Essay / Art

What is the What: Sudan, Manute Bol and Activistic Art

Last week, Manute Bol died. The tallest and thinnest man in the NBA, he was a shot-blocker on stilts, an amusing presence, really, a trivia answer. He was also, it turns out, a very good man. Bol grew up in southern Sudan, a largely Christian region in an on-again, off-again civil war with the largely Muslim north….

In a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal praising Bol’s ‘radical Christianity’ and chiding sports journalists’ tendency to ignore the Christian faith that energizes selflessness like Bol’s, Jon Shields writes:

Bol reportedly gave most of his fortune, estimated at $6 million, to aid Sudanese refugees. As one twitter feed aptly put it: “Most NBA cats go broke on cars, jewelry & groupies. Manute Bol went broke building hospitals.”

I don’t know about you, but ‘Africa’ is a really big idea. I know there is so much pain there; there is also so much life. And to speak of such a massive continent as one thing like ‘Africa’ likely does more injustice than justice to those who live there. Like many Americans, I suffer the paralysis that comes in knowing that this is a place bigger than I can imagine. How do I begin to think about, pray for, learn from, attend to ‘Africa’?

Flannery O’Connor wrote that ‘somewhere is better than anywhere’. The mistake I make – maybe you make it, too – comes when I try to think about ‘the needs of the world’ or ‘the beauty of the world’ rather than starting with the needs or the beauty of somewhere in particular.

So why not Sudan? Why not begin there, by learning and praying and listening to the history of the peoples of Sudan? One thing we will quickly learn is that the geopolitical entity we call ‘Sudan’ was cobbled together recently, tragically and artificially. The north and the south have been shoehorned into one nation and continue to suffer the consequences of that forced marriage. They will decide soon about whether to break apart.

But how are we to learn more about a particular place? The news is a good place to start. Again, I drown in all the news of tragedy. I become numb too it so quickly, or at best collapse into sentimentalism and offer a quick, vague prayer. So why not begin with looking for news on Sudan? Why not learn about the church in Sudan? About the challenges to mission there? About the people who live there, their landscape and history, their joys and anguish.

Still, news can feel like a string of isolated crises, without a narrative to make sense of them, without a sense of their past or future. Here is where literature comes in. The novel is suited – perhaps uniquely so – to train its readers in empathy. The whole point of things is that we ‘lose ourselves’ in a novel and ‘identify with’ a protagonist. Stories train us morally, socially and spiritually. (Stanley Hauerwas has much to say on this. His recent memoir is well worth a read.)

Of course, there’s a real danger that stories will idealize or deal falsely with the people and place it purports to evoke. This is always a danger in story-telling, whether in the news or a novel; but it is one of which we ought to be aware.

A good place to start is the riveting What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng by Dave Eggers. Eggers is the author of the much-lauded and much-read (this being a rare randem) A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Valentino Achak Deng is one of the ‘lost boys’ of Sudan who had been separated from their families (usually orphaned) in the rapacious violence in southern Sudan and walked across the country to a (relatively) safe haven in Ethiopia and Kenya. Like many of the lost boys, Deng emigrated to the United States. After arriving in Atlanta, he was encouraged to tell his story. Someone connected him with Eggers, and the writer set to putting Deng’s story down.

In a preface, Deng clarifies: ‘It should be known to the readers that I was very young when some of the events in the book took place, and as a result we simply had to pronounce What Is the What a novel. I could not, for example, recount some conversations that took place seventeen years ago. However it should be noted that all of the major events in the book are true. The book is historically accurate, and the world I have known is not different from the one depicted within these pages.’

It is a difficult book – not in its prose, as Eggers is less a wordsmith than a storyteller with an eye for incident, narrative flow and device. His moving back and forth between Deng’s life in Atlanta and his life in Sudan and various refugee camps bridges the gap between ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘us’ and ‘them’ very effectively. The novel opens with a break-in in Deng’s apartment. At that point and others he longs to tell his assailants just who he is and what he has experienced. People treat him as an object or an instrument, but not as a person with a history. In effect, the novel invites its readers to treat Deng and others like him as a person with a history. It succeeds in that it refuses to turn a blind eye to Deng’s hardship, but also in that it refuses to reduce him to an object of pity. He suffers horrible loss; he also grows up, falls in love, goes to school.

Eggers’ remarkable achievement is to have written a piece of activistic art. It is good writing, a piece of literature that needs to be read on its own merit; it is also activism, in that Eggers chooses to tell this story. So much of contemporary American literature documents the alienation and malaise of the middle class. Think Philip Roth, John Updike. Movies to the same. Think American Beauty. This is a certain kind of truthtelling; and insofar as it is truthful and self-indicting, we can admire and be grateful for it. But Eggers’ work quite consciously refuses to collapse into this narcissistic gaze, turning our attention instead to a place where it is not love that it is a battlefield, but a battlefield that is a battlefield. And he does it beautifully, somehow evoking empathy without bludgeoning the reader.

Manute Bol is a minor hero in What Is the What. He is a pioneer of sorts, a promise of what life after war might become. Even more, he is a model of self-sacrifice and of faithful remembrance, of refusing to turn his back on his home. Jon Shields again:

‘When his fortune dried up, Bol raised more money for charity by doing what most athletes would find humiliating: He turned himself into a humorous spectacle. Bol was hired, for example, as a horse jockey, hockey player and celebrity boxer. Some Americans simply found amusement in the absurdity of him on a horse or skates. And who could deny the comic potential of Bol boxing William “the Refrigerator” Perry, the 335-pound former defensive linemen of the Chicago Bears?

‘Bol agreed to be a clown. But he was not willing to be mocked for his own personal gain as so many reality-television stars are. Bol let himself be ridiculed on behalf of suffering strangers in the Sudan; he was a fool for Christ.’

Manute Bol’s funeral was Tuesday, June 29.

Share this essay [social_share/]