Africa is a forgotten continent to most Americans. We hear about the tragedies — the famines, the crooked governments, the occasional genocide — and we look away. The mainstream media, if they cover Africa at all, somehow fails to bring a sense of significance to it. These are alien people, living lives that are unlike ours, laboring through problems that cannot be solved.
Two recent books aim to put a human face on the struggling peoples of Africa. One centers on the civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s. The other focuses on events that are even now unfolding in Sudan. Both succeed where news reports have failed us, even if the pictures they paint are not pretty.
A Long Way Gone is the memoir of Ishmael Beah, a young man who was inducted as a child soldier in the civil war in Sierra Leone, and his story is absolutely harrowing. It begins with the destruction of his village and everything he has known, followed by his flight across miles of unfamiliar terrain — shoeless, starving, and shunned by villagers who have learned to see any stranger, even a young boy, as a threat. And sure enough, by the end of the tale he is a ruthless killer, so thoroughly indoctrinated into army life that he smuggles a grenade onto the UNICEF truck sent to deliver him from the war, in hopes that he will be able to escape and return to his base.
Beah’s explanation of how a boy like himself could be convinced to devote years of his life to lethal armed combat is simple. Propaganda plays a role in the indoctrination process, both homegrown and in the form of American war movies. But the key instrument is drugs, and lots of them.
Before he leaves for his first mission, Beah is given pills to help him “stay alert.” He becomes addicted to them almost immediately. Upon returning from combat, the boy soldiers are greeted with a seemingly never-ending supply of cocaine, which they consume both straight and in a form called brown brown — cocaine mixed with gunpowder. Before long, most of Beah’s conversation with his barracks-mates revolves around drugs and violence, and little else.
A subtle genius of Beah’s narrative is that, beneath the fog of all this madness, any kind of political motivation for the conflict of which Beah is part becomes lost. He might be in the army, or he might be a rebel whose superiors call themselves the army. He might be fighting to free Sierra Leone from an oppressive regime, or he might be fighting to defend the government. All such considerations melt away, and the primary motivations of Beah’s group seem to be obtaining food, ammunition, and other supplies. And should anything get in their way, the directive is always clear: Kill everything that moves.
On the whole, Beah is a fine writer. I have to question some of the passages in the book — for example, the dream where Beah is carrying a corpse, only to look down and see that the corpse has his own face, seems too clichéd to be plucked from real life. But then again, it’s often the little touches that make his story so haunting. For example, on the evening that news arrives that Beah’s village has been destroyed, he remembers staying up late trying to memorize the words to “Now That We’ve Found Love” by Heavy D and the Boyz. In another passage a man has all his fingers severed save the thumbs, and we’re told that this mutilation is known as “One Love,” after a thumbs-up gesture popular in Sierra Leone.
There is redemption at the end of A Long Way Gone, but very little catharsis. Beah is rehabilitated and eventually enters life as a normal young adult. But his memories remain, as do the lingering after-effects of the war of which he was part. As long as the practice of child soldiering continues in other conflicts throughout the world, Beah seems to be saying, there will be other stories like his. Sadly, most will continue to go untold.
By comparison, What Is the What, a fictionalized memoir billed as a novel of Sudan by Dave Eggers (of McSweeny’s fame) is a quieter story, but is no less troubling. Its protagonist, one Valentino Achak Deng, manages to avoid being inducted into the army, although the threat seems ever-present. Where A Long Way Gone is in some respects a bloodbath, What Is the What is a slow burn.
Like Beah, Deng is driven from his village and uprooted from everything he has known. But unlike A Long Way Gone with its child soldiering, upheaval itself is the central theme of What Is the What.
The story is epic in its scope. Deng and his cohorts spend weeks trudging across the barren Sudanese landscape, starving, dying, being eaten by crocodiles. Then, after finally arriving in neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya, they find themselves penniless squatters in sprawling refugee camps. For years they live this way, any semblance of their former lives all but erased.
Even when some of the Sudanese youth are lucky enough to be given a new life in the United States, the truth still fails to live up to their expectations. They are minorities; they are poor. They work in restaurants, at retail stores, or at the front counter of a gym. At the opening of the story, Deng is robbed in his home at gunpoint by a black man who calls him “Africa.” A life that has been thoroughly smashed is difficult — perhaps impossible — to rebuild fully, and Eggers reminds us that there are many lives yet being shattered in the ongoing strife in Sudan.
True to form, the charity-conscious Eggers is donating all proceeds from the book to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, which distributes funds to Sudanese refugees in the U.S. and supports the real-life Deng’s college education. And that’s just as well, because otherwise the most immediate flaw in the book is the presence of Eggers himself.
I’ve never been able to decide whether a reader who made it all the way through both halves of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius should be congratulated or taken out back and shot. What Is the What proves that Eggers hasn’t learned all that much since his first book, and it’s full of frustrating passages that somehow manage to make a real-life Sudanese refugee sound like a self-absorbed Greenwich Village dilettante. The key, however, is to stick with it. By about 2/3 of the way into the book, Deng’s tale is in full swing, and much of Eggers’ sophomoric artifice falls away. By the end, you’ll agree that Deng’s story needed to be told. It’s just a shame that it had to be told by such a vain, pretentious twit.