Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Tragic, Redemptive, Inspiring

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday, March 23/08

Zack Gross

The book What is the What is a very readable and moving account of the war in southern Sudan that killed more than two million people and created twice as many refugees in the Horn and East Africa between 1983 and 2005. 

Dave Eggers, known for his brilliant biographical fiction, originally published the book in 2006 and it is now on many best-sellers lists.  He writes as if he were the real-life “lost boy” Valentino Achak Deng, who is now working from the United States to support improvement in the lives of his former village, Marial Bai, which he was forced to flee when only seven years old.

For hundreds of years, leading up to the conflict, southern black African largely Christian Sudanese were victimized by the “Arab” north and by the colonial presence of Britain and Egypt.  Thus, there was a long history of racial, religious and economic trouble and of imperial wars between Britain and the Khartoum-based Muslim theocracy. 

In the 1930s, it was decided that the North and South would be governed separately but after World War II, the two were merged and in 1956, Sudan became an independent, “unified” nation.  Low-intensity armed conflict ensued until the early 70s as the South feared domination and subjugation by the South.

Although southern Sudanese rebel groups signed a peace treaty at that point, when oil was discovered throughout the South, the North made its move to completely dominate their African countrymen.  Aiding them were great stores of arms, sold to them by the US who feared the Soviet Union, in particular as the USSR had gotten a toehold in Libya and Ethiopia.  Several versions of the Islamic Sudanese administration in the North fought a number of versions of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) after that and into the early 2000s. 

The South was frequently raided with whole communities being destroyed, their inhabitants being killed or taken into slavery, and untold numbers of refugees created.

Valentino Achak Deng spent his years from boyhood to mid-twenties, along with many, many thousands of “lost boys," in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya.  The boys, along with women, girls and seniors walked to these places through marauding bands of killers, wild animals, fast-flowing rivers, starvation, disease and incredible heat. 

In 1999, the US and other Western countries agree to take in thousands of the lost boys, who are now dispersed around the world.  Ironically, Valentino’s flight from Kenya was scheduled for September 11th, 2001! 

After much delay, he found himself in Atlanta and a new but still difficult life of fitting into a new society, getting jobs, accessing educational opportunities and making friends awaited him. 

What is the What is the story of one person in the context of Sudanese and world history.

What is happening in Darfur today is parallel to what happened in Southern Sudan previously.  Since 2003, somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million have been driven from their homes. 

Ethnically diverse rebel groups are fighting for greater political and economic control of their administration and resources, and are opposed by a hard-line, government representing wealthy elites and using bloody, extremist groups such as the janjaweed to destroy opposition.

Since 2005, Southern Sudan has been relatively peaceful due to the Nairobi Comprehensive Peace Agreement that is in effect until 2011, when officials will look at the South’s place in Sudan in the future.  However, past war has left Southern Sudan as one of the least developed parts of our world and 
Achak Deng, now established in college and befriended by Eggers, has created a Foundation in his own name to help rebuild his region through access to education. 

The two first visited 
Achak Deng’s former home village of Marial Bai in 2003. 

What they found then, and what largely still exists today, are children with little access to primary education.  Girl children are particularly left out of educational opportunities.  School is usually held under a tree and there are no materials or supplies.  There are few trained teachers.  For older youth and adults, there is little access to vocational training. 

Achak Deng again returned to Marial Bai in 2007 to consult with community leaders and groups, government officials, students and parents.  From those meetings, the Foundation has chosen to build a secondary school, teacher training college, public library, community centre and sports facilities.  Special emphasis will be put on providing education and training to women and girls, and to adults.

Achak Deng was in Marial Bai earlier this year as construction began on the secondary school.  Community collaboration is central to project implementation and hundreds of community members are volunteering their time and labour. 

As many returnees have come with no more than the clothes on their backs, the Foundation is also offering micro-loans to encourage small business.  For instance, a local carpenter just returned from Kenya was given enough money to purchase tools and open a shop.

The story of Valentino Achak Deng and his home village of Marial Bai is at once tragic and redemptive.  How often has this scenario played out in the history of our world? 

Reading What is the What and checking out 
Achak Deng’s Foundation at inspires each of us to never give up in the face of disaster and to support those who try to make the world a better place, no matter what that the world has done to them.

Zack Gross is program coordinator at the Manitoba Council for International Cooperation (MCIC), a coalition of 36 international development organizations active in our province.

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