Valentino Achak Deng has lived several lifetimes in his 26 years. Born in southern Sudan, he was separated from his family at age six, when government troops from the north swept through his home village. He wandered for miles, as did many other Sudanese children, enduring hunger, thirst, danger from wild animals and pursuit by the government militia. Finding his way to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, he grew up in the camp, became a teenaged medical aide and lecturer on HIV/AIDS, worked in other African countries and came to the United States as a young man. His account of survival against all odds has become a book, What Is The What, an as-told-to story written by Dave Eggers and published by McSweeney’s Voice of Witness Series.
Valentino, as he prefers to be known, recently spoke and signed books at the Children’s Lifesaving Foundation in Santa Monica. The Foundation, which helps at-risk and homeless children, invited several children from the program to meet Valentino privately before his speech. A “Welcome Valentino” banner made by other children hung on the wall.
After observing that he was “honored to be here,” Valentino began by speaking of his early experiences in the United States.
“My original flight to the U.S. was on September 11, 2001. I was in Nairobi, at the airport, waiting to take off when it was announced that America was under attack. I did not want it to be true! I knew America was going to be my next home.”
Two weeks later, Valentino Achak Deng arrived in America. With the help of agencies that worked with refugees, he was sent to Atlanta, Georgia where he worked at a series of jobs, eventually getting a position at a design firm in Atlanta. (He is now a design major at Allegheny College.)
Valentino met Mary Williams, founder of The Lost Boys, the international rescue program created to help youngsters who had survived the Sudanese conflict. She encouraged Valentino to become a speaker on behalf of the organization. Soon he was making appearances at schools, telling younger people about his experiences, and the idea of a book about his struggle occurred to him.
“I was a survivor of genocide,” he said. “I wanted people to know what took place.”
Williams contacted writer and McSweeny editor Dave Eggers, who agreed to work with Valentino. The task took four years and was not easy emotionally. “I had to remember friends who died in a horrible way,” Valentino said.
The book describes how, as a child in the mid-1980s, Valentino became displaced during the Second Sudanese Civil War, which started in 1983.
Valentino has been touring the U.S. to promote his book and to inform Americans about the continuing crisis in Sudan. This summer, he is set to return to Sudan to work on another Voice of Witness project, collecting stories by women whose lives have been torn apart by the country’s civil war.
What Is The What has been critically acclaimed, has won several literary prizes and is going to be filmed. But Valentino remains modest, as well as philosophical about his fortunes.
“The best way to learn” he said, “is to have a positive attitude and to value your own culture.”
For more information go to valentinoachakdeng.com.