Watching a Well Being Drilled in a South Sudanese Village is a Wondrous Thing

By Ben Dobbin

        Village girls in Abilnyang during a deep-water well installation in March 2008

     Village girls in Abilnyang during a deep-water well installation in March 2008

My first trip to southern Sudan a decade ago was a marvel, and my reason for returning was primarily this: to find out if Salva Dut’s deep-water wells are doing their job. They are—every last one of them.

On an emotional level, I also had a yearning to meet again with villagers in nowhere-on-the-map Abilnyang. Our five-day visit there in 2008, camping under a fig tree within view of Salva’s borehole-drilling operation, is etched in my heart.

The curious children of Abilnyang were what made the project so joyous. Helping out in any way possible, they carried PVC pipes, sorted stones used to build a well platform, and laughed uproariously to see a geyser of water spew from a 260-foot-deep aquifer.

They filled the hours tossing a Frisbee, chasing a soccer ball or whacking an inflatable globe—three short-lived gifts from afar. And everyone wanted their photograph taken, especially John Dhal Deng, a teenager who was well-groomed and unusually chatty.

Marial Bol, a 6-year-old in ragged clothes who never smiled, was invariably the first to appear each morning--with a dozen goats in tow. Despite his reticence, he looked the image of a star-struck youngster when a carnival comes to town.

Alout Atak, who had lost an arm to a cobra bite, practiced English phrases and volunteered a plaintive song in his Dinka dialect. Bol Thuch beat out a celebratory rhythm on a cowhide drum. And a precocious preteen girl, Arac Deng, vowed to study hard and grow up “to assist the sick people” in a land beset by war, hunger and ill health.

Equipped with a reliable source of clean water, Abilnyang’s 1,600 inhabitants--spread out across the savanna in mud-wall tukels and frequently hemmed in by a flood-prone river—hired a teacher, started their own school and opened a small market.

Seven years later, I got the itch to go back.


All the wells were operating fine. The water flows fresh and cool from year to year, even more quenching in the December-to-May dry season when the mercury tops 120 degrees.


This was a different undertaking in 2015, accompanying a Water for South Sudan crew to assess whether 80 of its oldest wells were holding up.

Salva has always kept it simple: Sink a well, put the locals in charge, and they’ll do the rest—and push forward with their lives. In each location, one or two people are trained to carry out maintenance and collect money for spare parts to repair any breakdowns rapidly.

All the wells were operating fine. The water flows fresh and cool from year to year, even more quenching in the December-to-May dry season when the mercury tops 120 degrees.

The nonprofit group, however, decided that dozens of concrete well platforms, including Abilnyang’s, needed to be redesigned and rebuilt. They’d been badly stomped and broken by cows, sheep and goats lapping up uncollected water spilling near the pump.

Salva’s first well was placed in his parents’ village of Loun-Ariik in 2005. It’s a bumpy, two-hour drive from Abilnyang, which was 18th in line. The list now surpasses 320 wells, supplying water to almost a million people.

Most of those wells are found in western regions free of combat. While South Sudan became the world’s newest nation in 2011, a political power struggle has kept it locked in civil war for more than four years.

  M   arial Bol, a goat herder at age 6, now cares for his uncle’s long-horned cattle

Marial Bol, a goat herder at age 6, now cares for his uncle’s long-horned cattle

Our stop in Abilnyang lasted just an hour. But familiar faces appeared right off the bat. There in the middle of an instant crowd of children was solemn Marial. I passed out snapshots of that wondrous week in 2008, and he didn’t recognize himself at first.

By then a tall 13-year-old with muscled arms, Marial said he keeps busy looking after his uncle’s herd of long-horned cattle and fancies becoming a trader at the market someday.

I finally found a way to ask him why he hides his smile.

Both his parents died in a sickness epidemic when he was 2 and, “very often, I feel nothing to smile about,” he said through a translator. Then his face brightened, and he added: “I think my uncle loves me more than anyone else in the world.”


"For girls in particular, the all-day grind of hauling murky water from fetid swamps is a distant memory."


To call Abilnyang rudimentary, and hard to get to, is still an understatement. Some children have moved on with their families to bigger towns like Warrap, including lively Arac Deng. And, sadly, a cousin of Bol Thuch told of the boy drummer being shot to death by a rival tribe during a cattle drive to lush grassland near the Nile River in 2009.

One-armed Alout Atak studied English, science and social studies at the village’s primary for three years. The teacher moved away in 2012 and “I was very sad to see the school close,” he said.

However, plans were already afoot to reopen the school in 2015, related Mark Madut, 27, a former student who hoped to enroll hundreds of young villagers. For girls in particular, the all-day grind of hauling murky water from fetid swamps is a distant memory.

John Deng, now a police officer and father of four in Kuajok who was home on leave, spoke eagerly about how the well was vital to health. Waterborne diseases like diarrhea and typhoid were greatly diminished in the village, he said.

“I hope everybody could get the advantages of a well,” Deng added. Then he threw back his shoulders, and stood tall, for yet another picture.


Ben Dobbin was a correspondent for The Associated Press from 1983 to 2012. His wife, Linda Sue Park, is the author of A Long Walk to Water and an upcoming companion picture book, A Step At a Time, which will be published in 2019.

Other Reading:

The original Abilnyang tale from 2008: http://www.foxnews.com/printer_friendly_wires/2008Apr13/0,4675,LostBoyapossReturn,00.html

The follow-up from South Sudan in 2015: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/06/01/lost-boys-water-for-south-sudan/28331451/