What is the what?

I recently listened to the audiobook of What is the What? by Dave Eggers about Valentino Achak Deng — one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. It is the amazing story of how Valentino and many other boys escaped from the death and destruction of war in southern Sudan and walked across the desert to Ethiopia and then Kenya and then after many years in Kakuma refugee camp imigrated to the United States. The story touched me in so many ways — from despair over the cruelty of war and difficulties faced by immigrants in the US to the gratitude for the numerous miracles that kept Valentino and his friends alive during their many journeys.

The personal connection I felt to this story is related to his time at Kakuma because I visited this camp once for several days in February 1997 — admittedly a much different experience than his. I was able to imagine the landscape as I listened because I had seen it, if only for a brief time. I was there with staff from the Kenya Girl Guides Association visiting Guides in the camp. As described in the book, many residents of refugee camps are living in more or less stable rather than emergency conditions. Children go to schools and girls join Girl Guide clubs where they are available. We were there to think about a possible activity with these Guide clubs. (In the end we chose to work in Uganda in another camp with many Sudanese refugees.) While I was there we saw women learning to use solar energy for cooking, we saw people weaving blankets and we met with the school-based Guide groups. As in many other camps we visited that year and later, we were welcomed with singing and dancing by so many lovely young girls.

In listening to this book I was reminded of many things I had seen and heard in Kakuma and other camps. But I also realized that I had had no idea about the real lives of refugees in the camps. I had no idea of the hunger and material deprivation that existed. It is not that I am so naive to think that refugees lived like staff, but I did not really understand the true disparities. I ate three meals a day while I was there and slept in a comfortable bed at night while now I realize that many people were eating only one meal a day and sleeping on the ground.

What can we do about the inequities in the world? I am never able to answer that question to my satisfaction. The best we can do, I’m afraid, is the best we can do. And work for peace and social justice in whatever way we are able to life us all up.

I am a photographer, and after reading this book I went and found photographs I took at Kakuma. I wanted to share them with Valentino so I scanned my negatives and am sharing them here. I hope to find a way to share this link with him and other who might have been there at this time.

Valentino — these are for you…and Dave Eggers for telling the story so well. I hope this will reach you somehow.

Peace and grace to all of us…Cindy

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