What Is The What

If I were to tell you what would be one of the most moving books I’ve read to this date, it would be ‘What Is The What’ novel by Dave Eggers.  I picked up the book during a school out/clearance sales at one of the bookstores in my town last year.  It is a yearly event, will be expecting soon again this year.  There are always a lot of people and a lot of books.

Anyways, ‘What Is The What’ book was wrapped in a plastic and it looked extremely old and rusty, buried underneath all those piles of torn and unorganized books at the clearance section.  It does look like that the book had been stored at the storeroom for years.  How much it worth?  RM9.00 (about 2.98 US dollars) if I’m not mistaken.  Original price is RM60.50 (about 20 US dollars). Really cheap at that time (after all it was a clearance sales).  I saw the book when I was digging all that piles of books.  I looked to my left and I saw the book facing up.  The title ‘What Is The What’ caught my attention.  I finished reading the book a long time ago, and had been thinking of sharing it in here.

‘What Is the What’ is a true story of courage and endurance in the face of one of the most brutal civil wars the world has ever known.  It tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng aka Achak, who is a refugee from the second Sudanese civil war (1983-2005).  He is one of the 20,000 so-called Lost Boys who walked thousands of miles to Ethiopia and later Kenya to escape the Murahaleen, who wiped out his Dinka village, Marial Bai.  The book is called a novel because it has both non-fictional and fictional elements with Valentino as the main character for the story.  It is however, his real story, but because Valentino couldn’t remember everything that happened as refugee, the writer has to re-create the conversations, streamline complex relationships, add relevant detail and manipulate time and space in helpful ways – all while maintaining the essential truthfulness of the storytelling.

Do you remember watching it on TV in the 1980s and 90s? There were thousands of Africans walking across the desert with bags on their heads.  They were so skinny, I remember I asked my parents ‘Look at them…they are so skinny.  Why do they want to go away and leave their home if they have food at home?’ Okay, I was naïve…hey…I was only a kid, probably 9 or 10 years old (1990s).  And I was curious with all these things.  I remember my mom told me ‘Their house were burned, the enemy tried to kill them, what can they do? They have to run.’

Then there are these images of the refugee camps.  I knew about their running, but I never thought that the inside stories were so (how to put it?) painful, so devastated.  I couldn’ help but think, poor children.  What had they done to deserve such miseries?  The story is about what it was like to be one of the Lost Boys in Sudan.  Valentino was just a boy when the conflict separated him from his family and forced him and other refugees through a war zone to resettlement camp to find safety – for a time.

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The story opened with Valentino was robbed in his apartment and was beaten by two black Americans in Atlanta.  While in confinement, he recalled back and and silently addressing his assailants, later disinterested cop, an ineffectual hospital staff on his brutal epic of his past.  Describing in riveting details, Valentino told his stories during those merciless journey to Ethiopia.  Journeying through the desert, there was nothing to eat.  Some ate mud during those desperate times.  Some even ate dead animals and drank human urine to stay alive.  They grassed grass like cow.  Because there was no food, the refugees would look for something that could fill their stomach.  Some were naked, without clothes and at night it got so cold and there was no blanket to cover themselves with.

Many died along the way due to starvation, dehydration, diseases, some eaten by lions and hyenas, and some just gave up.  Some small children who were homesick simply didn’t want to continue the journey and left dying in a middle of nowhere.

“I don’t want to wait here forever.  People are getting sicker here.  We’re just waiting to die.  If we stay, we’re just going to catch something and wither away.  We’re all part of the same dying, but you and I are just dying more slowly than the rest.  We might as well go and fight and get killed quicker.”

The struggle did not stop at the refugee camp.  There was not enough food for everybody.  However, it became a community of people.  Children were given education there.  Because there was pen and paper, they would write on the dirt.  As if their struggle wasn’t ordeal enough, the lost boys had to crossed rivers to make it to the safety in Kenya.  Some drowned, some eaten by crocodiles.

I always love stories that touch on humanity, on compassionate, struggles, courage, tragedy, and triumph.  What is the What is definitely a truly epic in scope, an eye-opening account of life amid the madness of war and an unforgettable tale of tragedy and triumph.  I read it and my heart was filled with sadness with the pain and sufferings they had to endure and the death along the way, could not help but feeling disgusted during those disgusting moments, and my heart raced during those intense moments, hoping many could make it through.

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