Book Review: Dave Eggers’ What is the What

What is the What book cover
What is the What book cover

Africa seldom appears in the world news. The hardship and suffering experienced in many African states become blind spots over time to the rest of the world, sanitised to the same old stories of rogue dictators and feudal government ruling along tribal roots.

I did not know much about the civil wars in Sudan, nor how so many Sudanese suddenly got displaced from their homes and became wandering refugees. That was till I read Dave Eggers’ What is the What. One of the most heart-wrenching novel I have read in recent times, telling of such extreme misery, bringing out the best and worst in humanity.

The 2006 novel is based on the real life story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee and member of the Lost Boys of Sudan program:

Via Wikipedia: The Lost Boys of Sudan is the name given to the groups of over 20,000 boys of the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups who were displaced and/or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983–2005), about 2.5 million killed and millions were displaced.

In 2001, as part of a program established by the United States Government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approximately 3800 Lost Boys were allowed to resettle in the United States. They are now scattered over at least 38 cities.

Valentino Achak Deng was one of the Sudanese Lost Boys who was resettled in the United States. When Deng was just a boy, the conflicts in Sudan separated him from his family, forcing him to leave his small village, joining thousands of other orphans on their long, painful walk to Ethiopia for safety. Along the walk, the boys have to hide from enemy soldiers, rebels and militias, with no one they can trust or rely on. They also have to fend off hyenas, lions, diseases and starvation. Deng was one of the lucky ones who survived to tell his story.

Yet their sufferings do not end there.

You cannot take someone away from his rural homeland, dump him into an urban landscape and expect him to adjust overnight. Facing alienation and a sense of lost once again, some turned to crime while others just sink into depression as they learn how much their lives have been short-changed right from their birth in Sudan.

After reading the book, I also watched an Emmy-nominated feature-length documentary, The Lost Boys of Sudan (2003), that follows two Sudanese refugees on their extraordinary journey from Africa to America:

Till now, I am still very inspired by the stories of the Lost Boys of Sudan, including the story of Deng, told through the book, What is the What. These boys were dealt with some of life’s worst adversities, and yet they survived. Humanity is a curious thing.

The Lost Boys’ stories make me appreciate life better and complain less.


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