Valentino Achak Deng was once a “Lost Boy”, a small, frightened child who walked for months across what is now South Sudan to flee a brutal war, narrowly escaping becoming another casualty of the conflict. He lived in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, getting the education he had missed on his terrifying journey, before he was eventually relocated to the US.
Mr Deng’s life story was made into a bestselling book, What is the What, by the American author Dave Eggers. Now, in a twist so unlikely it might have been rejected by a writer of fiction, Mr Deng has become the minister for education in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, one of the 10 states in South Sudan which gained its independence from Sudan on 9 July 2011.
Mr Deng says even he finds it “difficult to imagine”, but here he is, a boy in rags transformed into a minister in a smart suit.
“If one is positive and optimistic, good things can happen,” he says.
Valentino Achak Deng: “The lesson I can draw is that people can always learn, come through tough times and persevere and grow”
Mr Deng has big ambitions for the children under his care, and says his own example shows what is possible.
“The lesson I can draw is that people can always learn, come through tough times and persevere and grow.
“It’s exciting when you see a lot of children go through – a lot of smiles and success stories.”
Mr Deng was named education minister in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal late last year, after successfully setting up a school in the town of Marial Bai, funded in part by proceeds from What is the What.
During our conversation, one parent came up to profusely thank Mr Deng for the education the school is providing his kids.
At the school, Mr Deng has brought in children from Pibor, a conflict-affected area at the opposite end of the country.
It is part of an ideology the former Lost Boy hopes can help overcome South Sudan’s ethnic and regional divisions.
“I wanted the kids from Northern Bahr el-Ghazal to learn with the kids from all the other nine states of South Sudan, and benefit from the cross-cultural environment,” he says.
“Where you know someone speaks another language but they’re South Sudanese, someone lives a different lifestyle but they’re South Sudanese, someone comes from a different location but he’s just as important as you at Marial Bai Secondary School.”
Now, though, Mr Deng has broader challenges, as a state minister in a part of the country with very divided politics, and which is facing the economic crisis brought on by South Sudan’s civil war.
Mr Deng says he lacks qualified teachers, in part because so many children are flocking to school.
School buildings are a problem too. Many lessons take place under trees in villages, which means the makeshift classrooms are impractical during the rainy season.
Children often come to school hungry “which affects their ability to learn”, Mr Deng says.
And many struggle to understand English, the official language of South Sudan, particularly if they grew up in Sudan before independence, when Arabic was the official language.
Northern Bahr el-Ghazal has been spared the worst of the fighting in the civil war that began 18 months ago, but the national crisis is still taking its toll.
“The prices fluctuate, the teacher cannot survive on their salary,” Mr ‘Deng explains.
“The kids go hungry; they do not go to school because they have to survive.”
Nationally, Mr Deng is “worried that we are losing a good number of students to illiteracy, because of the violence”.
“Education is transformation, but it can only do so much if people are forced to leave school.”
Mr Deng thinks of himself as a man getting things done rather than as a politician, but he knows from very personal experience what sort of difference education can make.
“‘When I walked across the southern Sudan barefoot, I literally knew nothing, [had] not even a map, [knew] not where I was, not how to navigate myself in the forest or how to look for signs of dangers or any of those.
“I was just a naive kid walking, looking for safety.”
Mr Deng’s own educational journey, interrupted by war and reinvigorated in the refugee camps of Ethiopia and Kenya, convinced him that his homeland would have been much better off if more people had gone to school.
‘Look for solutions’
“We had fewer educated people in the country; we had fewer schools; we had virtually no basic infrastructure; we had no industrialised agriculture system.
“And that had a lot to do with war, which took South Sudan back a number of years.
“So with education, I would not have gone through the difficulties I went through. Somebody would have worked out something, some alternatives.”
Now Mr Deng has the opportunity to help educate thousands of kids, as state education minister or through his school.
His own life was devastated by conflict, then transformed by education.
It leaves him with a strong message for his fellow South Sudanese.
Many countries in the region, like Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia, have recovered from terrible ordeals, and Mr Deng is convinced South Sudan can too.
“What I pray that we do as leaders of this young nation is that we say stop to the violence, stop to anything that destroys a soul, look for a solution, and we can be like anybody.”