By Maureen Tai, 2 July 2018
“To the pond and back – to the pond and back – nearly a full day of walking altogether. This was Nya’s daily routine seven months of the year. Daily. Every single day.”
In A Long Walk to Water, not one, but two Sudanese children fearfully and desperately endure the worse conditions conspired by humans and nature. Nya lives where water is scarce and seasonal, and access to this life-giving elixir is dictated by the vagaries of an ancient tribal war. Twenty years earlier when Salva was Nya’s age, he fights for survival in his war-racked country. Sudanese of one faith are aggressors, using violence to oppress, extinguish even, the lives of the non-believers and the less powerful.
Based on true events, these are stories that attest to the strength and resilience of the human spirit. These are stories about our common humanity.
I knew almost nothing about Sudan before I picked up this slim tome. What I learnt shocked me. Water, that precious resource that gushes out of taps that I can turn on and off at will any time of the day, is transported in a container balanced precariously on the head of a bare-footed child from the Nuer tribe. Her name is Nya and she is eleven years old. She walks for hours across barren lands, under the glare of the unrelenting sun. To and from shrinking water holes, to and from her family, twice a day, every day, for over 200 days in a year, to collect brown, muddy water.
There is no question of why Nya does it. That is the only way to survive.
More than twenty years earlier, Salva Dut, a young boy from the Dinka tribe, is also not given much of a choice. One moment, he is sitting in a classroom, learning Arabic and daydreaming about cattle herding, playing with his friends and the bowl of fresh milk that awaits him when he gets home from school. The next moment, gunshots ring out. Panic and chaos erupt and Salva is alone, terrified, confused and unsure of what to do. It is unsafe to go home, so he walks and runs in the opposite direction, away from his beloved family and his village, away from the bellicose government in the North who want to turn Sudan into a Muslim country, away from the equally truculent rebels in the South who want to fight against the oppressors. He flees into the bush. Thinking only of his family and fortified by his resolve to see them again, Salva is grudgingly accepted by a group of Dinka tribespeople and together, the strangers begins the long walk to neighbouring Ethiopia, and then onwards to Kenya. It is a perilous journey. Salva and his companions face starvation, thirst, hungry lions, snapping crocodiles, tempestuous rivers and the most terrifying threat of all – unfeeling humans and their cold, hard guns. There are casualties and heartbreaking losses, and unspeakable, near unbearable horrors.
There is no question of whether Salva should make the journey. That is the only way to survive.
And Salva Dut does survive. He is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a group of 40,000 Dinka and Nuer boys who were displaced or orphaned as a result of the civil war in Sudan that raged from 1987 to 2005. After an 18-month trek to Kenya and five years spent languishing in a refugee camp, the grace of a (then) compassionate United States offers Salva, now a young man, the chance of a new life in America and the hope of reuniting with his family.
Linda Sue Park tells Salva’s harrowing and true story in unembellished, compelling and clear prose, honing in on the key turning points in Salva’s life and juxtaposing it against Nya’s more peaceful, but no less precarious existence. Their stories, masterfully told in parallel, overlap in an uplifting and hopeful conclusion.
But while Nya and Salva’s trials have seemingly ended, we realise that for millions of other children around the world, their stories of displacement, loss and fear continue or are just beginning. For them, it is our responsibility to extend understanding, compassion and help.
There is no question of whether we should, or should not do it. That is the only way for our humanity to survive.
For ages 8 and up.