What is the What tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese “lost boy” who lived through a brutal Sudanese civil war between North and South that killed more than 2 million people during over 20 years of conflict. The book, published in 2006, details Deng’s journey from his home in the southern Sudanese town of Marial Bai to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya to life as an immigrant living in the United States, and offers a powerful reminder of the horrors of civil war.
According to Politico, a very high profile reader recently picked up the acclaimed novel. President Obama has apparently just finished What is the What and is now recommending it to members of his staff.
Deng’s story leaves a lasting impression that even the most appalling statistics (like 4.9 million currently displaced Sudanese) can’t relay. Numbers, even if they are quite high, can be overlooked because they cannot convey what it means to face atrocities day in and day out. Learning about someone’s experience provides a vivid and memorable understanding of the realities of war.
As the Obama administration continues to develop its policy towards Sudan, hopefully the president will think of Deng and of the parallels between his story and the experiences of millions of Darfuris who have been displaced during the fighting in Sudan’s western region over the past six years. And as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the North-South civil war in 2005, looks ever closer to collapsing, Deng’s story is a tragic reminder of how devastating a return to war between the North and South would be.