By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Dion Graham
As Ronald Reagan famously said, “There you go again”. Dave Eggers writes another book about a tragic human event. However, Eggers avoids character controversy like that which followed “Zeitoun”, a story about the Katrina disaster. Eggers classifies “What Is the What” as a novel, without any claim to source-vetted facts or the integrity of its primary character.
What Is the What is about Sudan and its 20th century genocidal history. This is a clarifying story of the complex religious, ethnic, and moral conflict that exists in Sudan and in all nations peopled by extremes of wealth and poverty.
Valentino Achak Deng, the hero of the story, tells of his father. Achak’s father tells the story of What is the What.
Achak’s father tells his son that God offers man a choice of cows or something called the “What”. God asks, “Do you want the cows or the What?” But, man asks, “What is the What”? God says, “The What is for you to decide.” Achak’s father explains that with cows a man has something; he learns how to care for something; becomes a good caretaker of a life-sustaining something, but a man who has no cows has nothing, cares about nothing; and only becomes a taker of other’s something.
By mixing truth (Achak’s memories of the Sudanese diaspora) with fiction, Eggers cleverly reveals the story of Sudan’s “lost boys”, refugees from the murderous regime of President Al-Bashir in Sudan. Eggers also reveals some of the consequences of a gap between rich and poor in Sudan and America.
At every turn, Achak is faced with hard choices. Omar Al-Bashir, a Muslim Sudanese military leader that becomes President, releases dogs of war by authorizing, or at least condoning, the rape and pillage of indigenous Sudanese by Muslim extremists. It is partly a religious war of Muslims against Christians but it is also about greed. The greed is engendered by oil reserves found in southern Sudan in 1978. Bashir strikes a match that ignites a guerrilla war. Bashir covets South Sudan’s oil riches.
Eggers reveals the consequence of that war in the story of Achak, one of thousands of lost boys that fled Sudan when parents and siblings were robbed, raped, maimed, and murdered. Bashir’s intent was to rid Sudan of an ethnic minority that held oil-rich lands in southern Sudan.
Eggers cleverly begins his story with Achak being robbed in Atlanta, Georgia. The robbers knock on Achak’s door with a request to use his telephone. Achak is pistol whipped, tied, and trapped in his apartment while his and his roommate’s goods are stolen. There is a TV that is too big to be stuffed in a car trunk; the robbers leave a young boy to guard Achak while they leave to get a larger vehicle.
Achak identifies with the young boy. Achak recalls his life in Sudan and his escape to America. Achak sees the young boy as himself, victimized by life’s circumstances, hardened by poverty, and mired in the “What” (the takers of other’s something).
Eggers continues to juxtapose the consequence of poverty and powerlessness in Atlanta with Achak’s experience in Sudan. Achak’s roommate returns to the apartment to find Achak tied and gagged in an emptied apartment. The robbers have left. He releases Achak. They call the police to report the robbery and assault. An uncaring officer arrives at the apartment.
The episode reminds one of the Sudanese government’s abandonment of the “lost boys”. The police officer listens, takes brief notes, offers no hope to the victims, and leaves; i.e., just another case of poor people being victimized by a government that is primarily concerned about the rich, influential, and powerful.
A consequence of wide gaps between rich and poor is made clear in Achak’s trip to an Atlanta emergency room because of his robber-induced injuries. Achak waits for nine hours to be seen by a radiologist. He presumes it is because he has no insurance but it is really because he has no power. He has enough money to pay for treatment but without insurance, the emergency room puts Achak on a “when we can conveniently get to it” list. The doctor who can read radiology results is not due in for another three hours; presumably when the doctor’s regular work day begins. Achak waits for eleven hours and finally decides to leave. It is 3:00 am and he has to be at work at 5:30 am.
As Achak waits for the doctor he remembers his Sudan’ experience. When Muslim extremists first attack his village, many boys of his and surrounding villages are orphaned. These orphans have nowhere to go. By plan or circumstance, the boys are assembled by a leader that has an outward objective of protecting children. Reality is that the children are destined to be recruited for the “red army” of South Sudan (aka SPLA or Sudan People’s Liberation Army).
They are boys of 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 years of age. This army-of-recruits begins a march from South Sudan to Ethiopia, a journey of over 700 miles. They gather more orphans as they travel across Sudan. Along the way, they become food for wild beasts; they are reviled as outsiders by frightened villagers and, unbeknownst to Achak and many of the boys—they are meant to become seeds for a revolution to overthrow Al-Bashir’s repressive government and create an independent nation, South Sudan. The seeds are to be educated and trained in Ethiopia.
However, in 1991, Ethiopia’s government changes–the lost boys, a part of an estimated 25,000 Sudanese’ refugees, are forcibly ejected by the new government. Achak and other Sudanese’ refugees walk, run, and swim a river to arrive in Kenya, hundreds of miles south of Ethiopia. Some Sudanese are shot by Ethiopians; some are eaten by crocodiles; some die from disease and starvation.
The Sudanese’ refugees arrive in Kakuma, Kenya. Achak ironically explains Kakuma is a Swahili word for “nowhere”. In 1992, it becomes home to an estimated 138,000 refugees from different warring African’ nations.
The SPLA remains a part of the refugee camp but their recruiting activity is mitigated by this new environment. The camp is somewhat better organized but meals are limited to one per day with disease and wild animals as ever-present dangers. Education classes are supported by Kenya, Japan, and the United Nations to help refugees manage themselves and escape their past.
Achak survives these ordeals and reflects on his unhappiness in Atlanta, Georgia. Achak clearly acknowledges how living in America is much better than living in Africa. However, Achak makes the wry observation that Sudanese settlement in America changed his countrymen from abusers to killers of fellow immigrant Sudanese’ women. Achak suggests it is because of freedom, freedom exercised by women in America that is culturally forbidden in Sudan.
Most Sudanese women would not think of doing something contrary to wishes of their husbands. Achak infers Sudanese women adapt to freedom while Sudanese men feel emasculated. The emasculation leads to deadly force in Sudanese families; a deadly force that includes murder of wives or girlfriends and suicide by male companions.
Eggers successfully and artistically reveals the tragedy of Sudan. Eggers contrasts Sudanese culture with American culture. Cultural and religious conflict in the world and consequences of freedom are examined. The cultural and religious beliefs of parts of the Middle East, Africa, and America drive Achak from nation to nation; from State to State. Achak, despite many hardships, loves America. But, American democracy is no utopia. Achak realizes no system of government is perfect. His ambition is to educate himself and his home country. Achak realizes education is the key to a life well lived.
What is the What? It is more than cows; it is the enlightenment brought from education that combats cultural ignorance, and religious intolerance; i.e. the “What” is that which celebrates freedom and equal opportunity for all.