The best astonishing stories of idealism and survival in East Africa

Harriet Levin Millan Author Of How Fast Can You Run
By Harriet Levin Millan

Who am I?

When I first met Michael Majok Kuch and he asked me if I was interested in writing his life story, I knew nothing about South Sudan. Over the next several years, we met weekly. I’d interview him, write a chapter, research it, and then show it to him for his approval. I read everything I could find on South Sudan and the adjacent countries. In fact, I became so obsessed with Michael's culture that once I read Francis Mading Deng's Dinka Folktales, Mike’s sister arranged a meeting between Francis Mading Deng and me. These books prepared me for writing How Fast Can You Run, helping other “Lost Boys” of Sudan reunite with their mothers.


I wrote...

How Fast Can You Run

By Harriet Levin Millan,

Book cover of How Fast Can You Run

What is my book about?

Set across a backdrop of refugee migration, How Fast Can You Run is the inspiring story of Michael Majok Kuch and his journey to find his mother. In 1988, Majok, as a five-year-old boy, fled his burning village in southern Sudan and trekked through the wilderness in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya to arrive at a series of refugee camps where he would live for the next ten years. When the U.S. brokered an agreement granting approximately 4,000 unaccompanied minors political asylum, Majok, now Michael, was given a new start. Yet his new life was not without trauma. He faced prejudice once again, disrupting the promise of new beginnings. How Fast Can You Run summons the courageous spirit of millions of refugees throughout history and today.

The books I picked & why

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Emma's War: A True Story

By Deborah Scroggins,

Book cover of Emma's War: A True Story

Why this book?

I’ve always been interested in the subculture of Peace Corp and NGO workers in Africa. Journalist Deborah Scroggins traveled to Sudan to research British aid worker Emma McCune and to interview the people whose lives she recounts. Emma McCune, reputed to have said to Scroggins, “In my heart, I’m Sudanese,” left her former life behind to marry SPLM guerilla leader Riek Macher. During the years McCune and Macher were married, the country was engaged in a brutal civil war. Years after Emma McCune died, Macher became South Sudan’s first vice-president. Emma McCune died in a car accident in Nairobi in 1993 while pregnant. Emma McCune personifies the idealism of the new nation as we read her story of trying to make a difference in a country overrun by the longest-running civil war in Africa. Just like South Sudan itself, Emma McCune is a legend whose short life disturbs and inspires.


Dinka Folktales: African Stories from the Sudan

By Francis Mading Deng,

Book cover of Dinka Folktales: African Stories from the Sudan

Why this book?

Prolific author and intellectual Francis Mading Deng became South Sudan’s first ambassador to the United Nations. Meeting Dr. Deng in person was one of the highlights of my life. To read any of his 40-some books is a privilege. It is possible to read Dinka Folktales as astonishing anthropological events, but Francis Mading Deng provides an introduction that reveals the “truth” in storytelling. These folktales contain the philosophical, religious, and day-to-day practices of the Dinka, who are the largest ethnic tribe in South Sudan. Given the civil war with north Sudan and the south’s dramatic victory in establishing their own country, these extraordinary stories belong in the ranks of world literature. 


What Is the What

By Dave Eggers,

Book cover of What Is the What

Why this book?

When One Book, One Philadelphia called me in my office at Drexel University and asked me to select 10 students to interview 10 South Sudanese refugees for a One Book project, I read Dave Egger’s epic tale of Valentino Achak Deng’s survival as a so-called “Lost Boy" of Sudan. Valentino along with thousands of other “Lost Boys” was forced to separate from his parents at a young age and trek thousands of miles across Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya without resources to food or water to arrive at several refugee camps. This is Valentino’s story yet it resonates with fleeing people worldwide. Anyone who lives in freedom will stop and listen to the plight of others after reading this astonishing book.


Tale of Kasaya

By Eva Kasaya,

Book cover of Tale of Kasaya

Why this book?

I was fortunate to have met Eva Kasaya at a writing retreat in Kenya shortly after she wrote this book. Part novel, part biography, Tale of Kasaya is the astonishing story of Eva Kasaya’s journey from a 13-year-old village girl in rural Kenya to a published author in Nairobi. Kasaya, who leaves her family’s farm for a job as a domestic worker in the city recounts the horrific situation some domestic workers undergo. Sexually assaulted, she overcomes her trauma and finds solace in the written word. A beautifully written book that deserves to be a classic.


Foreign Gods, Inc.

By Okey Ndibe,

Book cover of Foreign Gods, Inc.

Why this book?

I was a religious studies minor in college and love reading about traditional religious practices. When I met Nigerian American author Okey Ndibe at a writing retreat in Kenya, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy of his second novel. This satirical novel gives new life to the meaning of worship. When statue buyer, Ike Uzondu steals an African sculpture from a New York shop and sells it in his ancestral village in Nigeria, the two worlds collide and we witness the cost of modernity to the human spirit


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Sudan, East Africa, and New York State?

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