Wadeng. In comes from the language of the Dinka people of Southern Sudan, and loosely translated into English, means: "Look to tomorrow. It will be better." It has been Jacob Akech Deng's mantra since he was a young boy growing up in Duk Padiet, dreaming of a life that wasn't constantly threatened by war.
Jacob Deng was seven years old in 1987 when insurgents burnt down Duk Padiet, his village. Separated from his mother and sisters he fled, on foot, across scorching Africa. He was what became known as a "Lost Boy of Sudan." Displaced. Homeless. Orphaned. Vulnerable. Many died but Jacob survived threats of exposure, starvation, thirst, disease and wild animals, eventually arriving at a refuge camp in Ethiopia. Three years later, when it too was invaded, he fled on foot once more, this time to Kenya. "I was motivated by a desire to stay alive," Jacob told me.
Jacob resisted pressure to join the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and focused instead on becoming educated. His beloved mother instilled in Jacob that it is better to resolve disputes with words than fighting. "An 18-year-old with a gun and no hope is a dangerous thing," Jacob said. He wanted another life. Teachers at the makeshift refuge camp schools noticed his potential, and one gave him a precious gift—a book. Jacob was already a natural storyteller who used the oral tradition passed on to him from his grandmother to entertain other children with fables explaining such phenomena as why the warthog is so ugly. With his book and a burgeoning ability to fill scribblers with his own words, he mastered English reading and writing. These skills along with his ingenuity provided him with opportunities that led him to boarding school in Nairobi and eventually to Canada.
Given the significance of books for Jacob, it is fitting that after he settled in Nova Scotia in 2003, that Jan L. Coates wrote a book about Jacob. A Hare in the Elephant's Trunk is a novel based on the events of Jacob's life. It contains many more heart-breaking and inspirational details than I have room to share here, and is told with a simple elegance that befits Jacob himself. He and Jan worked on it together while Jacob went to Acadia University. (He later graduated with a commerce degree from Saint Mary's University in Halifax and now works for the provincial government. He and his wife are raising three children in Halifax.) A Hare in the Elephant's Trunk became a finalist in the Governor General's Literary Awards. A portion of royalties go to Jacob's charity Wadeng Wings of Hope which is raising funds to build a school in Duk Padiet so those still living there can be educated, too, and see an alternative to war.
It was my great pleasure to meet Jacob last night. My friend Natasha invited me to a fundraising event that her book club organized in Jacob's honour. The goal was to raise money for Wadeng Wings of Hope through book sales and donations, and to raise awareness about the civil war in Southern Sudan which rages on. Just last month, on January 16, 2012, Jacob’s home community of Duk Padiet, Duk County was once again attacked. Many homes and buildings were burned to the ground. The death toll at last count was 85—mostly children and elderly men and women. Twenty thousand people have been displaced.
Somehow, Jacob has not lost hope. He told me last night that he clings to the word Wadeng because it is so positive. "It holds you. The world is so negative but Wadeng is what drives my dream. It's what I clung to after I lost my family and lived in wilderness."
Wadeng, Jacob. It will be better.