Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Lost Boy Found

What Is The What
by Dave Eggers

This is an amazing story. What Is The What made my top five fiction for 2007, but I read it before I started blogging. I finished reading it for a second time a few days ago, because this book is part of my "Faith in Fiction" sermon series. Although it is a novel, the line is blurred between fact and fiction, for it is the novelized autobiography of a real person, Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Sudanese Lost Boys. The "Lost Boys" is the name given to the thousands of boys (and some girls) who had to flee from their homes during the nearly two decades of civil war in Sudan. While all people had to fear bullets, machetes, and other forms of violence, and women and girls had to live in fear of rape, boys also had the danger of being forced into either the government army OR the rebel army if their village was raided by either party. This was why so many boys (some as young as six) who did not want to fight ran. And ran. And ran. And then walked. Valentino Deng was a refugee for approximately 14 years.

Valentino's personal narrative, relayed with the superior writing that we already expect from Dave Eggers, should capture the imagination of anyone who picks this book up. The long walk to Ethiopia that Valentino and thousands of children like him made so that they could escape the violence of civil war in their villages, is absolutely wrenching. Equally heartbreaking is the time that they spent in refugee camps, many without any family members to look out for them. Another part of the story, one that makes us take a hard look at ourselves, is the lukewarm reception that so many of these boys (now young men) received when they were finally resettled to the United States. We all seem to agree that no one should have to live within the cycle of brutality that characterized Sudan for so long (about 20 years) and still terrorizes people in the Darfur region there. However, when it comes to welcoming them into our own country and helping them complete their education and finding meaningful work for them to do, we have not as a society done such a great job. There are a few influential and wealthy individuals who have taken an interest in the Sudanese immigrants, but as a whole we would rather ignore them than have our own lives interrupted by their needs.

We can take a cue as to how we might engage with the Sudanese Lost Boys by reading Eggers' book and learning how they took care of each other during horrific situations. Somehow, even when they were treated like animals and worse, these children managed to hang onto their own humanity. They cared for each other when no one else would or could. They scavenged food for each other and gave each other their last articles of clothing to block out the searing African sun. Not all of us live in areas where there are large pockets of Sudanese people, but an awareness of the human beings around us (regardless of ethnic and cultural background) and a commitment to engage with people wherever they are could only strengthen society as a whole.

The good news is that Eggers' book has boosted public awareness of the efforts of the resettled Lost Boys to assist in rebuilding Southern Sudan. Valentino Achak Deng has become a leader in this ongoing project, and he is currently in Sudan supervising the building of a school in his home village of Marial Bai. He and Eggers started a foundation to raise awareness and funds to build schools, health clinics, and other community service buildings in Sudan. Anyone who is interested in learning more can log onto valentinoachakdeng.org and find out more about the organization. Valentino even has a blog on there that tells more about what is happening in Sudan now.

Reverent Reader


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