Drinking clean water and barely hanging on

“English? English?” I mumble through the crowd looking for someone to interview. A few men look around and then back with an air of resignation. At some point Charles Kol appears. He is dressed in a peach colored shirt and has a book stuck on his chest pocket.

“English?” I ask him. He responds affirmatively. All around us are men with rough haircuts and hardened faces; the well-dressed Charles Kol doesn’t look like he belongs here. As I find out shortly, he doesn’t. Neither do the rest.

We are at Kuajina Evening School, a place for adult literacy. A few metres from the hand pump on a well is an old imposing brick building that has seen better days. It stands defiantly in the unfenced space of about an acre where men sit huddled in groups speaking in hushed tones.

World Concern is repairing and rehabilitating hand pumps in partnership with South Sudan’s Ministry of Water. As the job starts, youths surrounding the technicians seem mostly curious than excited. They have the kind of look you get when you’ve been through life and seen quite a few disappointments. But still they hang around the repair crew. As minutes tick, I can tell they are eager to see water flow.

It is part of World Concern’s emergency response – providing clean water through repair and rehabilitation of clean water points especially in villages receiving an influx of people displaced by conflict.

Since February when renewed fighting between militia and government forces started, the four classes inside the building have been home to hundreds of displaced people.

I find out that Charles is barely 24 hours old here. He arrived last night with 123 others on the back of a truck. Tonight another set of 124 will arrive in the already overcrowded space.

Safe house
The increasing population of displaced people has to grapple with many unimaginable challenges. Charles for instance, had to sit still on a cold floor till morning – his first night here. When he got up, he couldn’t get water either. He says he found many men and women thronged at a single hand pump at the local town centre attempting to fetch. “Even if you borrow, you won’t get because everyone is looking for it,” said Charles.

“Being alive is better than being comfortable,” he continues.

“What will you eat tonight?” I ask.

“My friend, I don’t know. Only God knows. If we get something small we will share (with my friends). If not, we sleep like that.”

South Sudan has been devastated by a three–year civil war that has seen the economy take a nosedive and food prices rising daily. Many of those displaced, like Charles, are cut off from their families and sources of income. They are barely hanging on.

“To tell you the truth I have not eaten anything all day. Food here is very expensive. One small container of sorghum is 400 SSP ($2.50). Where can you get that kind of money?”

When the hand pump finally coughs, sputters and unleashes a nice cold stream of water, a wave of excitement spreads through the compound. It’s the first time I have seen these men smile.

Black clouds are hovering, and the sound of thunder is loud – signs of impending rain. As my colleagues rush to the vehicle, I remain motionless, there, next to Charles Kol taking it all in. I am happy that he will drink clean water tonight, but how do I just walk away from a man staring at hunger in the face?

World Concern is providing assistance to a growing population of internally displaced people in need, through improving access to clean water, vital emergency supplies and trauma counseling.


Story and photos by Edwin Kuria