The Precious Education of Nyuol Tong

Friday, November 22, 2013
Humanities Writ Large

Duke senior Nyuol Tong, a member of the Humanities Writ Large steering committee, has a passion for education that comes from never being able to take it for granted. Tong was born in a village in South Sudan, one of 35 children by the seven wives of a village chief. Civil war forced his family to flee when he was 5. He grew up in Khartoum and Cairo before landing a scholarship to a preparatory school in the U.S.

Tong told his story to Cherry Crayton of Duke Magazine last year, calling it a "narrative of gratitude," though it is full of adversity. The low point was the day he showed up for public school in Khartoum wearing the uniform he had worked long and hard to buy, only to be sent away by the headmaster. But individuals stepped in where institutions failed — soccer friends who shared their schoolwork, a Sudanese university student who taught him history and literature, a Catholic priest who introduced him to philosophy, which became a passion, and the teacher in a writing workshop who connected him to the Dunn School in Southern California. His freshman year there was a crash course in English, algebra, and geometry. The next year he started a Philosophy Club.

Yet while he loved the education and the experience he was receiving in the U.S., Tong also felt guilty. Here he was in a wealthy American city, enjoying white chocolate mocha and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. There were paved roads and efficient means of transportation. America was a place where “distance is defeated” and “time is humbled,” he says. He had his dream. He was in school. But he missed singing to the cows, the closeness to nature, the thoughts of the sun. “There is nothing as painful as having something here,” he says, “and knowing people back home don’t have it.”

He discussed these feelings with his friends in the Philosophy Club and they decided that the way to deal with them was to work to improve the situation in Sudan. Education was obvious place for Tong to start. He founded an organization, SELFSudan, to work with communities in Sudan to build schools. More recently he was awarded a Davis Projects for Peace Scholarship, which funded a project to bring high-protein maize to South Sudan. The seeds were developed by Duke biologist Mary Eubanks. The first crop was planted next to the school his organization built in his native village. It was harvested in October and will be used feed the children at the school.

In addition to bringing education to rural South Sudan, he is bringing some of South Sudan to the wider world. A story he wrote entitled "The Bastard" was picked up by McSweeney's, Dave Eggers' literary journal, and has just been republished in the compilation, The Best of McSweeney's. An excerpt is posted on NPR's web site.

Mama taught me better. She could give me a glare that brought me to my knees when she heard me talk about anyone without respect — especially Mabiordit. It was Mabiordit who had sheltered us when we came to Juba looking for Jal e Jal and ended up stranded, with nothing in Mama's purse but twenty pounds and a battered Nokia mobile that could receive calls but not make them.

The trip from Panagam had taken three days. Two bus tickets at two hundred pounds each were beyond our means, so we paid a local merchant fifty pounds and crouched on sacks of maize flour in the back of his rusted Honda pickup truck. The roads were still under construction, full of potholes, and so narrow that you could nearly touch the mud-thatch huts and thorny shrubs on either side. At one point we had to flatten ourselves against the flour sacks to keep from getting scratched when the truck pulled over to let a group of Land Rovers pass. They whizzed by like bullets, darkened windows shielding the faces of their drivers — government officials and NGO directors. They left nothing but dust in their wake.

Tong is majoring in Philosophy and Literature. His education is a gift to us all.

Referenced People

Senior, Philosophy & Literature Major