“Wow, he is very tall” – that’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you meet Valentino Achak Deng. And the second is, “So this is the real Valentino…”
Later, siting at the restaurant, I tell him, “Imagine that I don’t know anything about you and we just met”. “Ok…”, he says. “Cool”, I say, “then we just met and I don’t know you: so, what do you do?” And he replies, “I have built a secondary school in South Sudan”. “Really?”, I say, “then I guess you are an engineer or a builder”. “I’m not an engineer, I’m not a builder – but I have a vision to establish secondary schools to send children to school”, he replies.
We keep pretending I don’t know anything about him and the conversation goes on but he just talks about the value of education and won’t say anything about his past or about ‘What is the What’, the book that Dave Eggers wrote based on his life – neither he says anything about the film that Tom Tykwer is now making about it.
At some point, after I insist, there is a glimpse, “In my case, I have a story”, he tells me, “I grew up in Sudan at the time when Sudan was at war with itself and I’ve seen many thousands of children sent out of school, all the schools in Southern Sudan were closed”.
Because even if he won’t say it, the thing is Valentino Achak Deng is one of the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’, about 20.000 children who fled their villages in South Sudan during the first years of the war that between 1983 and 2005 caused 2 million deaths and left 4 million of people displaced, according to the ‘official’ UN figures.
It is believed that about half of these ‘lost boys’ never made it.
“I left Sudan in 1987 as an unaccompanied minor, I left my family and I walked across 1,200 kilometres approximately to go to Western Ethiopia”, Valentino finally starts telling me. “At a certain point we had to drink stagnant water because there was no water to drink and we had to eat whatever food there was, like leaves of trees, eatable and non eatable, anything we would see somebody feeding on.
“I have seen horrors, dead bodies, corpses along the road, sometimes in the middle of the road. People were being preyed on by wild beasts, it was war, it was chaotic at that time.
“And we had Sudanese elders who were giving us advice, every time we would see an image, a dead body, dead bodies, they would say, ‘Look at them, don’t be afraid of these pictures, have courage, because you have to go and come back to normal. These are our people who have been killed, our government is killing us, our own government, we have no protection but we cannot give up’.
“So we would walk day and night, tired, exhausted, thirsty, hungry, sometimes crying, sometimes not, sometimes laughing”.
I knew all this, I’ve read the book, I know the story – but he looks me in the eye while he is telling me those words with such a quiet pace and, even though I can see him saying them to many other people before me, still it takes me there, along the line of starving walking boys, walking, walking day and night for four months from Southern Sudan to a refugee camp in Ethiopia.
The war between North and South Sudan began ‘officially’ in 1983, although different conflicts had been going on for many years between the north, mostly Arab and muslim, and the south, non-Arab and christian and animist and with rich oil resources and more fertile lands.
By 1986 and 1987, the murahaleen, an Arab militia of horsemen from the north, were raiding small villages in the south, burning houses, killing people and abducting girls – many times, young boys would survive these attacks because they were out of the village tending the cattle.
Valentino was one of these boys and as he fled for his life he joined many others like him who, commanded by young men, would walk and walk in search of some kind of safety out of Sudan.
“After four months of walking I arrived in Ethiopia and I went to school, under a tree, my teacher did not have a chalkboard. I myself did not have a pen or a pencil or an exercise book”, Valentino quickly goes back to education, his favourite issue. “The Sudanese community decided that our future was going to be in education and so thousands of unaccompanied minors in Western Ethiopia started school under trees”.
Since then, Valentino would live at refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya for about 14 years, until 2001, when the US started a program to host a few thousands of the ‘lost boys’.
Believe it or not, Valentino was scheduled to flight to the States on the 11th of September that year and after the attacks his flight was cancelled – but after a short period waiting because of 9/11, he arrived in Atlanta, where a whole different kind of problems began.
There, through the Lost Boys Foundation, Valentino met Dave Eggers, a writer with a particular personal story and with a particular take on literature – as he himself made clear in his first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
The two of them met many times for three years and recorded hundreds of tapes with Valentino’s words telling his story.
Dave then had to decide how to write the book, whether just transcribing Valentino’s speech or whether authoring himself – and they finally went for a ‘novel’ in which everything that is told did happen but some things not to Valentino and some things in a different time or place.
(to be continued…)