Conducted by Bethel Geletu (Staff Writer, PO ‘19) and Maimouna Diarra (Staff Writer, PO ‘19)
Once a “Lost Boy,” a child who walked for months across what is now South Sudan to flee a brutal civil war, Valentino Achak Deng is a leading advocate for the universal right to education. Under the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees, Deng spent nine years in Kenyan and Ethiopian refugee camps as a social advocate and a reproductive health educator.
Deng established the VAD Foundation in 2006 to help rebuild and strengthen South Sudanese communities by increasing educational access through traditional schooling and vocational training, to promote youth academic and economic empowerment. In 2015, Deng was appointed the Minister of Education for Northern Bahr el Ghazal, one of the ten states in South Sudan which gained its independence from Sudan in 2011. He now runs the VAD secondary school and is Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility for Black Rhino.
CJLPP: Hello Mr. Deng. Thank you for meeting with the Claremont Journal of Law and Public Policy. We are going to ask you a few questions about your life experiences in Sudan and your current work now. The first question I would like to ask you is what have been the lasting effects of the South Sudanese civil war and what are the most effective policies that the country has taken up to combat these lasting effects?
Deng: The main lasting effects of the South Sudanese civil war is that it has caused an unfortunate set back to the society. We had a lot of opportunities to build our basic infrastructure like roads, electricity, oil refineries, to send out children to school and to establish our economy, but because of the conflict all of that was brought to a stop. As we speak we are basically struggling with how to make ends meet, we are talking about famine, diseases, and an economy that is not functioning well because of the conflict. People are being displaced, there are a lot of unfortunate things that have happened, and the civil war has cost us that. It is not worth the conflict that it had brought onto ourselves.
So, that has been the effect of the conflict, it does nothing but hurt us, but as a result people are now willing to come together, to sit at the round table, for initial dialogue so we can sit and discuss these differences that have brought us conflict. We have come to understand that when you are in trouble with yourself you lose respect, you lose dignity, people look at you differently than they do when you are at peace in your own house. We had many neighbors from Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya and Uganda who were migrating into our country for jobs, so people were coming to look for investment opportunity, but they all left because of the conflict, and we have learned our lesson. Now we are looking for a better solution to our conflict and it will happen. Now there are different movements bringing opposition groups together to negotiate a settlement to the conflict and to learn to accept one another.
CJLPP: Going off of your comment about conflict yielding the country’s setback, and education being your area of focus, what specific ways has the conflict affected children’s access to education?
Deng: As the former Minister of Education I was in charge of over eight-hundred schools and thousands of teachers. In regards to conflict, many children did not find it easy to attend schools because of poverty and lack of resources. We found it difficult to pay teachers, we also found it difficult to run the education system that we wanted to run because of many competing interests and challenges. Many students couldn’t even attend the schools, especially in conflict-ridden areas, so many kids did not have an opportunity to go to school and now they are being lost to illiteracy, so that was one of the challenges I had. Even when you get help to bring some kids to school, its difficult to have them go to school. At my foundation, our schools have continued to function because we are located in an area that has not been affected by the conflict. But still we see that we are only educating kids in an area that is stable, and we would love to go to other, unstable areas and bring the kids back but security issues makes it difficult to recruit from those areas.
CJLPP: On that note, what educational models did you have in mind when you were founding the secondary school and how was the process of running the school in a tumultuous time?
Deng: The educational model that I had in mind was a knowledge-based education. We’ll call it quality education, where we are able to enroll kids and then within a specified period of time impart to them knowledge that will help them become contributing members of their communities. So, we adopted a sign-based school, we have a boarding school and a missionary school. The reason we did that was because we wanted the child to learn discipline but also provide them a conducive learning environment, provide them with qualified teachers and give them the knowledge necessary for them to continue learning and to function in their societies.
CJLPP: Continuing on the topic of education, you foundation works on the South Sudan Employment Initiative. How do you think mentorship plays a role in the program and in creating employment opportunities overall for the youth in the country?
Deng: What we have learned through our learning centers is that we are graduating kids from high school who have no colleges to go to and no money to go to college, and at some point will have to return to their villages and sit there with no jobs. Because of that we decided to introduce some kind of a professional training element as part of our school. We have assigned labs where we will train kids to learn applicable life skills they may need in their societies like carpentry or masonry, they learn how to make vaseline, soap, and other necessities, and with those skills they go to their homes and they can get raw material by themselves and create jobs for themselves. So it was our way of teaching somebody to be able to make things for themselves, they are trained in commerce skills as well to supplement their entrepreneurship.
CJLPP: Is there a mentorship element to the program?
Deng: We try to match them with people in the market or any situation that could be of interest to them. But we open it in high school, so it’s very difficult to get mentors because we are teachers. So what we do is we help them access other institutions that help give them opportunities.
CJLPP: Interesting. On another note, how did you found your role as the Minister of Education in Northern Bahr el Ghazal?
Deng: It was very exciting and challenging work. I loved teaching people and working with teachers and students, and working within an institution that impacts knowledge. So I was very happy with my role and was inspired by the teachers, students, and communities, it was a very exciting work for me to do as a young man.
CJLPP: I can imagine that there are many differences between being a Minister of Education and running a secondary school and working directly with students and teachers, how do both roles help your understanding of education or how did these responsibilities differ from each other?
Deng: As a Minister of Education I was leading thousands of students and teachers and in charge of policies that helped this number of people access learning and properly motivate staff and students and also talk to parents. I was building a future, I was building a generation. It was work where I was thinking about others and I had to think about them in a constructive manner because any mistake I made would affect a lot of people. I was a public servant and I approached it that way, serving others. At the foundation (VAD), I am the founder so I some inspiration, but when you are a founder you have to know how to plan, make budgets for your foundation, but you are still different because other programs are based on what the government policies are. And again, the personality that I brought in was key.
CJLPP: You’re not only involved in national work in terms of education and human rights but you’re also involved in this work on a global scale. For example, through your work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). What was your main role while working in refugee camps under UNHCR?
Deng: I was a social worker in general and specifically in charge of a program that was targeting young people. I ran a program called the “Youth and Culture Program”. You could actually say it was focused child protection. I worked with young adults to provide them with opportunities and also training in psychosocial programs and peer counseling. I was also a reproductive health motivator. I had trainings. I was a peer counselor. I attended to people’s cases. I counseled them. I motivated them. I provided them with the knowledge to be able to cope with challenges that life brings them.
As a reproductive health motivator, I trained young people in early marriage issues and early pregnancy issues. You have to help these young people understand their reproductive functions and how they can use it, when not to have kids, when to have kids. We trained them on HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. We were dealing with a lot of young people from Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi. It was in the 90’s. The camps I was in had refugees from eight different countries in the region including Liberia and I was in charge of over 18,000 young people. So that was one element.
On social issues, we helped these communities practice their cultures. We had cultural troupes, we had sport programs. We had programs that had them understand the importance of coexistence and peaceful coexistence in the camps, how they can accept one another. There were Muslims, there were Christians and all kinds of people and they lived in one space called Kakuma refugee camp. So my role was to work with young people from different places and bring them together. We created a center for them, we taught them how to go to one school, be in one class. They all had a common problem, they were displaced and as displaced people they have a common destiny. And each of them should support one another until they return to their countries. That was my role. I was generally the person in charge of young people.
CJLPP: What did you find to be true about the Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps? What did you find to be misconceptions or mistruths, potentially perpetuated by ignorance?
Deng: Something that is really interesting about that region is that a country hosts another neighboring countries’ refugees. I think they should get together and solve this refugee crisis because they are a result of their neighbors. You have Ethiopian refugees in Kenya, South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia, Ethiopian refugees in South Sudan, Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia and Ethiopian refugees in Sudan and so on. This is all just a result of conflict that is circulating in the region. I think there should be a plan to settle all of these issues in the region that cause all of this displacement. We should create a very cohesive region where we all help each other. I learned that when I was in the camps because there were Ethiopian refugees, Ugandan refugees, Eritrean refugees, Sudanese refugees, South Sudanese refugees, Burundi and Rwandan refugees. This is just one region. Everybody shares a border with one another.
Another reality is most of these refugees do actually want to return to their countries but they’re not certain about their safety or the economic opportunities available in their respective countries. So sometimes they chose to stay in the camp not because they are not wanted back in their countries but because the prevailing economic opportunities make it challenging. And yes of course, there are security issues. What I’ve realized also is that refugee camps are not places where people don’t grow. Recently, I was back in Kakuma and I met a young man from Ethiopia who was born in the camp and ran a shop. He was born when I was there and before I left I said “Why can’t you go back?” and he said, “back, go back? I want to run this shop because I don’t know what I’ll get if I go back”. So there are a lot of things to talk about, the realities facing refugees. But you know I was a refugee more than 15 years ago now.
CJLPP: On a more personal note, the acclaimed biographical novel of your story What is the What by Dave Eggers has been commended by many. How was the experience of having your story told by Eggers with the creative freedom to add fictional elements?
Deng: I think my story is a novel in the way novels can be right. It’s a true story. It’s a true account of things that I’ve witnessed and things that happened in my country. And when I came here, I came at a time when we had lost more than 2.5 million people in South Sudan. And not much was done. So it became necessary for me to share the life experience that I went through and see what people would do with it. Read it, understand it, have something to do with it. But what that took was the I need to collaborate with someone to help guide me, to help me bring out a story, a narrative so that people who would otherwise not be able to read it can read it. That is simply why we collaborated on the book.
CJLPP: Additionally, what was your first response to the book? What was your first experience of sharing it with people?
Deng: There was a lot of publicity when the book was first published. You know, I was in college. I was in Allegheny college. And kids like you would say “sign my book!” I found it difficult to sit in a class, I’m not used to people being idolized. So it became a bit disturbing. There was a lot of attention and popularity that came immediately when the book was first published.
CJLPP: Those are all the questions we have for you. Thank you for your time and your expertise and sharing them with The Claremont Journal of Law and Public Policyl.
Deng: Thank you.