Friday, June 10, 2022

Review: A Long Walk to Water

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, opens with two stories: one about a young girl named Nya who, as the title suggests, spends her day doing little more than walking to and from a water source. The second story is about a young boy named Salva who's village is overrun by his country's civil war and is forced to flee.

Both stories take place in Sudan, and both are relatively recent: Salva's story takes place in 1984 and Nya's in 2008 (practically yesterday!).

I have to admit, my first reaction after hearing the story of Nya's endless walking was one of anger towards her parents. How could they subject their child to this life? This thought was quickly followed by two additional insights.

First, while the story talks about literally spending the day retrieving water, how many of my fellow countrymen and women are stuck in essentially the same pattern? That is, going from one minimum wage job to another all trying to meet basic needs? There's lot of effort and movement, but no progress.

And more importantly, how naive and cruel to suggest that her parents are choosing to live in this barren land out of ignorance or stubbornness. Where would I like them to go, and with what resources should they go there? It's easy to forget that my ability to choose my circumstances is a privilege, not the norm shared by all.

As for Silva's story, that one was even harder for me to wrap my head around.

If you spend any time on the web researching how to prepare for emergencies, a common topic will come up: the need for a bug out bag. The idea of 'bugging out' is that some catastrophic event has happened and you need to flee your home or community.

Whether it's a house fire or a local severe weather event, it's smart to have an evacuation plan ready to execute. The problem with much of the advice on the web is the assumption that you're bugging out because of total social collapse and your bag needs to be packed for your new life as a live-off-the-land nomad.

That's just not how emergencies work.

And yet, this is exactly the scenario Silva has found himself in. With no supplies and the most vague plan, run from the sound of gun-fire, he begins a journey of survival--just like the amateur survivalists imagine it. The image of him taking nothing and walking into the wilderness is downright biblical in nature. I'm in complete awe of his courage and fortitude.

I found both stories riveting and my suggestion is that you stop reading my comments here and go read the book for yourself.

Spoilers Ahead

There are many moving moments in Silva's journey, but one that caught me off guard was how his troop of refugees manages to cross the Nile. How does one expect a group of individuals to get across a river so wide it doesn't even look like a river? Considering this is 1984, and not say, 1784, I'd expect them to find the local ferry and hitch a ride across. But that's not what they do. Instead, the group harvests local materials and builds their own boats, using them to safely make it across the river--a two day journey.

Like much of Silva's story, I again find myself in awe when I heard this anecdote. How knowledgeable and tuned for self sufficiency does one need to be that building boats is your natural solution to crossing a body of water. I'm quick to condemn Nya's parents for subjecting her to difficult living conditions, when in reality, I have little sense of what their lives and mindset are like.

One recurring thought I had while listening to the book was how modern the story is. The dates just seemed so recent. Then along come's the book's 3rd act which fully cements this notion that Silva's story isn't ancient history. By chance, Silva is ultimately settled in none other than Rochester, NY, the city I grew up in. And the date of his arrival corresponds to my graduation from college.

The reason Silva's story seems so modern to me is that we're basically the same age, and our lives essentially intersected when we were approaching our 20's. While he was escaping war and surviving in refugee camps, I was attending elementary school and thriving at Boy Scout camp.

This collision of time and space only made me appreciate Silva and Nya's stories even more.

Perhaps the most important take away from the book came as Silva's and Nya's stories are finally revealed to be connected. We are given a glimpse into the profound impact that Silva's newly installed well will have on Nya's village. The new well means that the children no longer need to spend the day retrieving water. This frees them up to attend school, and from there, get an education.

It's as if Silva's story was written to provide a counter argument to my suggestion that Nya's parents leave their home. The text seems to suggest leaving may be tempting, but there's an alternative. Look what happens when you do something as basic as building a reliable and clean water source. With that well you improve the lives of not just one child but a village of children. And those children can in turn can improve surrounding villages, and a virtuous cycle that seemed out of reach can take shape.

Lesson learned Silva, lesson learned.

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