Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

From the depths

It takes a village to build a well. Residents of the Khamsadegaig Camp for internally displaced persons look down a well they built with help from the Darfur Emergency Response Operation, a joint program of Caritas Internationalis and Action by Churches Together (ACT). The Catholic and Protestant aid networks have pooled their resources since 2004 in order to help some of the 2.5 million people displaced by violent conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region.

In 2007 I was shooting in the Darfur region in western Sudan, where government-sponsored violence, what many considered genocide, had killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven millions from their homes into crowded displacement camps in Darfur and across the border in Chad. In any desert region, a well is a point of gathering, of community, indeed of life itself—for without the water it yields there is no way to survive. During this and an earlier visit to Darfur, I had captured hundreds of images of people around wells, mostly women and girls fetching water. Some of those wells served both displaced people and the host communities where they’d been located, even though those two groups represented different sides of the inexact division of the region’s people into Arab and African populations. In those cases, the simple act of digging wells was a contribution toward reconciliation between two groups caught in the government’s divide and conquer policies.

Yet I was still searching for a way to show how a well brought a community together. In a moment of temporary stupidity, in the Khamsadegaig IDP camp, I decided I would climb down into one, and have the community members look down at me. Sounded simple enough.

One of the issues in doing this were the rungs in the wall of the well, allowing people to climb in and out. Made of bent rebar and anchored in the brick walls of the well, they were designed for Darfuris, who, not to be too blunt about it, are a heck of a lot skinnier than me. And the bricks themselves—made in the camp—weren’t the most solid of building materials. So as I peered down into the well, where the surface of the water was about 35 feet down, and wiggled the highest rungs, it seemed a good idea to set up a belay. Trouble was, a search of the immediate area produced no rope. The closest thing we came up with was some nylon webbing that was used to strap the spare tire to the roof rack of the jeep. Since it had been exposed to the UV radiation of the desert for at least several months, I worried it had the breaking strength of fettuccine. But it was all we had. So we backed the jeep up and fastened one end to the bumper, and one end went around my waist. I began climbing gently down the rungs, most of which wiggled rather menacingly as I descended. A couple of them were so loose that I skipped putting any weight on them.

I got down to where my lens could take in the entire opening above. I figured that if worse came to worse, I at least wouldn’t die quickly. I would fall, the webbing would snap, I’d land in the water, thus polluting the major water source for thousands of people, causing an epidemic which would end with people in moonsuits from the CDC flying in. And they’d blame it on me, of course, whether or not I managed to climb out of the well before drowning. With nothing serious to worry about, then, I simply couldn’t figure out why I was shaking.

My left arm was looped around one of the rungs that seemed solid enough to hold me. I used two flashes off camera, gaffer taped together, held in my left hand, with a cord running to the camera in my right hand. I dialed up the flash compensation by a stop or two to illuminate the faces and dumbed down the exposure by one stop in order to keep the sky dark. I leaned out as far as I could to try to get closer to the middle of the shaft.

And then I took a few pictures. Simple. Then I climbed out. Whew.

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