Reading the Land

Wau kids closeup

Wau, Warrap, South Sudan

‪When the Water for South Sudan team scouts a site for a new borehole, they read the land; they don't use any equipment or technology.

“If you go to the wells, and look carefully, you will see exactly where the aquifer is,” Salva told me one day after lunch when we were sitting in the compound. I had asked him how they know where to put the borehole. He described how they look for the way the trees line up on high ground. "When you see the big fig tree and the mango tree, then you will know.”

‪"But you have never missed a well?" I asked.

Salva and Lion both laughed at me.

‪"No because you can always tell where there is water if you are paying attention."

‪I have been trying to pay attention here, but most of the time, I feel clueless. We drove to a well the other day in a village called Machar. The ride was miles of bumpy dirt roads at an excruciatingly slow pace until we finally veered off the main road onto a smaller path. Lion saw that the path hadn't been used by a vehicle in a long time, but we persisted. Finally, Lion said, "The way to Machar is still ahead, but I think this road is dying. Soon, we will have to get out and walk." When smooth dirt gave way to tall brush, we came across a young tree as tall as the Land Cruiser. Adinani considered it for a second, then centered the tires to hit it straight on. I said, “That’s a tree; you can’t drive over it.”

“It is strong but it will still bend,” I heard someone say. I watched out the back window as the tree popped back up behind us. I wondered how Adinani learned which ones will bend and which ones won’t.

Village boys near cattle camp in machar

Village boys near cattle camp in machar

When the path thinned to foot size, we parked the Land Cruiser and walked. Soon we came to a clearing where five large tukols built for cattle stood in the center. The well was about 20 yards beyond the clearing. It was a sleepy village. There were only three people at the pump. At 10:00 am it should have been busy with women and children lining up for water, jerry cans overflowing at the pump's base. I asked Lion where all the people were. He said it was a cattle camp. The children as young as nine years old take care of the cattle during the rainy season, but during the dry season, they go back to their homes. 

‪Later, I asked Lion who takes care of the children while they are at cattle camp. He laughed and said, "No one. They take care of themselves."

‪"But who teaches them how to tend to the cattle?"

‪"They don't need teachers. They just know. That is how they grow up."

‪"But, do they cook their own food?"

‪"They stay by themselves in the camp and they drink the milk of the cows. They don't cook. Sometimes the villagers will give them food, but mostly, they drink milk."

‪"That's it? Milk? No other food? Is that even possible to subsist on milk alone?”

‪"Yes, yes, yes." Lion laughed at me. I had ridiculously imagined the South Sudan version of an American summer camp. But this wasn’t camp in any way that I understood. It was a necessary part of life where children, like adults work all day in the hot sun.

“And if the ground is cracked, that is a bad sign. It is not a good place to drill. That is also where you will find the acacia trees. They are a sign of desert not water,” Salva explained as we sipped on our post-lunch tea.

“How can that be? I’ve been all over this country for the last three weeks and acacia trees are everywhere.” I said.

“Yes, they are everywhere, but if you look closely, you can see places where there are many, many acacia and then places where there are many big trees.”

Ajak Madut Achek from Abyei

Ajak Madut Achek from Abyei

I looked over the compound fence toward south side where our well is and saw the big coconut palm that the crows like to put their nests in. Then I saw green. I had been at the compound on and off for weeks, but I had never noticed how much green was on that side of the fence. Salva pointed to a tree with grey sausage-like seed pods, “The sausage tree is another good sign that there is water too.”

The land is different on the side of the compound where we walk every morning toward the rising sun to the bush. There are many acacia there. One evening, we took a walk with Salva in that direction and we came upon a man sitting on the ground pounding away at two pieces of metal. There was no hut nearby or even a mat to sit on, but it looked like he had set up camp. The area had been cleared in a small circle around him. A few feet away from him stood the beginnings of a basic shelter-- a stick and branch skeleton that would soon be covered with a palm roof.

a hen and her eggs, under protective cover

a hen and her eggs, under protective cover

He told us that he and his family had fled from the fighting in the disputed territory of Abyei and he was trying to resettle on that little plot of land in Wau. He said he had six children, but one died, leaving him with two girls and three boys. His wife had died recently too. He had burned a few trees to make charcoal for sale at the market. One chicken pecked at the grass around us, and another was hidden underneath a small mesh keeping five eggs warm. Everything in the world he owned was within arm’s length of where he sat and all he wanted to do was finish making his pot so he could cook something for dinner. We thanked him for talking to us and left him to his pot.

“And you can tell by the termite mounds too.” Salva continued. “If they are in a line, then underneath is a river aquifer.  But if they are scattered around, then underneath is a pool aquifer. These are the signs of life that show where there is water.” I wondered, what in the termites’ little genes made them know water was underneath them? Then I marveled at the survival mechanisms built within us.

Arual Ayuel from Wunrok village

Arual Ayuel from Wunrok village

In one village, we talked to a woman who had taken it upon herself to maintain the well and to till up farm space right next to it. She said she was grateful for the water because now she has time for farming and feeding her children. I asked her what she wanted to grow. She said she will grow tomatoes and okra. I asked her what makes her happy. She said, “When I have food.”

“Yes, that makes me happy too.” I told her. But, later I thought about it. Food doesn’t make me happy. Subsistence and survival are not things I consider in my normal life. I think about my house with more bedrooms than I need. I think about picking black berries in the back yard to make cobbler for a nine-year old who still knows innocence. What makes me happy is cuddling up on my couch to watch a movie on my big screen and spending time with the people I love, going to dinner with my friends, having the space and time to write, seeing the world. But in a place like this, all of those things seem pretty ridiculous.

This morning I went out behind the compound for my morning walk before breakfast, earlier than usual. There were so many people out, that I had to walk deeper into the bush than I had ever gone before. When I was finished, I had somehow gotten myself turned around. There was nothing to orient me. None of the trees looked familiar and the path was gone. I could no longer see the blue roof of the compound in the distance.

That set off a chain reaction of irrationality. I imagined myself being hopelessly lost and everyone at the compound searching for me, calling my name, the neighbors’ voices calling out an accented Angelllllleeek, the children screaming  kawaaaaaaaja. I felt my throat tighten. I am stronger than that. I swallowed. I walked one way for 50 feet. I turned around and walked another way. Then I turned around again. And again. Then my mouth dried up. I fantasized about my death, dying in the bush, dehydration, heatstroke, the vultures waiting for my chest to stop moving. My heart drummed in my throat. I wanted to curl up in a ball at the base of a tree that did not look familiar to me and heave sobs.

I am stronger than that. I thought about those children taking care of themselves and the man on the ground with his pot and his chickens; and I stopped in my tracks. I sat down to breathe in cool morning air and to slow my heart. I thought about the woman tilling her own land for okra. I looked up to the sky. After a few minutes I stood up, turned my back to the rising sun and walked until I found a path. Then I walked some more until I saw the familiar cracks in the ground, acacias by my side, and finally the blue roof of the compound in the distance. When I got closer, I realized I was on a new path altogether.