Many years ago I heard a Lost Boy speak at our local community college. I cannot remember his name, but this man’s message was in my mind as I read A Long Walk to Water, a fictionalized account of the experiences of Salva Dut, a young Dinka who fled his village along with his classmates in the midst of an armed attack that was part of the Sudanese civil war. Salva left behind his family and fled to Ethiopia. Eventually war would send Salva and 1500 other boys and young men in flight again in hope of safety in Kenya. Eventually, Salva came to the United States, Rochester, New York.
Linda Sue Park interweaves the story of Salva’s journey with the story of Nya, a young Nuer girl, who spends her days walking back and forth to fetch water for her family. The Nuer people have a long history of fighting and tension with the Dinka. Nya’s family and tribe migrate each year when the waters in their village disappear. This year is different, however, as Nya’s younger sister has become ill due to a waterborne parasite and is unlikely to survive the muddy waters that the Nuer survive on when they are forced to leave their village. When a strange man comes to the village and promises that he and his men can find water in the ground, Nya is skeptical. Park allows us to watch the progress of the well digging through Nya’s eyes and to see the impact it will have on the village as construction on a school begins because, as Nya’s father says, the children will no longer have to spend their days fetching water. Even girls, Nya asks, incredulous. Yes, her father replies, even girls. The possibilities for the village seem boundless.
Park brings the two narratives together when Nya explores the rumor that the man digging the well is Dinka. Why, she wonders, would a Dinka help the Nuer? This child’s question strikes the heart of anyone outside of this cultural struggle. Why wouldn’t a Dinka help the Nuer? When Nya introduces herself to the man, she learns his name, Salva Dut.
Salva found his father in a hospital through a cousin and, after navigating the bureaucracy of several governments, managed to reunite, but was unable to return to this village due to the ongoing civil war. His father told him reluctantly that return was impossible because the soldiers would force him to join the fighting. Salva returned to Rochester, New York saddened and wanting to help his people. He settled on the key role of water. He would raise money to dig wells for the villages to liberate the people from the labors and the competition required to stay alive.
The novel is short and the switch from Salva’s to Nya’s story can help young readers who may need a break from the intensity of Salva’s story.
My eight-year-old daughter and I partner read this novel. Below is her guest post review.
Salva’s father told him his mom and one brother were safe at home. His sisters were safe, too, but his oldest brother Ariik died so did the youngest brother Koul. On Nya’s side my mom forgot to tell you the girls did not have to fetch water because of the well and that her dad was building a school! Girls could go, too!
I loved this story because Salva grew up to help people and girls got to go to school.