What Is the What is the soulful account of my life: from the time I was separated from my family in Marial Bai to the thirteen years I spent in Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps, to my encounter with vibrant Western cultures beginning in Atlanta, to the generosity and the challenges that I encountered elsewhere.
As you read this book, you will learn about me and my beloved people of Sudan. I was just a young boy when the twenty-two-year civil war began that pitted Sudan’s government against the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army. As a helpless human, I survived by trekking across many punishing landscapes while being bombed by Sudanese air forces, while dodging land mines, while being preyed upon by wild beasts and human killers. I fed on unknown fruits, vegetables, leaves and sometimes went with nothing for days. At many points, the difficulty was unbearable. I thought the whole world had turned blind eyes on the fate that was befalling me and the people of southern Sudan. Many of my friends, and thousands of my fellow countrymen, did not make it. May God give them eternal peace.
This book began as part of my struggle to reach out to others through public speaking. I told my story to many audiences, but I wanted the world to know the whole truth of my existence. In the fall of 2003, I told Mary Williams, the founder of the Lost Boys Foundation in Atlanta, that in spite of the public-speaking opportunities available, I wanted to reach out to a wider audience by telling the story of my life in book form. Because I was not a writer, I asked Mary to put me in touch with an author to help me write my biography. Mary contacted Dave Eggers, and thank God Dave and I met and certainly became good friends. We agreed that all proceeds from the book would be used to improve the lives of Sudanese in Sudan and elsewhere.
Over the course of many years, Dave and I have collaborated to tell my story by way of tape recording, by electronic mailings, by telephone conversations and by many personal meetings and visitations. We even went to Sudan together in December 2003, and I was able to revisit the town I left when I was seven years old. I told Dave what I knew and what I could remember, and from that material he created this work of art.
It should be known to the readers that I was very young when some of the events in the book took place, and as a result we simply had to pronounce What Is the What a novel. I could not, for example, recount some conversations that took place seventeen years ago. However it should be noted that all of the major events in the book are true. The book is historically accurate, and the world I have known is not different from the one depicted within these pages. We live in a time where even the most horrific events in this book could occur, and in most cases, did occur. For example, between May 16, 1983 and January 9, 2005 over two and one-half million people died of war and war-related causes in Sudan, over four million people were internally displaced in southern Sudan and nearly two million southern Sudanese took refuge in foreign countries.
My desire to have this book written was born out of my faith and beliefs in humanity; I wanted to reach out to others to help them understand Sudan’s place in our global community. I am relieved that Dave and I have accomplished this task through illumination of my life as an example of atrocities many successive governments of Sudan committed against its own people. Although the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement gave southern Sudan the opportunity to rebuild itself—and the chance to secede in 2011 via popular referendum—gross human rights violations still continue today in the Darfur region of the country.
I am blessed to have lived to inform you that even when my hours were darkest, I believed that some day I could share my experiences with others. This book is a form of struggle, and it keeps my spirit alive to struggle. To struggle is to strengthen my faith, my hope and my belief in humanity. Since you and I exist, together we can make a difference! Thank you for reading What Is the What and I wish you a blessed day.
—VALENTINO ACHAK DENG,
ALLEGHENY COLLEGE, PENNSYLVANIA, 2007