Sundays with Uncle God-Momma: the What

Within the novel What is the What (Dave Eggers, 2006) is the Dinka creation myth. This is, after all, a novel…though a novel based tightly on the memories of Valentino Achak Deng…so the telling done by Deng’s father via Deng’s memory and Eggers’s writing may not be theologically precise.* The Dinka are a pastoral people of southern Sudan, most famed for producing Manute Bol and their suffering in the Sudanese Civil War. It was that civil war which made Achak Deng one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan.

The Dinka were monotheistic before the coming of either Islam or Christian missionaries, so the creation story here and its reference to a single god is not an adaptation of ancient belief to those more modern.

–When god created the earth, he first made us, the monyjang. yes, first he made the monyjang, the first man, and he made him the tallest and strongest of the people under the sky . . .

I knew the story well, but had not heard my father tell it in the presence of men who were not Dinka. I scanned the faces of the Arabs, hoping their feelings would not be hurt. all were smilling, as if they were hearing a fable of some kind, and not the true story of creation.

–Yes, God made the monyjang tall and strong, and he made their women beautiful, more beautiful than any of the creatures on the land.

There was a quick burst of approval, this time of a more guttural tone, joined by the Arab men. It was followed by a wave of loud laughter from all. Sadiq nudged me and grinned down to me, and I laughed, too, though I wasn’t sure why.

–Yes, my father continued, –and when God was done, and the monyjang were standing on the earth waiting for instruction, god asked the man, “Now that you are here, on the most sacred and fertile land I have, I can give you one more thing. I can give you this creature, which is called the cow . . .”

My father turned his head quickly, spilling some of his cup into the fire, where it hissed and sent a plume of smoke upward. He turned the other direction and finally found what he was looking for: he pointed to a cow in the distance, one of those waiting to be sold at the market the following day.

–Yes, he continued, God showed man the idea of the cattle, and the cattle were magnificent. They were in every way exactly what the monyjang would want. The man and woman thanked God for such a gift, because they knew that the cattle would bring them milk and meat and prosperity of every kind. But god was not finished.

–He never is, Sadiq said, to a wave of laughter.

–God said, “you can either have these cattle, as my gift to you, or you can have the What.” My father waited for the necessary response.

–But . . . Sadiq said, helping out, –What is the What? he said, with an air of theatrical inquisitiveness.

–Yes, yes. That was the question. So the first man lifted his head to God and asked what this was, this What. “What is the What?” the first man asked. And God said to the man, “I cannot tell you. Still, you have to chose. You have to choose between the cattle and the What.” Wel then. The man and the woman could see the cattle right there in front of them, and they knew that with the cattle they would eat and live with great contentment. They could see the cattle were God’s most perfect creation, and that the cattle carried something godlike within themselves. They knew that they would live in peace with the cattle, and that if they helped the cattle eat and drink, the cattle would give man their milk, would multiply every year and keep the monyjang happy and healthy. So the first man and woman knew they would be fools to pass up the cattle for this idea of the What. So the man chose cattle. And God has proven that this was the correct decision. God was testing the man. He was testing the man, to see if he could appreciate what he had been given, if he could take pleasure in the bounty before him, rather than trade it for the unknown. And because the first man was able to see this, God has allowed us to prosper. The Dinka live and grow as the cattle live and grow. ~pps 61-63

The story is intriguing for several reasons. It departs from the general template of creation stories in that the central, cultural object is given by God rather than won, stolen, or bargained for (the last generally related to a betrothal or sacrifice). A slightly different telling of the story has God prodding the first man to take the what instead of the cattle, telling him that “The What is better than cattle.” But even in that version the first man refuses.

This story is almost the story of Adam and Eve turned on its head; as if those first people had looked around and said, “Whatever that fruit holds probably cannot be better than this, so let it hang.” The concept is contentment, which is atypical of religion…at least as the given rather than what is strived for as in some Eastern traditions. There do not appear to be any lessons that must be taught for the first people to appreciate their gift, as is often the case in other myths like the buffalo and corn myths of Native Americans. This story appears to be the exception that proves the mythological rule.

Of course, no one knows what the What is. God isn’t the type to show you what you would have won had you chosen door number two. Achak later relates that when his father told the story to all Dinka audiences he would add that God had given the What to the Arabs, and that was why they were inferior.

Is then the What the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? After all, the Muslims are Abrahamic. If that is the case, and it’s pure speculation on my part, then this story really does boil down to contentment, which might also be described as a lack of striving for more. Buddhism, in particular, suggests that striving is the root cause of suffering, and we know that striving for knowledge led to the expulsion from paradise for man. The Dinka appear to have figured it all out from the beginning, realizing that to have enough is plenty.

I, however, would really like to know what the What actually is…and maybe that’s my problem.

*I was unable to locate much in the way of background material on Dinka religion and/or cosmology. What i could locate consisted mostly of the opportunity to buy out of print books at out of print prices.


~ by Lex on January 4, 2009.

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