I am listening to What is the What as my current audiobook. It’s the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, written by Dave Eggers. It’s taking me a while to get through it. For one thing – it’s a long book. I’ve finished the first part and am on the second part which, where I have about 6 hours more to listen to. Then, I’ll move on to part three, which is also another six hours. But the real reason I’m moving so slowly is that the story is awful.
It details Deng’s experience as one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan”, which, according to Wikipedia, ” 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 to 2005).” The boys “…traveled by foot for years in search of safe refuge, on a journey that carried them over a thousand miles across three countries to refugee camps where they resided in Ethiopia and Kenya and in various villages where they sought refuge in South Sudan. Over half died along their epic journey, due to starvation, dehydration, sickness and disease and attack by wild animals and enemy soldiers.” (Wikepedia) The boys are young – pre-teens and early teens – and they are all suddenly uprooted from the lives they’d always known and forced on to what turned out to be a death march for many of them.
Deng is graphic with his descriptions as he talks about raids by the Muslims, raids by the SPLA (the rebel forces), attacks by lions, and most of all, the hunger and starvation his band of boys faced, and the deaths of members of the group. [Note: the 20,000 didn’t all travel together; that’s the sum of the numbers of bands or groups of boys who they think traveled. I think Deng’s group may have had a hundred or so.] One of the best descriptions I’ve read so far (“best” here being the ability of the author to use language to help you picture exactly what is happening in a truly horrific scene), is when Deng’s group came across an elephant that the rebels had killed, and were providing as food for the bands of boys passing through that area. The boys were so starved for food that they ran to the elephant and started eating the meat – raw. The soldiers did eventually start a fire and encouraged the boys to cook the meat, but for those first few minutes – you see in your mind an image of young boys rushing out of the trees into the clearing and tearing away at the hide of that elephant (and I’m sure you’ve seen some nature television show discussing how tough an elephant’s hide is) to get to the meat underneath. There’s a scene I listened to today where the boys came across a grove of trees that had a lot of nesting birds in them, and they attacked the birds and eggs, eating feathers, yolk – everything they could just to address the starvation they were experiencing.
As I’m going through the book, I have to stop because the images are graphic and “gross” – but I’ve realized, probably more than I have in the past, that you will do what ever you have to to survive. I also stop because I get these images of my two boys being forced from their homes and having to run in the woods to survive, having nothing with them. What would they do? Could they survive? It tears at my heart, and I have to stop and force myself not to think about it.
I am at the point in the book where Deng’s best friend, a boy he has known since he was born, has just died. He starved to death. Deng – who is about 11 or 12, insists that he must bury his friend William K. There are vultures that follow the bands of boys, circling and waiting for them to fall dead on the trail, so they can start eating their bodies. Deng himself had the experience of one of the birds coming and sitting right next to him, and attempting to start to eat his good leg (his other leg had been badly injured by some barbed wire and was horribly infected). Can you imagine that? The audacity of the birds!!! I’m telling you – the story is horrific!! Anyway, Deng digs a hole for William K, places leaves in it to provide a soft place to lay William K.’s head, and proceeds to place him in the “grave” and cover him with dirt and leaves so the vultures will leave him alone. He does this even as the band of boys he’s with starts to walk again – leaving him – but he insists to himself that he will not leave William K. to the birds.
Who are we, what has humanity come to, that we allow these things to happen? Stories of some of the raids describe mothers and children being burned in their huts, and children being shot and killed. Children. I cannot imagine the pain of being a mom who survived a raid, but had a missing son. And I absolutely cannot comprehend how these children survived – seeing their parents die, seeing their siblings die, seeing their friends die – and then having to run for their lives. Wikipedia says that some of them walked for over a thousand miles, seeking refuge in Kenya and Ethiopia. A thousand miles!!
While Deng’s story happened in faraway Sudan, and while it makes us feel bad about war, the truth is, there are children right here in America who are going through their own trauma. I was reading an article yesterday that said 1 in 3 teens on the streets will be lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home. 1 in 3. There are children in our country, who, while not facing extreme starvation like Deng, are hungry each day.
I fussed a lot on my social media networks this evening about having to help my six-year-old do his science fair project. “It’s too hard,” I grumbled. “I’m having to do too much of the work,” I whined. “Why does he need to know about hypotheses and predictions and conclusions at 6; can’t it wait till he’s 10 at least?” I complained. I am ashamed – ashamed because I have the opportunity to help my little man with his science fair project in the comfort of our heated, electricity-powered home, where he has more food available to him than he could hope to eat at any one sitting, where we don’t have to worry about bombs falling on us, or men breaking down our door and taking him away from me, where there are no vultures circling, waiting to eat his carcass.