Tag Archives: Books

What We Love: “What is the What”


Today I thought I would share with you a little bit about one of my favorite books, “What is the What” written by Dave Eggers.

This novel is a detailed autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng’s journey as a young man surviving the Sudanese civil war. In the preface of the book Valentino writes,

“What is the What is the soulful account of my life: from the time I was separated from my family in Marial Bai to the thirteen years I spent in Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps, to my encounter with the vibrant Western cultures beginning in Atlanta, to the generosity and the challenges that I encountered elsewhere.”

I encourage everyone to read this incredible story. It not only opened my eyes to the long rooted civil conflicts in Sudan, but it allowed me to connect with the issues beyond the, at times, impersonal newspaper updates. Valentino shares the utmost personal moments of his life in vibrant detail, moments of fear, sorrow, joy, despair, anger, and hope.

The story begins with the destruction of Valentino’s village, forcing him to flee his home. Valentino eventually finds himself walking along side thousands of orphans on their way to Ethiopia, continuing then to Kenya in hopes of finding safety. Along the journey, Valentino encounters disease and starvation, friends becoming child soldiers, the few opportunities for education, and the occasional romance. Valentino depicts struggles of living in refugee camps and the difficulty once he is resettled in the United States as a part of the Lost Boy program. This is a story of hope and determination against all odds.

Since the publication of “What is the What,” Dave Eggers and Valentino have used all proceeds to create the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation VAD. The mission of VAD is “to empower war-affected Sudanese populations by:

1. Helping members of the southern Sudanese diaspora in the United States to enhance their educational, social, and economic opportunities.

2. Rebuilding southern Sudanese communities through the implementation of community-driven development projects that increase access to educational opportunities for children, women, and men.

3. Improving U.S. policy toward Sudan by educating the public and policy makers on the situation in Sudan.”

VAD’s first project was the construction of an educational complex in Valentino’s hometown of Marial Bai, South Sudan. This complex is comprised of the region’s first high school, a teacher’s training college, a public library, sports facilities, and a community center.

To learn more about VAD visit http://www.valentinoachakdeng.org/

“To struggle is to strengthen my faith, my hope, and my belief in humantiy” -Valentino Achak Deng

So, add this to your list of books to read and enjoy : )



From Compassion to Action


Two days ago, I met renowned Stanford professor and women’s rights activist Anne Murray at the Ghandi ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

Professor Murray , author of “From Courage to Outrage: Women Taking Action for Health and Justice” (which you will like if you read and liked Nicolas Kristoff’s “Half the Sky”) teaches a popular international women’s health and human rights class twice a year at Stanford University. Indeed, her class is so popular, students go through an application process to get in (about 30% get in). As a result, the Stanford administration asked her to teach an additional class along the same lines, but she had a different idea in mind.

She described feeling disturbed and defeated in hearing about the atrocities and violence against women around the globe. She felt compelled to learn about nonviolence and compassion, which lead her to form a partnership with an organization located in the Ghandi ashram called Manav Sahdana. Inspired by Gandhi’s teachings on non-violence (which he equated with universal human values of love and compassion), she delved deeper into other forms of thought, including Thich Nat Hanh’s book “True Love,” which she explained totally revolutionized her thoughts.

She therefore requested to teach a class on “Love as a Force for Social Justice.” The Stanford administration agreed. And for the last ten years, the class gained immense popularity among students, a wonderful compliment to her class on international women’s rights.

Hearing Professor Murray speak reminded me of my experiences in Ajmer a few weeks back.

When hearing the stories and hardships of Anchal’s artisans, it was hard not to get bogged down. Just like Professor Murray, I had a heavy feeling in my chest. At first I thought it was only sadness, but I soon realized that on a deeper level, it was compassion. When spending time with the artisans, and communicating through eye glances and laughter (see former posts), I felt happy and alive. And let’s face it, I felt love. This is truly a great community of women, who gather to stitch, eat, and commute home together. There was a strong sense of sharing and belongingness. By being immersed in this environment, I recognized sadness as compassion. Since then, their realities have stayed with me and inspired me to move into action.

I guess what I learned is from sadness, comes depression and often an inability to act. But from compassion, comes energy and action.
Have you ever been moved to act or help by compassion? Share your stories here.


Do It Anyway


While we have yet to find a book – or anything for that matter – that truly paves the way for social and cultural entrepreneurs (and what’s ‘paved’ entrepreneurship, anyway?!), Courtney E. Martin’s ‘Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists’ (Beacon Press, 2010) celebrates and illuminates this road less traveled. She highlights eight young activists who have dedicated their days and lives fighting for greater social, environmental and economic justice for all. She speaks to the particularities faced by this new generation of thinkers, doers and dreamers and urges us to abandon the ‘save the world’ and ‘American Dream’ rhetoric for a language that is both inspiring and pragmatic.  ‘[This book] is a call’, she writes, ‘to transcend school-required community service and resume-padding activities in favor of the kind of work that keeps you up at night because you believe in it so deeply. It is a warning against paralysis and the sort of numbing our generation has made ourselves infamous for (drinking, drugging, shopping).’

She readily admits that there are no real answers in this book, ‘only insights and catharsis’.  And cathartic are the insights.  In her conclusion she celebrates failure and sees it as an inescapable part of our heritage. ‘As children of the eighties and nineties, we are uniquely positioned to fail. The bureaucracy we face, the scale of our challenges, the intractable nature of so many of our most unjust international institutions and systems – all these add up to colossal potential for disappointment.’

So what now?

We show up – each day, every hour – to the task of bringing greater peace, opportunity and equality to the world, even in the face of overwhelming uncertainty.  Martin inspires us, ‘to  struggle to make our friendships, our families, our neighborhoods, our cities, our nation more dignified, knowing that it might not work and doing it anyway’.  


‘We must dedicate ourselves each and every morning to being the most kind, thoughtful, courageous human beings who ever walked the earth, and know that it still won’t be enough. We must do it anyway.’