Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


What Is the What

By: Dave Eggers

Narrated by Dion Graham

As Ronald Reagan famously said in his successful campaign against Jimmy Carter, “There you go again”.

Dave Eggers writes another book about a tragic human event. However, Eggers avoids character controversy like that which followed “Zeitoun”, a story about the Katrina disaster.

Eggers classifies “What Is the What” as a novel, without any claim to source-vetted facts or the integrity of its primary character.



“What Is the What” is about Sudan and its 20th century genocidal history. This is a story of the complex religious, ethnic, and moral conflict that exists in Sudan and in all nations peopled by extremes of wealth and poverty.

“What Is the What” is a tautology exemplified by a story of one who has something, knows it, and another that has nothing, and knows not why. 

Valentino Achak Deng, the hero of Eggar’s story, tells of his father. Achak’s father explains the story of “What is the What”.

God offers man a choice of cows or something called the What.  God asks, “Do you want the cows or the What? 

But, man asks, “What is the What”?  God says, “The What is for you to decide.” 

Achak’s father explains that with cows a man has something; he learns how to care for something; becomes a good caretaker of a life-sustaining something, but a man who has no cows has nothing, learns nothing about caring; and only becomes a taker of other’s something.

By mixing truth with fiction, Eggers cleverly reveals the story of Sudan’s “lost boys”, refugees from the murderous regime of President Al-Bashir in Sudan.  At every turn, Achak is faced with hard choices. 

Omar Al-Bashir is deposed in April 2019 after almost 30 years in power.

Omar Al-Bashir, a Muslim Sudanese military leader who becomes President, releases dogs of war by condoning the rape and pillage of indigenous Sudanese by Muslim extremists.  It is partly a religious war of Muslims against Christians but, more fundamentally, it is about greed.

Greed is engendered by oil reserves found in southern Sudan in 1978.  Bashir strikes a match that ignites a guerrilla war.  Eggers reveals the consequence of that war in the story of Achak, one of thousands of lost boys that fled Sudan when their parents were robbed, raped, and murdered.  Bashir’s intent was to rid Sudan of an ethnic minority that held lands in southern Sudan.

Eggers cleverly begins his story with Achak being robbed in Atlanta, Georgia.  But, this is America; not Sudan.

Robbers knock on Achak’s door with a request to use his telephone.  Achak is pistol whipped, tied, and trapped in his apartment while his and his roommate’s goods are stolen.

There is much to be taken from the apartment.  The robbers leave a young boy to guard Achak while they leave to get a larger vehicle to remove the stolen goods.


Achak identifies with the young boy.  Achak recalls his life in Sudan and his escape to America; i.e.the  land of the free; the land of opportunity.  Achak sees the young boy as himself, victimized by life’s circumstances, hardened by poverty, and mired in the “What” (the takers of other’s something).

Eggers continues to juxtapose the consequence of poverty and powerlessness in Atlanta with Achak’s experience in Sudan. Achak’s roommate returns to the apartment to find Achak tied and gagged in an emptied apartment.  He releases Achak.

They call the police to report the robbery and assault.  An officer arrives to investigate.  The police officer listens, takes brief notes, offers no hope for the victims, and leaves; i.e., just another case of poor people being victimized by poor people.

The episode reminds one of the Sudanese government’s abandonment of the “lost boys”.  They are citizens governed by leaders who look to rule-of-law for the rich, and powerful; not the  poor and powerless.  They are leaders of the “what” (takers of other’s something); rather than leaders of all citizens.

Crowded emergency room waiting area.

Achak has been injured in the robbery.  He goes to a hospital emergency room for help.  Achak waits for nine hours to be seen by a radiologist.  He presumes it is because he has no insurance but it is really because he has no power. 

He has enough money to pay for treatment but without insurance, this emergency room puts Achak on a “when we can get around to it” list.  The doctor who can read the radiology film is not due for another three hours; presumably when his regular work day begins.  Achak waits for eleven hours and finally decides to leave.  It is 3:00 am and he has to be at work at 5:30 am.

As Achak waits for the doctor he remembers his experience in Sudan.  When the Muslim extremists first attack his village, many boys of his village, and surrounding villages are orphaned.  These orphans have nowhere to go.  By plan or circumstance the lost boys are assembled by a leader who has the outward-appearing objective of protecting the children.  The reality of the “what” (takers of other’s something) raises its head when the children are recruited by this leader for the “red army” of South Sudan (aka SPLA or Sudan People’s Liberation Army).


The reality of the “what” (takers of other’s something) raises its head when Sudanese children are recruited by this leader for the “red army” of South Sudan (aka SPLA or Sudan People’s Liberation Army).


These are boys of 8, 9, 10, 11 years of age.  This army-of-recruits begins a march from South Sudan to Ethiopia, a journey of over 700 miles, gathering more orphans as they travel across Sudan.  Along the way, they become food for lions, and crocodiles; they are reviled as outsiders by frightened villagers and, unbeknownst to Achak and many of the boys—they are meant to become seeds of a revolution to overthrow Al-Bashir’s repressive government.  These children are to be educated and trained in Ethiopia to fight for the independence of South Sudan.  They are led by leaders of the “what” (takers of other’s something).

The lost boys are victims of believers in the “what”.  Achak and other Sudanese’ refugees walk, run, and swim a river to arrive in Kenya, hundreds of miles south of Ethiopia.  Some Sudanese were shot by Ethiopians; some were eaten by crocodiles; some died from disease and starvation.


Then, in 1991, Ethiopia’s government changes.  The lost boys, a part of an estimated 20,000 Sudanese’ refugees, are forcibly ejected by the new government.

The Sudanese’ refugees arrive in Kakuma, Kenya.  Achak says Kakuma is a Swahili word for “nowhere”.  In 1992, it becomes home to an estimated 138,000 refugees who fled from several different warring African nations.  The SPLA remains a part of the refugee camp but their recruiting activity is mitigated in this new environment.  The camp is somewhat better organized but meals are limited to one per day with disease and wild animals as ever-present dangers.  Education classes are supported by Kenya, Japan, and the United Nations to help refugees manage themselves and escape their past.

Achak survives these ordeals and reflects on his unhappiness in Atlanta, Georgia.  Achak clearly acknowledges how much better living in America is than living in Africa. However, Achak makes the wry suggestion that Sudanese settlement in America changed his countrymen from abusers to killers of their women.

He suggests Sudanese killing of their women is because of freedom.  He explains freedom exercised by women in America is missing in Sudan.  In Sudan, Sudanese women would not think of doing something contrary to wishes of their husbands.  Achak infers Sudanese women adapt to freedom while Sudanese men feel emasculated.  The emasculation leads to deadly force in Sudanese families; a deadly force that includes murder of wives or girlfriends and suicide by male companions.


Eggers successfully and artistically reveals the tragedy of Sudan.  Cultural and religious conflict in the world and American freedom are called into question.  The cultural belief of parts of the Middle East, Africa, and America drive Achak from nation to nation.  Achak, despite misgivings, appears to love America.  But, American democracy is no utopia. Achak realizes no system of government is perfect.  His ambition is to educate himself and his home country.  Achak realizes education is the key to a life well lived.

What is the What?  Ironically, it is more than cows; it is education that combats cultural ignorance and celebrates freedom and equal opportunity for all.

Eggers story implies America needs to re-think its policy on immigration.  We are a nation of immigrants.  Achak’s story highlights what is wrong with America and other parts of the world.  But it also shows the “what” (“the ‘what’ that is for you to decide”) can be made better because it is more than cows.

Author: chet8757

Graduate Oregon State University and Northern Illinois University, Former City Manager, Corporate Vice President, General Contractor, Non-Profit Project Manager, occasional free lance writer and photographer for the Las Vegas Review Journal.

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