When Dep Tuany arrived on a drilling rig in the impoverished Sudanese village of Boriak, hostility lingered thick in the air. The village held roughly 1200 refugees living in grass and wood huts. They had recently returned from camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. A local chief had just been killed by one of the larger tribes in the region, and his people were rallying to execute the offending tribe’s chief in retaliation. Though he hadn’t been in Sudan for 17 years, Tuany recognized the chief who was scheduled to be slaughtered. He used to wage war on Tuany’s village in neighboring Maiwut County. He was responsible for the death of Tuany’s friends and family.
“The community leaders said, go to the village where the chief was killed,” says Tuany, one of the first southern Sudanese refugees to come to San Diego in 1991. “They have nothing. Now they are filled with anger. They want to kill people. The well may be good enough reason for them not to retaliate.”
In a village where the people walk over eight hours to retrieve unclean water daily, a freshwater well is a godsend. Tuany went the next day and, two days later, hit water. He called the tribes together at the site of the borehole and said, “Look at it. Now I am coming from a faraway distance. Before I get to my village, and knowing that you also killed my people, you guys have the first well.”
The people of Boriak were filled with guilt and said, “We are not going to do anything. If we were fighting, for sure we could not get this drinking water.”
Pleased with their decision, Tuany told them they would be used as an example so other tribes would stop fighting. The village, just days earlier on the brink of war, exploded instead with celebration. People came from all around and danced, slaughtered goats, and showered Tuany and his team with beer, wine, and chickens.
“It was one of the most beautiful wells I can remember,” Tuany recalls. “Look at the beauty of having clean water bring forgiveness between the community themselves. Is it good to retaliate? Or is it good to forgive?”
When Tuany and his team left, the villagers asked when he would return. The well was capable of providing 200 gallons a day, but unfortunately, it was not nearly enough. When Tuany later returned, the population of the village had grown to about 2000.
The celebration at the next site was similar. Upon striking water, Tuany and his team were given a lamb by the village chief, which they planned to slaughter in the morning. While it was staked in place overnight, the lamb was eaten by a hyena. In the morning, the overjoyed chief gifted them another lamb, in addition to firearms, to defend themselves against animals and vandals. Their third stop was Maiwut County, where Tuany’s mother lived. He hadn’t seen her in 21 years. After drilling 80 meters into the earth, the crew hit water. Tuany’s mother was the first to drink from the well.
Tuany first returned to Sudan in December 2008 and spent several months driving Water for Sudan’s (A Rochester, New York–based nonprofit organization) $290,000 drilling rig from Mombasa, Kenya, to southern Sudan. He purchased supplies in Uganda along the way. Tuany reached Sudan in April 2009 and was able to drill two wells (only one of which struck water, in Malek) before being forced to stop by May rains. The wet season was in full swing, and many roads became impassable. He stored the equipment for his next trip, which came in February 2010. Water for Sudan’s rig was being used in another area, so Tuany hired a Russian contractor to drill the wells in Boriak, his hometown, and surrounding areas. Each borehole cost $15,000 and there was no guarantee of hitting water. Of the 15 planned boreholes, Tuany and the contractor were able to drill seven. Only three struck water. Over 260 southern Sudanese villages still lack access to clean water.
“Sometimes, when I see the time coming for me to return from Sudan, I don’t want it, because I need to give more,” Tuany says. “But there is no way I can give more because this is it. I don’t have enough. I have to leave.”
Tuany, 47, wears a black suit and speaks softly as he shows me around the Southern Sudanese Community Center in City Heights. The center was founded in 1995 to assist refugees of the second Sudanese civil war with the transition to life in San Diego. English, Arabic, computing, and domestic lessons are among the free curriculum offered to the community, which peaked at about 5000 people in 1998 and now counts between 1000 and 2000 people, Tuany estimates. Over 30,000 South Sudanese have sought refuge in the United States since the war broke out in 1983.
The center moved into its current City Heights location on Polk and Fairmount, a former public library, in December 2006, after 11 years at nearby Presbyterian, Latter Day Saints, and Seventh-day Adventist churches. The words “Kuben ke mal” are written over the reception desk — “Welcome in peace” in the language of Tuany’s Nuer tribe. A lion painted on the wall proudly guards the entrance.
“The lion welcomes you,” Tuany says, smiling. The computer lab walls are adorned with murals, photos of livestock and villagers in southern Sudan, and art projects from Sudanese children. A poster reads, “Women, your vote is your voice,” urging women to take part in the January referendum to grant southern Sudan independence from the north.
In the next room, a volunteer named Quincy acquaints herself with a sewing machine for the new weekend sewing classes. The center is run entirely by volunteers such as Quincy.
“If you have anything at all, you have to give back to the community,” the San Marcos woman says. “It feels good to give back.”
A portrait of Dr. John Garang de Mabior, the original leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, overlooks the room. A banner next to the Sudanese flag reads: “‘Would you like to be a second-class citizen in your own country? It’s absolutely your choice.’ — Dr. Garang.”