Friday 18 June 2010

What is the What?

What is the What by Dave Eggers.
I encountered Dave Eggers first book, 'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius' and was drawn to read it via an article in the Sunday paper, where it described an encounter with a whale when out canoeing with friends. I always admired the audaciousness of the title and it certainly lived up to the claim. This book however is quite a strange book, because it is strictly an autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, but written by Dave Eggers, because unlike a biography it is written in the first person, in the voice of Valentino, you never feel as you read as if it is written by someone else.

Valentino is one of the 'Lost Boys' of the Sudanese civil war and this book tells his incredible story of escape and survival and eventual relocation to America. It is told as if he were talking to the people he encounters during a particularly bad day. In the opening scene he opens his door to find people intent on robbing him. They proceed to beat him and tie him up, take all his stuff and leave him to his fate. When his friend finally finds him they proceed to encounter the worst of US police and medical care, but these experiences are put in poignant contrast to the experiences of his earlier life which he relates to us over the course of this day.

He lived as a young child a secure and happy life until the war arrives in his village, at which point he quite literally runs away. Along the way he meets many other boys also fleeing, both the government army and the SPLA, who are likely to recruit them and force them to fight. They end up with a huge gang who together trek for some months across southern Sudan and into Ethiopia. They go through unimaginable hardship, hunger and endurance, it is incredible how any of them survived at all. Many die of hunger and exhaustion, some are killed by wild animals in the forest, a cause of much fear among the group. Sometimes they are helped along the way by villagers, often they have to hide as the violence catches up with them. They almost become immune to the suffering, watching each other die, accepting it as inevitable, almost welcoming it for themselves as the whole experience threatens to overwhelm. Here Valentino describes the death of his friend:

"I had known William K since he was a baby. Our mothers had placed us in the same bed as infants. We knew each other as we learned to walk and speak. I could not remember more than a handful of those days that we had not been together, that I had not run with William K. We were simply friends who lived in a village together and expected to always be boys and friends in our village. But in these past months, we had travelled so far from our families, and we had no homes, and we had become so weak and no longer looked as we had before. And now William K's life had ended and his body lay at my feet." (p.217)

They spend some time in a refugee camp in Ethiopia until tension with the locals causes them to be driven out and they then end up in Kenya, in another camp called Kakuma, where he then lives for over ten years. But life there was merely existing, with a sense of impermanence, always waiting to be able to return home.

"What was life in Kakuma? Was it life? There was debate about this. On the one hand, we were alive, which meant that we were living a life, that we were eating and could enjoy friendship and learning and could love. But we were nowhere. Kakuma was nowhere. Kakuma was, we were told, the Kenyan word for nowhere. No matter the meaning of the word, the place was not a place. It was a kind of purgatory, more so than Pinyudo, which at least had a constant river, and in other ways resembled the southern Sudan we had left. But Kakuma was hotter, windier, far more arid. There was little in the way of grass or trees in that land, there were no forests to scavenge for materials; there was nothing for miles, it seemed, so we became dependent on the UN for everything." (p.373-4)

Partly his story is the story of Sudan, and an experience he shared with so many thousands of other refugees, but it is also his personal story. He falls in love with a young woman called Tabitha, and he describes the convolutions of trying to have a relationship that is not really approved of, with an uncertain future and nothing to offer, where there are strict rules about the behaviour of young people together. I loved the part where they discover that celebrating sporting achievement is considered acceptable for expressing affection:

"In any culture, there are certain loopholes that can be exploited by hormonally desperate teenagers, and at Kakuma we realised that under the auspices of the girls cheering us on, giving congratulatory hugs after a winning point was somehow acceptable.
... So this is how I first held Tabitha. She had not done this cheering and hugging before, but she took to it immediately and well. The first time I spiked a winning shot past the face of a certain overconfident Somali, Tabitha cheered as if she might explode, and came running over to me, jumping and hugging me with abandon. No one took notice, though Tabitha and I savored those jumping and hugging moments as if they were sacred honeymoon hours." (p.444)

Valentino's story is very simply told, and although quite harrowing in places what I learned from it most was about his own culture and how utterly different it is. We live on the same planet, have the same basic physical needs, form bonds of friendship with others and yet his life experience, his expectations and attitudes, his understanding of the world, was so totally foreign. And he felt it too, he is very aware of how alien the culture is in America and is constantly reminded of how different he is. Here he describes a feeling of being useless because he does not understand how the world works in America, even after a couple of years there:

"Achor Achor chose poorly when he chose me. Yes, there are far worse men, young Sudanese who enjoyed themselves too much, who involved themselves in any mess a young man can find, and I am not that, and neither is Achor Achor. But I have not bought him good fortune. As we sit I find it difficult to look at him. We have known each other for too long, and being with him here is perhaps the saddest of all the situations in which we have found ourselves. We are pathetic, I decide. He is still working in a furniture store, and I am attending three remedial classes at community college. Are we the future of Sudan? This seems unlikely. Not with the way we attract trouble, not with how often we are victims of calamity. We bring it upon ourselves. Our peripheral vision is poor I think; in the US, we do not see trouble coming." (p.236)

This is a very, very long book, and I only finished it by skim reading parts that were long and repetitive. The description of their journey and the time in the camps was often not adding anything to the story. But he is such an engaging character that you are drawn in by his resilience and ability to pick himself up again after each blow that would crush a lesser man. What really strikes is what a small world he lives in as a child. He has no idea what 'Ethiopia' is and only the vaguest notion of his own country, his known world hardly extends beyond his village. And yet he launches himself into the unknown and survives. And he continues to identify with Sudan and is always determined to return to help rebuild his country. His efforts to get an education in the US is motivated not by self-interest but by what he can contribute back to his country.
The profits from this book go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation (you can donate money through the website) which is working to provide educational opportunities in southern Sudan and has built it's first school in the village of Marial Bai, Valentino's home village. The politics of the area seem to be long and convoluted, based on both tribal and religious differences. It is a part of the world that continues to suffer, mainly of course because of external political interference due to oil reserves that the government in Khartoum does not want the south to benefit from. The book does not dwell on the causes or process of the war but remains focussed on the experience of the displaced people and their hopes for the future. He does acknowledge that their time in the camps does create a culture of dependency amongst the refugees, but at the same time they have created their own community and network of support between the young people who have been settled in the US. Valentino himself has become an advocate for his country and community, he travelled throughout the US speaking about his experience to raise knowledge and understanding of the situation in Sudan.

So, what is the what? We don't find out. It comes from a story that we hear from Valentino's father, about the creation of the world: god offers man a cow, and man sees that it will provide him with everything he needs to survive (cows are very highly valued in Sudan) but then god offers him 'the What' instead, something that might be even better than the cow, but man decides to take the cow, and the moral of the tale is that god was tempting man to see if he saw the value of god's gift and appreciated it. The children speculate endlessly about what 'the what' might be. I like it as the title of the book because it speaks volumes about their culture and values. This book definitely filled a gap in my knowledge, an important story, the real life side of a tale that has not been very well told by news broadcasts or charity appeals.


  1. Interesting, even intriguing review. Thanks. Mine own interest stems, in part, from the story of my adopted grandson, Leonard, who arrived into our lives from Rwanda.

  2. It is a brilliant book and it examines human behaviour and feelings so well. It's one of the best I've read in many ways, I think - hugely moving, life-changing.


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