William Deng believes in the power of an education.
So much so that when he was 13, he ran away from his home in South Sudan and, for nine days, journeyed through a jungle to pursue higher-level education in the United States.
"Myself, I started the education under the tree," said Deng, now 25 and a graduate student at Northern State University. "We didn't have pens or pencils. And it was hard."
He believes in it so much that he started the South Sudan Fund for Children, a foundation dedicated to raising funds to build a school in the city where he grew up.
In his hometown of Aweil, Deng grew up knowing three skills: how to hunt, how to fish and how to take care of cattle. He grew up with eight siblings and a civil war between North Sudan and South Sudan that started in 1983 and ended in 2005. Deng and his family hid in the jungle for days as gun fights took place throughout the city. Often, the family's cattle would be stolen by fighters from North Sudan.
As a boy, Deng was confused about why his family's cattle could be taken so easily.
"I asked people what's going on. Why are these people so much better than us? They have more weapons. A lot of things. Most of them are educated because they went to school," he said. "That's when I got the idea: Going to school would be better."
He began to secretly attend school in town to learn English, against his mother's wishes. Deng said his mother had always thought he would be the son to stay at home to take care of the cattle, that an education would fuel his desire to leave.
She's still angry that he left to pursue an education, he said.
The civil war grew so large that the South Sudanese government to stop classes. That was the moment Deng decided to leave his home to find an education. To do so, he said he had to travel by foot for nine days through desert and jungle to reach his first stop in North Sudan. At 13, he left home and lied to his mom, telling her he was visiting an uncle in another village.
He found work with cattle herders who hired him to guard their cattle from lion attacks at night. He didn't sleep for the first two days on the job because he would walk with the group by day and stay up to guard the cattle by night. By the third night, he accidently fell asleep and a lion killed a bull and a cow. The cattle drivers blamed Deng and threatened to kill him if he didn't leave.
While Deng left the cattle herders, he did not lose sight of them and trailed them for two days knowing that just their presence would deter animal attacks. He didn't have any food or water so he resorted to stealing a bottle of water from them the first night. But by the second night, he said, he had lost sight of the group. Even more alarming were the two lions stalking him.
"I looked around and they was behind me," he said. "I thought I was just completely done because there's no way these hungry lions are going to leave me."
While he told the story from the comfort of an office at Northern, he looked into the distance as if he were still in the jungle being stalked. He found a stick to carry in case they attacked.
"So, I say I'm just going to use my stick and if they come attack me, I'm going to use it. If that doesn't do anything, then that's it. Nothing else," he said
But the lions kept their distance, he said. They served as motivators for Deng to keep walking. Eventually, he caught up with the camp, and the lions left because of the light of the fire, he said.
He slept under a tree near the camp that night but made a decision to reveal himself to the cattle drivers in the morning to ask for a second chance. He had been without food for two days and had only had the one bottle of water. He described his body: "The only thing that was left of me was bones."
"I know that the lions were going to eat me anyway, so why not just go and let (the cattle drivers) kill me?" he said.
When he showed himself to the group the next morning, they were surprised that he was still alive. He said he told the group to either kill him or let him help again. His second chance was granted and a deal worked out that allowed him to sleep. He would still stay up at night to guard the cattle, but, during the day, the group would stop at the height of the heat to let the cattle — and Deng — rest for two hours.
After the trek through the jungle, Deng wound up in Mrianm, a city in North Sudan. He was able to find people who knew his uncles and cousins who lived in Khartoum, North Sudan's capital. Strangers who were familiar with where Deng lived, paid for his travel expenses to the capital where he was able to get in contact with relatives.