What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng
Sudanese here have regressed to tribalism, to the same ethnic divisions we gave up long ago. In Ethiopia there were no Nuer, no Dinka, no Fur or Nubians. We were, in many cases, too young to know what these distinctions meant, but even if we were aware, we had been taught and had agreed to set aside our supposed differences. We were all in Ethiopia alone, and had seen hundreds of our own die en route to a place only marginally better than what we’d left.
    Almost from the moment we arrived here, it was impossible to return to life in Sudan. I have not been to Khartoum, so I cannot speak for the style of life there. I hear there is some semblance of modernity. But in southern Sudan, we are by any estimation at least a few hundred years behind the industrialized world. Some sociologists, liberal ones, might take issue with the notion that one society is behind another, that there is a first world, a third. But southern Sudan is not of any of these worlds. Sudan is something else, and I cannot find apt comparison. There are few cars in southern Sudan. You can travel hundreds of miles without seeing a vehicle of any kind. There are only a handful of paved roads; I saw none while I lived there. One could fly a straight east-west line across the country and never pass over a home built of anything but grass and dirt. It is a primitive land, and I say that without any sense of shame. I suspect that within the next ten years, if the peace holds, the region will make the sort of progress that might bring us to the standards of other East African nations. I do not know anyone who wishes southern Sudan to remain the way it is. All are ready for what comes next. There are SPLA tanks parading through Juba, the capital of the south. There is pride there now, and all the doubts we’ve had about the SPLA, and all the suffering they caused, have been largely forgiven. If the south achieves freedom it is through their work, however muddled.
    I realize that my mouth is soaked and the tape is no longer firmly attached. I blow, and to my surprise, the left half of the tape flaps away. I can speak if I want to speak.
    “Excuse me,” I say. My voice is soft, much too quiet. There is no indication he hears me. “Young man,” I say, now in a normal volume. I don’t want to startle him.
    I get no reaction.
    “Young man,” I say, now louder.
    He turns briefly to me, disbelieving, as if he noticed the couch itself talking. He returns to the television.
    “Young man, can I speak with you?” I say, louder now, firmer.
    He whimpers and stands up, terrified. My only guess is that they told him that I was African, and in his mind he did not think that classification entailed the ability to speak, much less speak English. He takes two steps toward me, stopping in the entranceway to the living room. He is still not sure I will speak again.
    “Young man, I need to talk to you. I can help you.”
    This sends him back to the kitchen, where he takes the cell phone, pushes a button, and brings the phone to his ear. He listens but does not get the desired recipient. He has, I am assuming, been told to call his accomplices if I wake up or anything is amiss, and now that I have, they are not answering. He gives his predicament some thought and finally settles on a solution: he sits again and turns up the volume on the television.
    “Please!” I yell.
    He leaps in his seat.
    “Boy! You must listen to me!”
    Now he searches for a solution. He begins to open drawers. I hear the rattle of silverware and worry that he might do something drastic. He opens five, six drawers and cabinets. Finally he emerges from the kitchen with a phone book. He carries it over to me and holds it over my head.
    “Young man! What are you doing?”
    He drops the book. It is the first time in my life that I have seen something coming toward me and have been unable to properly react. I try to turn my head but still the book lands squarely on my face. The pain is compounded by my

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