“I have a strange personal theory about when and why we act on certain issues, on needs and injustices. For me, it’s being confronted with the problem through first-person contact and then having the means of addressing it readily available.
“This is how I got involved in Sudanese issues: One day in 2002 I got a letter in the mail. It was from Mary Williams, who had started an organization, the Lost Boys Foundation, to help the acclimation of Sudanese refugees in the United States. She basically said, there are thousands of young men who need help, so would you like to write a book about the Lost Boys of Sudan— and about Valentino Deng in particular— thus bringing attention to their plight and to the millions who have died and are still dying in the Sudanese civil war? That was all pretty much in the first paragraph.
“It was quite a letter.
“I’m a journalist by training, so my interest was piqued. I thought I had to at least meet Mary and Valentino. So I went to Atlanta, and I met Mary and Valentino at a celebration, a birthday party actually, for all the Lost Boys in the region. When they were processed as refugees in Ethiopia, the UNHCR had given them all, thousands of boys, the same birthday, January 1, and so once a year they celebrated this faux birthday. At the party, there was food and dancing, and even an inspirational lecture from Manute Bol, the famous basketball player who had donated most of his NBA earnings to the plight of the people in his native country, Sudan. Valentino and I talked briefly amid the hubbub, knowing that we had all weekend to get acquainted.
“After the event, I was introduced to Manute Bol. Someone told him that I was a writer and that I was in Atlanta to learn more about the civil war and the state of Sudan. He got very serious, and he grabbed my arm. ‘You have to do this,’ he said. ‘You have to bring this story to a Western audience!’ Now, Manute Bol was a very big guy, almost eight feet tall, and he had very intense eyes. I hadn’t decided what exactly I would do with Valentino and Mary, but Manute’s directive stuck with me.
“Over the next few days, Valentino and I spent a dozen or so hours talking in his apartment, and I recorded the basic outline of his life story. What he had seen, what his family had endured, and the immeasurable injustices visited upon the southern Sudanese people by its government in Khartoum were beyond comprehension. I was outraged, and I agreed that the story needed to be told, and as soon as possible. ‘We need to do this!’ I told Valentino. ‘We need to tell this story, and now.’ I was so full of righteous fury that I promised him we could publish the book within a year.
“So I went back to San Francisco, and in the cold light of day, I wondered what the hell I was doing. All I knew about Sudan I’d learned from a few articles, and from what Valentino himself had told me. I was starting from scratch. And when I really thought about it, I realized that the book wouldn’t take a year, it would take many. It would entail trips to Sudan. It would entail hundreds of hours of interviews. And it would entail feeling an obligation to do justice to the story— not just of one man but of the thousands who had shared his journey, who had seen the indescribable things he had seen. So I hesitated. I didn’t tell Valentino I was hesitating, but damned straight, I was thinking twice about all this.
“But then again, I thought, what else was I doing with my time? What was more important than this work? I’m no believer in fate or any kind of determinism, but hadn’t this man, Valentino, come into my life at a moment when I was actually in a position to help? I had written a few books before, and so while I wasn’t confident I would do the story justice, I felt that I could probably bring a new audience to the story of Sudanese immigrants like Valentino. I could help, in some way, to tell a few more people, in a few new ways, about what had happened and what was happening, so the horror and suffering— and also the individuals and their losses and triumphs— would never be forgotten. So what excuse could I possibly have for not doing it?
“I worked on the book for the next four years, mainly because it all conformed to the theory I mentioned at the beginning. I had been apprised of a need through personal contact, and when my help was asked for, I had the tools available to provide that help. I didn’t ever again overcomplicate it from there. When you’re walking down the street holding a ladder, and someone needs a ladder, you hand over that ladder. It’s almost a relief, to have a tool in hand and meet someone who needs that very tool. There is such comfort, life-affirming comfort really, in feeling useful. We go through life, most days, unsure of our usefulness, unsure why we’re here and for how long, and so to have a purpose guiding your days, well, there is liberation there. It’s strange but true: By feeling and acting obligated to our fellow humans, we are freed.”
This profile and many others were compiled for The Enough Moment, a book by John Prendergast and Don Cheadle about engaged citizens – known and unknown, in the U.S. and abroad – who are mobilizing to help end genocide, rape, and the use of child soldiers in Africa. Visit the Enough Moment Wall to hear people describe their “Enough moment” and to upload a video, photo, or written testimonial of your own.
Photo: Dave Eggers (Creative Commons/David Shankbone)