As soon as I heard about this book, I was excited to read it. I loved Dave Eggers’ first book, A Heartbreaking Work of a Staggering Genius. I have to say, What is the What, absolutely floored me and was one of the best and most powerful books I have read in a long time. The story may be known to many of you as DJ and I have posted about it here before(1, 2, 3, 4, and 5). It is a fictional “autobiographical” account of Valentino Achak Deng who was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan and spent his childhood wandering across Sudan, living in a refugee camp for 10 years. He finally immigrated to Atlanta as part of a mass resettlement of children who lost their families in this genocide.
The book begins in Marial Bai, Deng’s childhood village in Southern Sudan, where he is a happy child with loving, “middle-class” parents. Marial Bai and most of Southern Sudan is home to the Dinkas which are an ethnic, African tribe. Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, is ruled by African Muslims who have aligned themselves with Arab muslims known as janjaweed. The Muslim rulers of Northern Sudan want control of Southern Sudan, which is still mainly ruled by tribal law, for economic (oil) and political power. Note: this is the same group that is now committing mass genocide in Darfur. In an attempt to maintain control of their land, the southern Sudanese form the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and become a “rebel” army. This post is not meant to be a Sudanese history lesson, but I thought it was important to give some context to the situation over there and to who was fighting who.
To continue with the story – Marial Bai (along with most Southern Sudanese villages) is obliterated by the Arab soldiers, and Deng manages to escape and finds a group of boys who are walking across Sudan to the “paradise” of Ethiopia. I can not do justice to the descriptions of this journey but imagine a little 7 year old boy going days without any food, walking miles on end in the hot sun, and seeing his companions drop dead from starvation, exhaustion or even eaten by lions. There is a period of time that Deng is completely blinded by an eye infection and he has to just hold on to the shirt of a boy in front of him and keep walking. When they finally reach Pinyudo, Ethiopia, it is just a barren, desert refugee camp with barely enough food to give the refugees more than a handful of grain per day.
Less than a year later, they are driven from Pinyudo by the Ethiopians who don’t want the Sudanese refugees and the SPLA in their country. Again – the descriptions of how they are forced to flee the camp are horrific. Deng witnesses the death of hundreds of people by gunfire or drowning in the Gilo river which they must cross in the exodus. The refugees that survive now begin another journey to Kenya where a new refugee camp is being established.
Deng ends up at Kakuma, a camp established in the most barren, remote area of Kenya with no natural resources, where he spends the next 10 years of his life. Eventually there are forty thousand refugees at this camp. It is amazing how even in these horrible camp conditions, not enough food, no work, no future, the people of the camp organize themselves into some form of a civilized community. Deng ends up as a leader of youth activities and does have some typical teenage experiences such as falling in love, trying to impress friends, girlfriends, etc. etc.
In the late 1990′s the US finally agreed to take in these Lost Boys of Sudan. Any boy or girl without a family in Kakuma and who had no ties to the SPLA was relocated to various American communities. Deng ends up in Atlanta and unfortunately continues to struggle with all the challenges of being an immigrant – culture shock, inability to find work and lack of emotional and financial support. He also seemed to be cursed throughout the book in that any time that he became emotionally attached to someone whether it was in the camp or in America, tragedy ensued for that person.
The story is an amazing tale of human survival. It is just unfathomable to me that Deng not only survived all of these atrocities but still has emotional wherewithal to tell his story.
How blessed are we to have each other? I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God. I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don’t want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run.
Go buy this book and put it on top of your reading list. Tell all your friends about it. I finished the book a couple of weeks ago, and I still think about it almost every day. It is one of those books that had a permanent impact on my knowledge and outlook of the situation in Africa.
The only thing that troubles me about the book is why Dave Eggers chose to make this a novel. It is hard for me to discern what parts of the book were made up and what actually happened. It is all so vividly told that I hope that 95% of the story is Deng’s recollection and that it was the “Million Little Pieces” scandal that pushed Eggers to fictionalize the book. I would love to hear Eggers discuss why he chose this route. Does anyone have any insight into this?
[ed: Luckily the top-notch editorial staff is on the case. Listen to Dave Eggers explain it all ("Million Little Pieces" not a factor) on KCRW's Bookworm. Bookworm guy also explains why the book is like Huckleberry Finn and why the book made him suicidal. A "must listen" if you have any interest in the book at all. Eggers and Deng were also on NPR's Fresh Air.]