what is the what?

January 30, 2008

whatwhat.jpgLast night Mr Snow and I were reunited after our respective travels. Over a long dinner we exchanged news and stories, when suddenly the story of The What came up. I heard about it first last year in conjunction with Dave Egger’s book, ‘What is The What’. He ghost wrote the story of a Lost Boy of Sudan, Valentino Deng, and the story of how that book came into being was in itself an amazing one, which you can read here.

I haven’t read the book yet (none of his at all in fact), but would be keen to hear if any of you have. In the meantime though, what left a huge impression was the story of The What itself. Eggers’s version is below. Have you heard this story before?

..We had agreed that we would include in the book an ancient creation myth known in southern Sudan. In the story, God, pleased with his greatest creation, offers the first Dinka man a choice of gifts: on the one hand, the cattle, visible and known, an animal that can feed and clothe him and last for ever; on the other hand, the What. The man asks God, “What is the What?”, but God will not reveal the answer. The What was unknown; the What could be everything or nothing. The Dinka man does not hesitate for long. He chooses the cattle, and for thousands of years Dinka lore held that he had chosen correctly; the cow is thus sacred in southern Sudanese culture, the measure of a family’s wealth and the giver of life.

It was not until the torment of the southern Sudanese in the 20th century that the Dinka began to question this choice. What was the What, they wondered, and speculation about the answer abounded: was it technology? Education? Sophisticated weapons? Whatever the answer, it was assumed that the Arabs of the north – who, legend had it, had received the What – might have got the greatest of God’s gifts, and were using this What to inflict unending pain upon the southern Sudanese.


5 Responses to “what is the what?”

  1. Christine Says:

    I’ve got it on the shelf to read now – very exciting!

  2. Jean Says:

    I read it last year as it was on the NYT list for 2006. Plus Eggers is very active in SF non-profit and writer scene.

    I had already read a lot about the lost boys of Sudan when I was living in Houston because so many of them were relocated there. So I was already familiar with the general themes (the war, the walk, the relocation problems) but the book goes into more detail and really lets you see the situation from a specific human perspective. I found it very moving and highly recommend it.

  3. Maw Books Says:

    I usually don’t post comments on blogs to tell people to go directly to one of my postings, but this may be the exception. I have a great YouTube video of an hour long lecture given by Valentino Deng about the book and some of his experiences. It was highly enlightening and you may enjoy it.

  4. Jean Says:

    I just saw the documentary “God Grew Tired of Us” and thought I would recommend it as well as it’s also about the Lost Boys.

  5. sunburn Says:

    thanks jean and maw for the links. i think it will be the next book i read, and i think i will appreciate the videos much more then.

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