desert to Ethiopia -- are all true.

Washington Post reporter Bob Thompson talked to Deng for a Style article that ran Nov. 28, 2006. Then, Deng was attending Allegheny College and ruminating on his next steps. "I would like to bring up my kids here," he said. "But then I also, at the same time, want to make a difference in Sudan."

Today, he is doing just that. In fall 2006, he created the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation funded by book profits and charitable donations, to build Marial Bai's first secondary school. Deng spent 2007 promoting the book and his cause. He then moved to Nairobi, where he married his wife, Abuk, in February 2008.

Deng now divides his time between his family -- which includes his 16-month-old son, Aru, in Nairobi -- establishing the school and touring the United States to promote his efforts. Although the Marial Bai Secondary School opened in May 2009 with 85 students, there's still much work to do. "I'm operating with a very limited budget," Deng says.

To save money, Deng spent three months repeatedly driving from Kampala, Uganda, to Marial Bai, to transport construction materials. "We don't even have lighting in the school," he says. "If you were to come to the school at night, you'd see many students lighting candles to read."

He needs books, a librarian, more teachers and computers. To that end, he has planned speaking engagements in the United States through this month. Deng is already looking ahead. With thousands seeking admission, he hopes to develop more schools in southern Sudan in the years ahead. "We don't have the ability to do that now," he says. "But I have hope and determination to do things one by one, step by step."

A Heartbreaking Work of Fiction (The Washington Post, Nov. 28, 2006)

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