Native Nyuol Tong Plants Corn in South Sudan

Senior received The Davis Projects for Peace Scholarship for international philanthropy

Part of the Senior Stories: Class of '14 Series

Winning a $10,000 scholarship to plant corn in his native African village in South Sudan meant a lot to senior Nyuol Lueth Tong.

With the funds, he was able to test whether local farmers could grow a variety of drought-tolerant and pest-resistant maize that was designed by Duke biologist Mary Eubanks.

"There is a huge need for food," said Tong, who is committed to helping his home country, which is now independent but struggling after decades of war. "The need is always there."

Tong, who is double majoring in philosophy and literature, was one of 150 U.S. recipients of The Davis Projects for Peace Scholarship, which was established five years ago to mark the 100th birthday of internationalist and philanthropist Katheryn Wasserman Davis.  Funds are awarded to innovative, grassroots summer projects designed to "build peace in the 21st century."  

Corn is a huge staple in Africa, providing about half the daily consumption of calories. The main objective of Tong's pilot project was to see whether local farmers could reliably produce their own affordable supply by learning better ways to grow, select and save seed stocks for replanting.  Eubanks' seeds, which have about 70 percent more nutritional value than most maize, could potentially increase agricultural production and help address food shortages that plague many families, Tong said.

"Nyuol worked with me last fall to grow out maize I have adapted for growing in Africa using indigenous methods of small-scale agriculture," Eubanks said. "From the pictures of the harvest, the pilot test for our project appears to have been highly successful. By demonstrating how this high-protein maize with native pest resistance and drought tolerance can be grown using traditional farming methods without mechanization and chemical inputs, we hope our project will be a model of how to boost food security, nutrition, and health in regions of Africa where people have limited resources."

A cooperative of farmers planted 300 meters of land next to the school that Tong helped found two years ago.

"The planting day was very ceremonious and moving," Tong  wrote in a summary for the scholarship organization.   "Besides the farming, there was singing and chanting of old songs, songs our ancestors sang back in the day when farming and cattle-herding was done collectively. The community leaders donated a goat and a bag of maize flour, which was cooked and consumed in the open." 

The harvest came three weeks ago. There is enough seed for next year's planting. He's waiting to hear whether people notice any difference in the taste ofthe corn.

But "the seed worked," Tong said. "It grew. The soil responded well. It yielded."

The farmers agreed to donate the harvest to help feed the 250 children enrolled at the school. Schools in South Sudan must provide lunch and there are limited funds at the school that operates primarily on donations.

For Tong, the scholarship also yielded lessons in leadership and building community around his cause. At Duke, Tong met Ellen Davis, a divinity school professor who has long been involved in humanitarian work in South Sudan. Davis introduced Tong to Eubanks, the biologist.

"I'm learning how to leverage resources," said the soft-spoken student.  "It's about paying attention to people to see what they are good at and suggesting some way they can help that allows them to contribute in a meaningful way. It's a skill that requires effort. And it is not really something you learn in class."