Posted by: koolwine | March 28, 2010

Sudan: What Is the What

Country: Sudan جمهورية السودان

(“Jumhūrīyat al Sūdān” is the English transliteration of the Arabic, meaning “Republic of Sudan”)

Title: What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng

Note: This book had be declared “A Novel” by its author because Deng could not exactly recall events that occurred when he was a child.  What Is the What is historically accurate and all of the major events in the book took place.

Author: Dave Eggers (American)

Published: 2006.  Pages: 535.

Acclaim: New York Times Bestseller; National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction Finalist; A San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, Salon, People and Time Magazine Best Book of the Year

Summary: Separated from his family,  Valentino Achak Deng hides while Arab invaders burn his village to the ground and slaughter his friends and neighbors.   Accompanied by a group of other orphaned Dinka boys, he sets out on a treacherous walk that covers hundreds of miles and takes him to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya.  After resettling in the United States,  Deng continues to suffer Job-like, but also finds his calling in helping other resettled Sudan “Lost Boys” and  speaking out about their epic journey.

Setting: Dinka village in Marial Bai, Sudan; Pinyudo Refugee Camp in Ethiopia; Kakuma Refuge Camp in Kenya; Atlanta, Georgia

Time Period: roughly 1985-2003, during Sudan’s 2nd Civil War between the Arab-dominated government in the north and the southern non-Arab  Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA)

In my book (or, how Sudan has affected me – and maybe you too):

1970s: Encountering a lion on a trail in Africa was a happy childhood daydream of mine.  I imagine that Deng, who saw several of his companions dragged into the grass and eaten, did not share my fantasy.

1980s: 9th grade world history class would seem to be the perfect opportunity to learn about Sudan – the largest country in Africa, the 10th largest in world, and embroiled in its second civil war (lasting from 1983-2005, it turned out to be one of the longest and deadliest wars of the late 20th century).  But we did not touch on Africa at all.  You see, in my Caucasian-centric high school days, world history = European history.

1990s: Most of the events in What Is the What take place during this decade, but I was unaware of the more than 27,000 Dinka “Lost Boys*” who were orphaned and/or moved to refugee camps.

*Not girls, who rarely made it to refugee camps and instead were raped, killed, taken as slaves or adopted.

2000s: Bad shit is happening in Darfur and George Clooney wants it to stop. You know, I’ve heard many people complain about celebrities who speak out about political and social matters, but I bet a whole lot fewer of us would even know that Darfur was a place if George Clooney hadn’t spoken out about the genocide occurring there.  I’m not proud to admit that I that learned about Sudanese atrocities from a Hollywood star, but if our schools and mainstream news continue to be American and Euro-centric and our public celebrity-obsessed, who better to get the word out?

2010s: The humanitarian crisis in Darfur continues.  2.7 million people are living in refugee camps within Darfur and 300,000 refugees have crossed the western border into Chad (out of a total population of roughly 6 million).   Although refugee “camp” sounds like a temporary living situation, Deng learned from personal experience that refugees will most likely spend years and possibly the rest of their lives in these crowded makeshift shelters.

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Responses

  1. I was overwhelmed by the suffering that the people of southern Sudan have endured. To read that a young boy witnessed and endured so much violence was very saddening. I came away so grateful that I have never come close to his situation and so sad that people anywhere, and in so many places, suffer so greatly at the hands of other people. I was surprised that Valentino did not demonize the enemy. He seemed to blame God or his own fate more for the trials he faced. I found it interesting that even though, or perhaps because of his confinement to a refugee camp he felt neglected, invisible, non-existent to the world. His final plea for a mutual acknowledgment of existence is quite moving. A quote from the book that will stick with me for a long time is, “I knew the world was broken when a boy like me was burying a boy like William K.” As a mature man I have felt the brokenness of the world in a personal way. I can’t imagine feeling that brokenness as a young boy. I was glad to see that Valentino has since returned to Sudan and is helping build schools there and is reunited with his family. I just saw a news account on the BBC the other day stating that a town in south Sudan was attacked recently by the government in an apparent retaliation for attacks by the townsmen on the government soldiers. I see also that a vote is scheduled this year on southern Sudan’s right to secede. I will be reading these news items more closely in the future because I know Valentino exists.

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    • News reports say that South Sudan will become independent this July despite conflict over the border town Abyei. That will make it the first new country added to my country list – #196! I’m delighted to hear that Valentino’s story has sparked your interest in Sudan. If you’re up for more, I recommend Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone (a memoir by a child soldier from Sierra Leone) or William Kamkwamba’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (a memoir by a young man who built a windmill so that he could have electricity in his home in Malawi).

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  2. Exciting time for Southern Sudan. Hope they can make a go of it. Thank you for the recommendations. I will keep them in mind for future reading. I’m reading The White Tiger, now, and I have ordered Dog Man and I have Between Shades of Gray on my short list, too. I very much appreciate your site for the excellent books you recommend and your interesting comments about them. Thanks! Rodney

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  3. South Sudan is born.

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    • Valentino must be celebrating.

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