Volume 76, Number 46 | April 11 - 17, 2007

Courtesy of the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation

Valentino Achak Deng, whose life story is told by Dave Eggers in What is the What.

One Lost Boy’s story, impossible to ignore

By McKay McFadden

When Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng landed at JFK in September of 2001, he was a twenty-year-old Lost Boy. According to Deng, the Lost Boys are “unaccompanied minors who were separated from their families during wartime in Sudan” and traveled long distances seeking safety in a series of refugee camps in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Over 20,000 children made it to these refugee camps, but many others died and disappeared along the way.

At six, Deng fled his parent’s home in Marial Bai in southern Sudan after raiding mudhajeen, or Arab militiamen, burned down the village. Through searing deserts and debilitating hunger, Deng walked to Ethiopia and then to the U.N. refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya with a band of displaced children. Together they covered hundreds of miles, forming makeshift families for solace and survival in the wild. By the time Deng reached Kakuma, where he would live in a prison of uncertainty for almost a decade, he had lost friends to preying lions and crocodiles, militia attacks and starvation. He did not know what had become of his family or his village, and wondered if he would ever see them again. In 2001, Deng was relocated to Atlanta, where yet again, he and other Lost Boys depended on each other to adapt to an alien land.

In one sense, Deng was lucky. In 2003 he was reunited with his parents in Marial Bai —albeit under very unusual circumstances. Accompanying Deng on his homecoming was American writer Dave Eggers, best known for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. He was there to do research in their joint venture of writing Deng’s memoir. The two would come to produce a “soulful account of my life,” as Deng describes in the preface of What is the What, which McSweeney’s published in 2006. Since his arrival in the U.S., Deng has had one priority — to share his story — and he is now on tour to discuss the book and his life. Deng will speak in several locations in New York, including Soho at McNally Robinson bookstore on Saturday, April 21 at 7 p.m.

Why is sharing your story important?

In Atlanta I had the opportunity to do speaking engagements at local elementary, middle and high schools. I was telling them stories about my experience of the civil war in Sudan, but I was surprised to find out that not many people know about Sudan. I would ask how many had heard, hoping that many would know [about] the civil war, which had been [ongoing] since 1983. Only a few or none would respond.
The same military that is destroying Darfur is the one that destroyed my villages. As I speak about my experience, people can see what could be happening in Darfur now.

Did people want to listen?

People want to hear it. People were surprised that conflict went on for so long, that over 2.5 million people died in southern Sudan between 1983-2003. In many cases people would come to hear about the Lost Boys and would hear a very different story than what they thought.

What part of your story would surprise people?

People would be shocked when I tell them that I was separated from my family and that I could still do what I am doing today. People here think a child cannot survive, endure, persevere and do well alone. Despite the many tests I had to go through, people do not believe it possible.

How did you find Dave Eggers?

A friend of mine who was running the Lost Boys Foundation in Atlanta, Mary Williams, asked me one day at lunch, ‘You have more to tell people. What do you want to do in America?’ I [told] her I want the opportunity to write a book.

Mary Williams told me Dave was considering helping me write my story, and from there Dave and I met on the phone to give each other thanks. Dave was honored to meet me and I was insisting that I was honored to meet him, so we still don’t know who took the honor [laughs]. We met in Atlanta and went to a basketball game together and we became friends from there. I think it was our friendship that helped us to finish the book and collaborate as a united force.

How did you relay your story to Dave?

We began with a linear narration of what I went through from the day I was separated from my family in Sudan to Ethiopia and then to the refugee camp in Kakuma. Slowly by slowly Dave began to ask more intimate questions and more details.

Then, we exchanged emails. Dave would send an email with one question: ‘What was life in Marial Bai?’ or ‘How were your parents to you?’ And of course I didn’t know much because I left when I was young.

Was it painful to tell your story?

It was challenging for me to remember things — how many close friends of mine got killed, died or just disappeared. These are people I came to know as my brothers. When one of them disappears and years later I have to think about them, this is difficulty. This is haunting. But I had to bear a responsibility to provide more details to get this story told.

What was it like to return to Marial Bai with Dave Eggers?

We went back in 2003. Marial Bai had undergone 23 years of fighting. The villages had been burnt many times. The people had fled. It wasn’t the same village, a village with a very exciting social life. But I had the opportunity to meet with my father and my mother. We asked them more questions about what my life was like when I was young. That helped me to give details on the story.

How has the Sudanese community in America reacted to the book?

Sometimes they call me and they get emotional, being reminded of what their life has been before — how vulnerable they were and the guilt they feel that someone had to die.

All of the proceeds from What is the What are going to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation. What are you planning to do with the money?

I am building a community center, a library and a school in Marial Bai. I want to work a lot on helping women. The girls are the greatest victims of social development and the scarcity of resources in Sudan.

Do you plan to return to Sudan to live?

I want to stay in the U.S. I want to marry here. Well, it depends on who she is going to be. I have this idea that my wife will be [someone] who I really love, [and] not where she’s supposed to be from.

I want my kids to go to school in the U.S. and enjoy this education here. Did you know that here kids who want to go to college can? In my country people who want to go to school are rejected. Did you know that?


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