Lost Boys found: Well effort has helped thousands
YIIK-ADOOR, South Sudan – Gabriel Chan wants to erect a fence around his primary school, in South Sudan's tree-dotted savanna, to eliminate distractions caused by stray sheep, goats or even long-horned cattle ambling across the dusty yard.
Women walk from a well in Buot Anguei village near Mayen Abun in South Sudan.
The new headmaster is just as eager to get the roofless library built, disinfect the latrines, persuade a mother to re-enroll her young daughter, and boost the quality of teaching. A roll call of chores aside, there are eight classrooms packed with 600 children "thirsting for learning," Chan says with cheerful fervor on a torpid afternoon.
One vital need was filled weeks before the village school reopened in February: A 205-foot well was installed by a native crew led by former Lost Boys of Sudan rooted once more in their poor, war-riven homeland after years of refuge in America.
Their no-frills nonprofit group, Rochester-based Water for South Sudan, has drilled 257 boreholes since a 22-year civil war with Sudan's Arab north ended a decade ago, infusing remote settlements in the world's newest nation with life-altering vigor.
A majority of the nonprofit's board members are from the Rochester area, and numerous Monroe County school fundraising efforts have contributed to the cause. These wells are tangible proof of their efforts.
Typically 175 to 300 feet deep, the durable, hand-pump wells supply at least 650,000 people with aquifer water that is free of bacteria, parasites and mud. More than a third of South Sudan's 11 million people have no ready access to fresh water, a menace most acute in the December-to-May dry season when temperatures can soar far above 100 degrees.
A well acts as a shield against waterborne diseases but also as a trigger for communities to open a market or school, organize an agricultural seed bank, entice a health clinic or possibly Western aid, says Salva Dut, the nonprofit's founder and a former Rochester resident.
Dut still visits Rochester for occasional speaking engagements and, each June, meets with fundraisers and addresses the group's annual meeting.
From bathing, cooking and drinking safely to growing a vegetable plot or building a traditional mud-hut tukel, having clean water at hand is a "step up for people who really need it," adds Dut. "Give them a lift and somehow they push on and help themselves."
His deputies, Ater Akol Thiep and A.J. Agok, spent a decade in Dallas before heading back for good to the semiarid countryside that haunted their childhoods. They were joined by John Mourwel, a child soldier at age 10 who had relocated to Kansas City.
They've swapped First World comforts — electricity, paved roads, tap water, garbage pickup, mail — for an arduous mission in this Texas-size mix of grasslands, swamps and rainforests where half the population lives on less than $1 a day.
For the most part, it was an easy choice. But their work seems all the more momentous now that South Sudan, an independent republic since 2011, is at war again — with itself.
A political power struggle pitting President Salva Kiir against a pivotal deputy he had dismissed burst into violence in the capital city of Juba in December 2013, reopening centuries-old divisions between the two largest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer.
Battles between the Dinka-dominated government and Riek Machar, a Nuer commander leading the insurrection, spread north to Bor, Malakal and other cities along the White Nile River, which bisects the nation. The fighting has killed tens of thousands, displaced 2 million civilians, raised the specter of famine in inflamed regions and disrupted a subsistence-farming economy propped up by oil revenue and Western backers.
Dut's wells are dotted throughout his home state of Warrap and neighboring Bhar el Ghazal, vast territories untouched by combat in the country's western half. But the hostilities halted fitful attempts to drill in Nuer lands east of the Nile, a setback Dut hopes to begin solving with a new ally in Omaha, Neb.
Buey Ray Tut, a 28-year-old Nuer émigré, runs Aqua-Africa, a nonprofit that has sunk 22 wells in Central Equatoria state near Juba since 2011. He reached out to Dut and they agreed to share the cost of building six wells on opposite sides of the nation.
A borehole costs anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000, and donations have flowed in steadily from schools, churches and fraternal clubs across the United States.
Dut's dozen-strong drilling team placed the first two wells at the school and market here in Yiik-Adoor, a mostly Dinka village of around 2,000 people. It lies 50 miles northeast of Wau, the No. 2 city, where a third well was recently dedicated by the Dut-Tut duo.
Tut aims to sink a second trio of wells in January in the embattled state of Upper Nile, where he grew up. His father, John, a Nuer military officer in 1995, smuggled his wife and six sons to nearby Ethiopia to escape intense fighting. He was locked up and brutally beaten. It took his family three years to secure asylum in America's Midwest.
On an exploratory trip to his birthplace of Maiwut, Tut says news of his alliance was greeted with disbelief. "To know this man, a Dinka, is providing you water is astonishing," he says.
Each spring, in dozens of settlements with a new well, children are freed up from the all-day grind of collecting water from distant ponds that turn shallow and stagnant. Instead they go to school — and, for girls especially, it's often for the first time.
An estimated 73 percent of South Sudanese ages 15 or older cannot read or write. While primary schools enroll 45 percent of all children, class counts dwindle over eight grades, and barely 2 percent progress into the four-year secondary program. Add a reliable well, and a spurt in expectations invariably follows.
"The learning process improves," marvels teacher Jonas Weeth in Aliek, a crossroads town 25 miles east of Yiik-Adoor that has seen school enrollment surge from 60 pupils to 840 since getting a well in 2006. "When they can drink more, they pay attention more. They're healthier. I love to see happy children."
Further north in Abilnyang, an isolated village in the central hinterland near where Dut grew up, Ayok Ajok says the transforming effect of a well in 2008 occurred after he'd lost two infants to illnesses he suspects were caused by contaminated water.
"I'm raising my four children in a good environment" where diarrhea, typhoid and other water-related scourges have dwindled, says Ajok, a retired police chief. But he still worries that "disease is not something you can control."
Malaria, tuberculosis, measles and meningitis are common afflictions at the clinic in Aliek, evidence of a low national vaccination rate and a scarcity of low-cost treatment options. Wildlife perils are abundant too, from cobra bites to hyena maulings.
Storks gather on a treetop in Warrap state, South Sudan.
For many others, war has put lives on hold, and illiteracy is a stubborn outgrowth.
Nykuith Puk hasn't heard from her husband, a Nuer soldier who switched allegiance from the army to the rebels, since she fled Bentiu with their two children in January 2014. "I have hope I will see him again," she says at a camp near Wunroc for 650 displaced people from 10 tribes. "No one," she adds wearily, "is going to win this war."
With medicines in short supply, the ragged camp feels a world apart from Yiik-Adoor, where children gather in knots near the school on a Saturday to whack a puck with sticks or take shelter from 118-degree heat under a mahogany tree.
"We get the good water here," declares John Athian, 20, a cattle dealer's son headed to secondary school in Wau. He points disdainfully toward an older, shallower well a half-mile away: Drilled with a hand-powered auger, its bacteria-tainted water emits a sulfurous odor.
His brother, Fastino, 19, an eighth-grader, dreams of attending college. "I work hard, I want to do well," he says. Listening in, 9-year-old Ayak Akot laments having to leave school after second grade to care for three younger siblings.
A well-inspection team midway through a six-week tour rounds up $50, enough to pay for six years of school fees and two uniforms. Chan, the headmaster, volunteers to hire a moped and drive 10 miles to ask Ayak's mother if she'll reconsider.
When the visitors return from a 1,500-mile odyssey over bone-jarring roads, Ayak is there to greet them, her bright eyes gleaming. She's wearing her school backpack.
Last year, 72 students, 11 of them girls, graduated in Yiik-Adoor and roughly 20 will move on to secondary school. Put the right ingredients in place — "humanly speaking, water is the first basic initiative" — and education becomes the linchpin in fostering job skills, democratic ideals and "a sense of national unity and harmony," Chan says.
A big motivator for the young, Chan says, "is seeing the fruits of educated people," and admiration runs deep for refugees once bowed by suffering who have returned from afar with humanitarian projects in tow.
An estimated 2.2 million people died in the independence war, many from hunger and disease. Another 4 million were displaced, including 17,000 children known widely as Lost Boys who languished in disease-ridden refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya.
Dut was among the first of 3,800 mostly orphaned children resettled as teenagers and young adults in the United States between 1995 and 2001. In 2004, 19 years after running for his life into the bush, he learned that his parents had survived.
He was a U.S. citizen by then, a college student working as a church clerk in Rochester. He flew back to find his father recovering from abdominal surgery to remove Guinea worms. Right away, he knew how to help.
It took guts to stand up and ask, in halting English, for money. But Dut's self-effacing charm, a natural leader's poise wrapped in polite, leg-pulling humor, saw him through. He put his first well in his home village of Loun-Ariik in January 2005, days after a peace deal ended Africa's longest-running war.
To tap an aquifer, the crew lines up a well along a contour of tall trees — mango, kuel, sausage, tamarind. Villagers are trained to carry out maintenance, spread safe-hygiene habits and collect funds for spare parts to repair any breakdowns rapidly.
The self-sustainable model, designed to prevent wells from becoming defunct, is doing its job. Angelique Stevens, an English professor and one of the nonprofit's board members in Rochester, tested 80 older wells and found all but one of them still operating.
The sole dry well had a broken rod, an easy fix that hadn't been dealt with for over a week. On average, Stevens says, breakdowns are years apart and repairs are completed in three to five days — a standout on a continent where thousands of wells fall into disuse.
Many of the wells' concrete platforms, however, had been trampled by cattle breaching the villagers' wooden-stake fences. That might mean mobilizing a rehab team next year.
On an evening stroll back in Wau, Dut stops to chat with local residents filling up jerrycans at a well placed outside the crew's equipment compound on the city's outskirts.
Hearing a tapping sound deep in the bush, he comes upon a farmer creating a pot from scrap metal. Recently widowed, Ajak Akech tells of escaping with his five children, ages 3 to 15, from Abyei, a treacherous border town, on a United Nations plane in January. He rented an acre, felled small trees to sell as charcoal and began framing a tukel
The school well in Yiik-Adoor is also used by a small community nearby.
After 10 minutes of conversation, he apologizes, saying he needs to finish his work and heat a sorghum gruel for his children, due home any minute.
"You're OK for water?" Dut asks.
Thankful for the stranger's concern, Akech points in the well's direction. Dut goes on his way, stalks of yellow grass crunching underfoot and a smile playing on his lips in the fast-gathering orange dusk.
Ben Dobbin is a freelance writer who lives in Brighton. He was a correspondent for the Associated Press in London, New York and Rochester from 1983 to 2012.
Ben Dobbin and Salva Dut in South Sudan.
About this report
I first wrote about Salva Dut in 2004 as he struggled to raise money to build a well in his father's village in southern Sudan. I went to his homeland in 2008 to see for myself how a well can transform a poor village, and everyone in it. Dut's nonprofit group is as worthy a venture as I've ever come across in more than 30 years as a journalist. When I decided to do a followup piece this year, my priority was to shine a light into a kind of work that goes on quietly and successfully in difficult corners of the world, but is rarely covered in the media.
— Ben Dobbin, Brighton