Creighton graduate pens children’s book about growing up in South Sudan
Bidong Tot, with wife, Victoria, reads his autobiographical and recently published children’s book to his children, from left, Michael, Josephine and James.
Bidong Tot’s journey to Creighton University began the day his father told him they were going for a walk.
It was 1995, and Tot and his father, Yien Tot, walked beneath the hot African sun for a week, journeying from their native village of Akobo in southern Sudan, through a countryside beset by civil war, to neighboring Gambela, Ethiopia. The United Nations maintained a refugee camp there, where Tot’s uncle worked, and where the father knew his 7-year-old son would get a first taste of education.
“One day my father said, ‘Oh, you need to get ready, put a couple of clothes on, we are going somewhere tomorrow,’” Tot recalls. “My mother made me a good meal, and that was it. Just like that we walked to Ethiopia. I was really young, so sometimes my dad carried me. You will see at the end of the book that I am waving to my mom.”
The book is, A Boy in Akobo, South Sudan, a children’s book of 30 pages written by Tot and illustrated by Jaqueline Lopez-Rogel. It tells Tot’s story of growing up in the small, straw-hut village of Akobo. The book describes a simple rural life, of children rising before dawn to clean the animal barn, of meals of cornmeal, fish and milk, of herding cows and goats, of fending off prowling lions and playing in the river while watching out for crocodiles, attending the village church on Sunday and drifting off to sleep amidst Bible stories and tales of ancestors.
And no school. The village, Tot says, consisting of a few dozen huts and a straw-hut church, had no education system at all, and so, upon arriving at the UN refugee camp, Tot was illiterate.
Today, after securing a Bachelor of Arts in history and a teaching certificate from Creighton University, Tot, 34, teaches social studies at Bryan High School in Bellevue.
That transformation began in 1999, when the U.N. helped Tot and four of his siblings fly to Manchester, New Hampshire, where they stayed a few months before permanently relocating to Omaha. Tot attended Omaha South High School, where he played soccer and received a full-ride Gates Millennium Scholarship, which, together with a Creighton Diversity Scholarship that helped cover miscellaneous expenses, opened the door to the world of higher education. Since Creighton faculty and staff played a significant role in helping him apply for the scholarship, and since he had grown comfortable in Omaha, Tot opted for Creighton.
“I thought, ‘Well, I know there’s support there,’ so really it was a no-brainer,” Tot says. “Creighton had to be the one, because if I went there, I knew that I would work hard, and I knew I would have a great support system, especially with the professors, some of whom I knew from high school.”
Tot’s life has been full of remarkable moments, but none more so, he says, than the bus journey to the refugee camp after arriving in Ethiopia.
“That was the first time I encountered the modern world,” he says. “I remember seeing Ethiopians and being amazed that they were a different color to me. I sat next to an Ethiopian and wondered if the color of my skin was going to change to look like these Ethiopians. All of a sudden, there were different people and all these machines. It was like flying to a different planet and realizing that there are different people in this world, people who speak a different language than my language.”
That language is Nuer, and when Tot joined the faculty at Omaha Bryan High School, after earning a degree in history (2011) and a teaching certificate from Creighton, he became the first Nuer-speaking teacher in Omaha Public Schools – no small matter since Nebraska and Iowa have become national centers of Sudanese immigration. Today, he is a recipient of Bryan High School’s Gold Award, granted to outstanding teachers. He is also married with three children after meeting his wife, Victoria, at Creighton. Victoria graduated from Creighton in 2014 with a Master of Science in school counseling.
His book, Tot says, is a gift to his young children.
“My kids motivated me to write this book because they would cry that they didn’t want to go to bed without being read to, which is the culture here in the United States, but back home I could have cried all I wanted to, but there were no books.
“And then I thought, ‘Wow, what a great opportunity this is for me to write a book that will mean so much to them. This is not just a story I am reading to you; it is the story of this person sitting right in front of you.’”
Tot’s book can be purchased at The Next Chapter bookstore, 2508 Farnam St., in Omaha, or online.