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From Stan, our man in Sudan: Every drop counts

10/18/2005 7:59am

By Stan Stalla
DARFUR, SUDAN (Oct 18): Now that I spend most of my time in Darfur, I’ve become accustomed to the unexpected.
Take my daily shower, for example. The cold drip, drip, drip from a metal pipe bounces water off my head onto my shoulders. From there, it trickles down front and back, eventually joining the rivulets that find their way to the hole in the cement floor that leads out of the compound. Sometimes, right in the middle of a quick shampoo, everything stops. Once soaped up, I hurry through the rinse process, all the time wondering if each drip, drip, drip will be the last drops of the day.

In many places in Darfur, the water used for showers or toilets or washing dishes is delivered by donkey cart. Every drop truly counts — nothing like the unlimited supply that flows through the pipes of my house in Maine.

On my way out to an IDP camp the other day, I watched a parade of horse and donkey carts rumbling over a sandy track, up a hill and then out of sight. Most animals pulled a cart with two 80-gallon metal drums welded together, fixed to a wooden platform supported by two sturdy iron wheels. Each cart had its owner, many dressed in a long, white jalabiyeh and white turban or skullcap, seated next to the tank with whip in hand.

“Let’s see where they’re going,” I said to Youssef, my driver.

The queue of men and animals led to muddy area. To the left, a well gushed water into two large holding pens made of concrete. Animals and carts were backed up to the holding pens, where their owners used plastic containers called gerkan to scoop up water and pour it into the metal drums. Gerkan is an Arabization of the phrase “jerry can,” each holding five gallons of water.

Bend, scoop, lift and pour; bend, scoop, lift and pour. If efficient, a fellow standing in the mud next to the well repeated this sequence 32 times to fill his tank.

Filling up with water. (Photo by Stan Stalla)

After taking a couple of photos, I walked to a shady spot under a tree, where the owner of the well collected his fee: 300 Sudanese Dinars ($1.20) to fill up the metal drums; SD 50 for the small-timers who only had a donkey with two 20-gallon water bladders hanging on each side. Around him lounged a dozen or more men, waiting for their turn at the well.

Curious about the economics of this operation, I asked some questions. Each man was an entrepreneur — his capital being horse, metal tank and wooden cart, or donkey and two rubber water bladders.

The larger water peddlers cleared SD 500 ($2) per tank, while the small-timers made SD 150. Besides paying for the water, the other cost would be feeding the draft animal. I’ve often seen women on donkey back, mostly hidden by large bundles of fodder cut from the countryside. Some of these bundles sell for SD 300 in the market. Next time, I’ll have to ask how much fodder it takes to feed a donkey that delivers water all day long to the shops and houses of El Fasher.

Meanwhile, Mohammed the well owner was warming to my line of questioning. He told me that his grandfather had dug his well in 1952. Of the six wells in the neighborhood, he assured me that, from a depth of 47 meters, his water was the cleanest and best tasting. “I have 14 children,” he boasted, “and each has grown up drinking water from this well.”

I was trying to get a handle on his profit margin — always a difficult task to ask a businessman to open his books. Mohammed’s well is powered by city power, when it works (he proudly showed me an electricity meter that spun as the water continued to flow into the holding pen). He also has a back-up system -- a gasoline-powered generator that consumes three gallons a day, if the electricity isn’t on.

Mohammed and one of his helpers stand next to his well and gasoline generator. (Photo by Stan Stalla)

At some point, I stopped doing calculations in my head — there just wasn’t enough information about costs and numbers of customers. The bottom line always is: A fellow like Mohammed doesn’t keep pumping water if there is no money to be made. Nor do the donkey owners deliver it, if they too don’t come out ahead.

After this half-hour diversion, Youssef and I continued on our way to Abu Shouk — a camp of 51,000 IDPs on the outskirts of El Fasher.

A food distribution was scheduled for that day, and I wanted to watch the operations of the Sudanese Red Crescent Society — a local NGO that distributes some of the food. As we neared Abu Shouk, I saw some children walking through a millet field toward the camp. On their heads, they balanced bundles of wood.

Children carry bundles of wood. (Photo by Stan Stalla)

They were on the way back to their homes, where their mothers or older sisters would burn this wood to cook the daily staple aseeda — made by boiling flour and water. It disturbed me to think that young children were being sent outside the camp into the open spaces with the dangers that sometimes lurk there.

When I asked him about it that evening, a U.N. protection officer said that children, gathering firewood without adults, are a recent phenomenon. His thought was that, with the frequent violence against men and women who venture outside the camps, parents were beginning to gamble that their children would be less-desirable targets.

Just before reaching Abu Shouk, Youssef and I came upon a tiny village of fewer than 100 mud huts, many of them with crosses of sticks at the peak of their roofs.

Youssef explained, “That’s a village of Christians from southern Sudan, who fled the civil war 15 or more years ago. They sought refuge in Darfur.”

I talked to some of the villagers who gathered around when we stopped the car. They proudly pointed out a church that had been built for them by African Union soldiers, garrisoned nearby.

As is always the case when I talk with southern Sudanese, they speak of leaving the parched North and returning one day to the green lands of their dreams. When their children shyly joined us, I took a photo of them leaning against a mud hut.

A village of Christians from southern Sudan fled the civil war 15 or more years ago. Here, Southern Sudanese children gather for a photo. (Photo by Stan Stalla)

After witnessing the Abu Shouk food distribution and talking to some of the beneficiaries, it was time to return to town, where a meeting was scheduled with the NGOs and U.N. agencies in charge of water and sanitation services for IDPs.

When the discussions about hand pumps and bore holes and water yards became too technical for me, I found myself thinking about the drip, drip of my daily shower, about the bend, scoop, lift and pour of 32 gerkans, about the kids who carried firewood to mothers lucky to have even three gerkans of water a day, and about the Christian villagers who hoped to return to their green homeland in the south, with its unlimited water.

Stan Stalla and his family are residents of Northport. Maureen and Stan and their children have lived in Third World countries for almost 25 years. Stan is on a humanitarian assignment to Darfur, Sudan, where he is responsible for the emergency food aid donated by the United States. He may be reached at [email protected]

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