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Excerpt: What Is the What

Cover of 'What Is the What'

The walk to Ethiopia, Julian, was only the beginning. Yes we had walked for months across deserts and wetlands, our ranks thinned daily. There was war all over southern Sudan but in Ethiopia, we were told, we would be safe and there would be food, dry beds, school. I admit that on the way, I allowed my imagination to flower. As we drew closer to the border, my expectations had come to include homes for each of us, new families, tall buildings, glass, waterfalls, bowls of bright oranges set upon clean tables.

But when we reached Ethiopia, it was not that place.

-- We are here, Dut said.

-- This is not that place, I said.

-- This is Ethiopia, Kur said.

It looked the same. There were no buildings, no glass. There were no bowls of oranges set upon clean tables. There was nothing. There was a river and little else. -- This is not that place, I said again, and I said it many times over the coming days. The other boys tired of me. Some thought I had lost my mind.

I will admit that when we did cross into Ethiopia, there was a measure of safety, and some rest. We were able to stop, and this was strange. It was strange not to walk. That first night, we slept again where we sat. I was accustomed to walking every day, to walking at night and at the first light of morning, but now, when the sun rose, we stayed. There were boys spread all over the land, and all that was left to do, for some, was to die.

The wails came from everywhere. In the quiet of the night, over the hum of the crickets and frogs, there were the screams and moans, spreading over the camp like a storm. It was as if so many of the boys had been waiting to rest, and now that they had settled at Pinyudo, their bodies gave out. Boys died of malaria, of dysentery, of snake bites, of scorpion stings. Other illnesses were never named.

We were in Ethiopia and there were too many of us. Within days there were thousands of boys and soon after the boys arrived, there were adults and families and babies and the land was crowded with Sudanese. A city of refugees rose up within weeks. It is something to see, people simply sitting, surrounded by rebels and Ethiopian soldiers, waiting to be fed. This became the Pinyudo refugee camp.

Because so many had lost or bartered their clothing along the way, only half of us wore any garments at all. There sprung up a class system, whereby the boys who had shirts and pants and shoes were considered the wealthiest, and next were those who had two of the three. I was lucky to be considered upper-middle-class, with one shirt and two shoes and a pair of shorts. But too many boys were naked, and this was problematic. There was no protection from anything.

-- You wait, Dut said to us. -- It will improve.

Dut was busy now, and moved to and from the camp, always meeting with elders, disappearing for days. When he returned, he would visit us, the boys he had brought here, and would reassure us that Pinyudo would soon be a home.

For some time, though, finding food was a task left to each of us; we fended for ourselves. Like many boys, I went to the river to fish, though I had no experience fishing at all. I came to the water and everywhere there were boys, some with sticks and string, some with crude spears. My first day fishing, I brought a twisted stick and a piece of wire I had found under a truck.

-- That won't work, a boy said to me. -- You have no chance that way.

He was a thin boy, as thin as the stick I was holding; he seemed weightless, bending leftward with the gentle wind. I said nothing to him, and threw my wire into the water. I knew he was probably right about my chances, but I couldn't admit it to him. His voice was strangely high, melodic, too pleasing to be trusted. Who was he, anyway and why did he think he could speak to me that way?

He was named Achor Achor, and he helped me that afternoon to find an appropriate stick and piece of string. Together that day and in the days that followed, we waded into the water with our fishing poles and a spear Achor Achor had carved himself. If one of us saw a fish, we would try to triangulate it, while Achor Achor thrust the stick into the water, attempting to spear it. We were not successful. Occasionally a dead fish would be found in a shallow swamp, and that fish we cooked or sometimes ate raw.

Achor Achor became my closest friend in Ethiopia. At Pinyudo he was small like me, very thin, scrawnier than the rest of us even, but very smart, cunning. He was expert at finding things we needed before I realized we needed them. He would locate an empty can one day, full of holes, and save it. He would bring it to our shelter and clean it and patch it until it was an excellent cup -- and only a few boys had cups. He eventually found fishing line, and a large undamaged mosquito net, and sisal bags large enough to tie together and use as a blanket. He shared with me always, though I was never sure what I brought to our partnership.

Some food was provided by the Ethiopian army. Soldiers rolled drums of corn and vegetable oil to the camp, and we ate one plate each. I felt better, but many of the boys overate and fell ill soon after. We traded anything we had for corn or corn flour in the nearby village. Soon we learned to recognize the wild vegetables that were edible and common, and we went on expeditions to harvest them. But as the days went on, and more boys came, the vegetable hunters were too many, and the vegetables were soon scarce and then exhausted entirely.

More boys arrived every day, families too. Every day I saw them crossing the river. They came in the morning and they came in the afternoon and when I woke up more had come in the night. Some days one hundred came, some days many more. Some groups were like mine, hundreds of emaciated boys, half of them naked, and a few elders; some groups were only women and girls and babies, accompanied by young SPLA officers with guns tied to their backs. The people came without end, and each time they crossed the river, we knew it meant that the food we had would need to be further divided. I came to resent the sight of my own people, to loathe how many of them there were, how needful, gangrenous, bug-eyed, and wailing.

One day a group of boys threw rocks at a group of new arrivals. The rock-throwing boys were beaten severely and it never happened again, but in my mind, I threw rocks, too. I threw rocks at the women and the children and wanted to throw rocks at the soldiers but I threw rocks at no one.


They were the Royal Nieces of Pinyudo. One of my roommates named them and the girls were immediately known this way -- or alternately as the Royal Girls -- in the class of fifty-one and elsewhere in the camp, too. There were other families, other sets of sisters, yes, but none so uniformly exceptional. It was unlikely that these four girls were unaware of their nickname, and no one doubted that they found it agreeable. They were aware of the reverence we had for them, but still, they seemed oblivious to me in particular.

As the semester wore on, I began to doubt my strategy. I was the best student in the class, but they paid me no mind. I began to worry that they didn't care much about the academic achievement of me or any boy. It was likely that they wanted nothing to do with someone of my status, an unaccompanied minor. It was very different than being the niece of Mr. Kondit. The unaccompanied minors were the lowest rung of the ladder at Pinyudo, and we were reminded of it constantly. Our clothes were few and tattered and our homes looked like they had been built by boys, which of course they had. When I arrived here in the U.S., one of my old friends from the camps bought me a gift, a set of Tinker Toys. The thin dowels were so like the sticks we used to construct our first shelters in Pinyudo that I had to laugh. Achor Achor and I built a facsimile of our Group Twelve home on our coffee table and then we laughed some more. It was so similar it stunned us both.

It took the entire semester, but finally my efforts toward the Royal Girls bore fruit. With one week left before classes let out for a month, as I was leaving school one day, Agum positioned herself in front of me and said something. It was as likely as a zebra appearing before me and whistling. What had Agum said? I had to piece the words together. It was all so sudden, the changing of one life into another. I was so jarred

I heard nothing. I had been looking at her eyes, her lashes, her mouth that was so close to mine.

-- Achak, my sister has something to ask you, she had said.

Agar, the eldest and tallest, was suddenly next to her.

Her sister stomped on her foot and was punched in return. I didn't know what was happening, but it seemed good so far.

-- Do you want to come to lunch at our house? Agar asked.

I realized at that moment that I had been standing on my tiptoes. I righted myself, hoping they had not noticed.

-- Today? I asked.

-- Yes, today.

I thought a moment. I thought long enough to think of the wrong thing to say.

-- I cannot accept, I said.

I could not believe I said that. Can you believe this is what I said? I had refused the Royal Nieces of Pinyudo. Why? Because I had been taught that a gentleman refuses invitations. The lesson had been explained by my father, one warm night as I was helping him close the shop, but the context was not applicable here, I would later learn. My father had been talking about adultery, about a man's honor, about respect for women, about the sanctity of marriage. He was not, I would later remember, talking about the refusal of an invitation to lunch. But at this moment, I thought I was acting like a gentleman, and I refused.

The sunny faces of Agum and Agar clouded over.

-- You cannot accept? they said.

-- I am sorry. I cannot accept, I said, and backed away.

I backed away until I walked into one of the poles that held up the classroom. It threatened to collapse on me, but I spun from it, righted the pole, and then ran home. For an hour I was happy with myself, by my unerring grasp of my emotions, my impulses. I was a model of restraint, a true Dinka gentleman! And I was certain the Royal Nieces now knew this. But after my hour of reflection, the reality of it struck me. I had refused a lunch invitation from the very girls I had spent the semester trying to impress. I had been offered everything I wanted: to spend time with them alone; to hear them speak casually, to know what they thought of me and of school and Pinyudo and why they were here; to eat a meal cooked by their mother -- to eat a meal, a real meal, cooked by a Dinka woman! I was a fool.

I went about trying to recover. What could I do? I had to take the invitation, now dust, and somehow reconstruct it. I would make fun of myself. Could I act as if I had been kidding? Would they believe that for a moment?

The end of the semester was upon us, and with it final exams. When school let out there would be a month without school, and if I did not salvage the situation, I would not see them until school began again in the spring. I found the youngest, Yar, under a tree, reading her textbook.

-- Hello Yar, I said.

She said nothing. She stared at me as if I'd stolen her lunch.

-- Do you know where your sisters are?

Without a word, she pointed to Agar, who was walking toward us. I straightened myself and presented her a smile that begged forgiveness.

-- I shouldn't have said no, I said. -- I wanted to go to lunch.

-- Then why did you say no? Agar said.

-- Because …

As we spoke, as I hesitated, Agum joined us. And under that sort of pressure,

I had a blessed and fortuitous thought. In a week of obsession I could not come up with a suitable excuse but here, in a desperate moment, I came up with the perfect solution.

-- I was concerned about what your mother would think of me.

Now Agar and Agum were interested.

-- What do you mean?

-- I'm from the Dinka Malual Giernyang. I don't speak your dialect. My customs are different. I wasn't sure if your mother would accept me.

-- Oh! Agar said.

-- For a while, Agum said, -- we thought you were brain-damaged.

Agar and Agum and even Yar shared a giggle that offered ample evidence that the two of them had discussed me and my mental state at great length.

-- Don't worry about being Dinka-Malual, Agum said. -- She won't care where you're from. She'll like you.

Then Agar whispered something urgently into Agum's ear. Agar corrected herself. -- But just to be safe, maybe we won't tell her you're Dinka-Malual.

There was another moment of whispering.

-- And we'll tell her you're from Block 2, not from the unaccompanied minors' group.

I stood quiet for a second.

-- Is that okay? Agar asked.

I could not have cared less. I only cared that my gambit was working. I had played the victim a bit, pretending that as a Dinka-Malual, I felt inferior, unworthy of their company. And it had worked. They were able to feel generous in accepting me, and I appeared all the more honorable for having refused in the first place. I congratulated my brain for its success under pressure. Still, I could not seem overanxious. I had to remain cautious, aware of the risks involved.

-- That's best, I said, nodding gravely. -- What about your uncle?

-- He works late, they said. -- He won't be home until dinner.

At that moment, the two older girls seemed suddenly to take notice anew of the youngest, Yar, and they looked upon her like a thorn stuck to their collective heel.

-- You won't say anything, Yar.

The little girl, her eyes narrowed, gave them a defiant stare.

-- Nothing, Yar. Or else you won't sleep in peace again. We'll move your bed into the river while you're dreaming. You'll wake up surrounded by crocodiles.

Yar's round little face was still defiant, though now fringed with fear. Agar stepped closer, throwing a crisp shadow over Yar's tiny body. The smallest sister's consent came out in a whimper. -- I won't.

Agar turned her attention back to me.

-- We'll meet you at the coordination center after school.

I knew the place. It was where the kids who didn't have to march loitered between classes and after school. At the coordination center, I would be among the kids with parents, those whose parents were in the camp -- the wealthier children, the sons and daughters of teachers and soldiers and commanders.

When classes ended, I ran home. Once there, I realized I had no reason to be home. I paused a moment in the shelter, wondering if there was anything I could do. I changed into my other, light-blue, shirt, and ran to the coordination center.

-- Why did you change? Agar said. -- I like your other shirt better.

I cursed myself.

-- I like this one better, Agum said.

Already they were fighting over me! It was bliss.

-- You ready? Agum asked.

-- To eat lunch? I asked.

-- Yes, to eat lunch, she said. -- You sure you're okay?

I nodded. I nodded vigorously, because I was indeed ready to eat. But first we had to walk through the camp, and this was -- I knew it before it began and it fulfilled every expectation, every fear and dream I had concocted over three months of planning -- the most extraordinary walk I have ever undertaken.

So we walked. There were two Royal Nieces on my left, two on my right. I was between these highly regarded sisters, and we were walking to their home. Yes, the camp took notice. It is safe to say that everyone in my class died of envy and shock. With every step, as we passed through one block and then another, more boys and girls gaped at our procession, which was obviously, to them, some kind of date, something significant, far more than a casual stroll. It was a parade, a procession, a statement: The Royal Girls of Pinyudo were proud to have me with them, and this was fascinating to all. Who is that? the parade-watchers wondered. Who is that with the Royal Sisters of Pinyudo?

It was me, Achak Deng. Successful with ladies.

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Dave Eggers