A Long Walk to Water is the inspiring story of Salva Dut. Salva was born in the Sudan (Eastern Africa) in the town of Loun-Ariik and is a member of the Dinka tribe. In the mid-1980’s Salva was 11 years old. A bloody civil war was raging in his homeland. Although Salva knew of the war and some of its dangers he had not yet seen its effects in his own daily life.
Then one afternoon as Salva sits in his classroom the relative calm outside is shattered by the ricocheting of gunfire. Salva’s teacher, knowing that if the boys are not killed by the rebels they will be forced to fight alongside them in the war, tells all his students to run into the bush and hide. Salva follows his teacher’s instructions and although he escapes death and being conscripted into the rebel army, it is the beginning of many years of wandering and searching.
Eventually joining a group of others who have fled the army Salva begins a walk that will take him across the desert to a refugee camp in Ethiopia and farther away from his family and his home than he could have imagined. At first he does not know anyone else in the group, but eventually makes friends with Marial, another boy about his age. Later, he discovers his Uncle is also part of the group. With the addition of a good friend and his uncle, Salva is feeling a little less frightened and a little more hopeful that the refugee camp will provide solutions to their problems and eventually a way back to his family.
Salva’s happiness is short-lived as the demands of the journey he has undertaken are strenuous and often cruel. A pivotal moment in the story is when Salva simply breaks down, crying, sure he can go no further. Instead of berating him his uncle kneels next to him and directs Salva’s attention to a growth of scrub brush.
“Do you see that group of bushes?” Uncle said, pointing. “You need only to walk as far as those bushes. Can you do that, Salva Mawien Dut Ariik?”
Salva wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. He could see the bushes; they did not look too far away. […]
When they reached the bushes, Uncle pointed out a clump of rocks up ahead and told Salva to walk as far as the rocks. After that, a lone acacia…another clump of rocks…a spot bare of everything except sand.”
This tactic of his uncle’s is what gives Salva his strength not just in their arduous journey across the desert but in many moments later in his life.
Salva’s long journey–which was to go much farther than Ethiopia or even the African continent itself–is told side-by-side with the story of Nya. Nya is a young girl in 21st-century Sudan. She is 11 years old in 2008 as Salva was in 1985. Nya is a member of the Nuer tribe (who have been enemies of the Dinka tribe for hundreds of years) and her uncle is chief of their village.
Nya’s job every day is to walk to the pond (half a morning’s walk away) and get water for her family. She makes two trips to the pond every day. Although the water in the pond is muddy and full of hidden bacteria it is the only source of accessible water in reach of their village. Due to the lack of water Nya’s family must weather the near-fatal illness of her younger sister and the threat of the Dinka tribe as they travel away from their home five months a year when even the pond dries up.
Salva, meanwhile, emerges during his journeys in Africa as a leader of the many others who wander without food or shelter or family, those dubbed “The Lost Boys.” When he travels to the United States with the help of an American family he is again overwhelmed by the strange new challenges that he must face. But he remembers his Uncle: his words and his strong leadership.
Salva grows into a determined, compassionate adult who begins to dream of bringing to others in his homeland what was given to him–the freedom to grow up into the extraordinary person each is meant to be. He believes when people are freed from living only for survival, everyone can accomplish this. Although at times the hugeness of his dream seems overwhelming, he realizes that he has triumphed over that feeling in the past. He forges ahead with a plan.
Salva’s and Nya’s stories intersect as a result of Salva’s commitment to improving the welfare of those who struggle in his homeland. Salva gives Nya a gift that is life-saving in its practical survival elements and in his demonstration of love and compassion for ALL people, regardless of past and present differences. In this story water takes its rightful place as the Giver of Life in innumerable ways.
Salva, himself, in his note at the end of the book gives us all the reason to read his story:
“I overcame all the difficult situations of my past because of the hope and perseverance that I had. I would not have made it without those two things. To young people, I would like to say: Stay calm when things are hard or not going right with you. You will get through it when you persevere instead of quitting. Quitting leads to much less happiness in life than perseverance and hope.”
This book has the power to change you as a human being if you let it.