Kind of Red

May 14, 2009

What is the What

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Painted One @ 10:15 am

What is the What


In his gripping autobiographical novel What is the What, Valentino Achak Deng, along with the assistance of David Eggers, shares how Dinka folklore tells us in the beginning of time, when God created the earth, He first made the monyjang.  He made the monyjang—the first man—the tallest and strongest of the people under the sky.   He made the monyjang tall and strong and their women beautiful, more beautiful than any of the creatures whose souls scrapped the face of the land. 

 The folklore continues by saying once God completed his creation, the monyjang stood upon the earth awaiting instruction.  As the man stood awaiting, God asked him, “Now that you are here, on the most sacred and fertile land I have, I can give you one more thing.  I can give you this creature, which is called the cow . . .”  God then showed the man “idea of the cattle, and the cattle were magnificent.”  Moreover, the cattle were fashioned in every conceivable way the monyjang would want; they were exactly as the monjyang desired.  Naturally, the man and woman thanked God for such a gracious gift because the cattle would provide them with milk, meat and prosperity of every kind.  The folklore continues by telling us God had not concluded His giving.  God then said, “You can either have these cattle, as my gift to you, or you can have the What.”  The monyjang asked, “What is the What?”

Dinka Cattle

God replied, “I cannot tell you.  Still you have to choose.  You have to choose between the cattle and the ‘What.’”  As one could imagine, the man and the woman chose the cattle, for they could plainly see them, and they knew that “with cattle they would eat and live with great contentment.” Standing in awe of the cattle, God’s most perfect creation, they knew immediately they could live with the noble beast in peace.  The “What” would prove to be another matter, and the man and the woman knew they would be fools to pass on God’s gracious gift for this unknown “What.” “What is the What,” then became a commonly uttered question amongst the more inquisitive of the Dinka, but was often ignored with the assured acknowledgement that their forebears chose correctly.

What is the What does not immediately offer an explanation as to what is this mysterious “What,” nor does it always forge into the “Why,” but it does not hesitate to immerse its reader in the “How.”  It is like Morrison once wrote, “Since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.”  The epic novel chronicles Mr. Deng’s journey as he, along with literally thousands of other children (the so-called “Lost-Boys of Sudan”), is forcibly uprooted from his village Marial Bai at the tender age of seven when armed militias descended upon it, killing most in sight.  The novel shadows him as he desperately treks hundreds of miles on foot across the desert of Sudan, into Ethiopia and later into Kenya, all while narrowly eluding the grasp of armed militias, government bombers, wild animals and countless other hazards along the perilous journey.  His trails lead him to a refugee camp in Kenya, and later to the United States, where endures unimaginable heartache, burdensome challenges and exhausting frustration, all bundled in his new life bursting with promise.


Quite simply, What is the What is one of the more powerful books I have ever read.  I turned the last page two weeks ago, and still find myself impacted by it.  As Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times wrote, it is, “A testament to the triumph of hope over experience, human resilience over tragedy and disaster.” As Ms. Kakutani noted, what makes the novel so gripping, so riveting, so compelling is the depth of horror it exposes and the providence and radiant spirit that overcame it.  With an enduring faith and indomitable will, Mr. Deng survived;  he survived the unimaginable as he walked into the unknown.Sudanese Soliders

 As the novel reaches its close, the words of Mr. Deng leap from the pages as he admonishes one of his cohorts to persevere a bit longer.  The young man felt he had gone as far as he could and desired to turn back.  The calamity he faced in his current predicament would prove sufficient for him to battle; he had no desire to continue towards unforeseen dangers. In urging him to endeavor to complete their journey, Mr. Deng tells him, “the mistakes of the Dinka before us were errors of timidity, of choosing what was before us over what might be.” 

 We too have sinned in the short-sightedness of our vision.  We too, like our Dinka forbears have decided to enjoy the comforts of this life rather than challenge ourselves to do better. As Dr. Benjamin E. Mays once said, “Not failure, but low aim is sin.”

We witness tragedy that ought not be, and believe we can do nothing to forestall it.  We believe it remains out of our reach.  Mr. Deng’s spellbinding tale tells us otherwise.  He survived, he ventured across the ocean to begin a new life.  He adjusted to American culture, obtained employment and found his way to college.  He later went on to found the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation whose first major project was to construct an educational center in Mr. Deng’s hometown of Marial Bai. 

Sudanese ChildrenMr. Deng, not only overcame indescribable physical, emotional and psychological trauma, he overcame the timidity of his ancestors and made life better for generations to come. Some recently have lent their efforts to bring attention to this matter, and others have previously but we all should begin doing out part. We too can help him continue this great work. Regardless of whether we choose to assist Mr. Deng, we can and should lend our efforts to eradicating the social ills of our day.  We are more powerful than we know; we have the aid of the living God on our side.  We must only have the courage to venture into the unknown, then we to may discover what is this mysterious what.


1 Comment »

  1. Wonderful post, Bro. T. You brought to my rememberance 1 Cor. 2:6-10. Thanks for sharing.


    Comment by I.E. — May 19, 2009 @ 10:41 am | Reply

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