A Long Walk to Water weaves together the stories of two young people, both of whom are from southern Sudan.
We first meet eleven-year old Nya. It is 2008, and she spends her days fetching water for her family. Every day, Nya travels back and forth from her village to the pond, not once but twice.
Next, we meet Salva, also eleven years old, but the year is 1985. He sits in the schoolhouse, not far from his family’s village. At the sound of gunshots, Salva flees into the bush. War between the government and the rebels has reached his village. He walks for hours with others who are fleeing and joins a group from his village, Loun-Ariik, but his family is not among them. Soldiers lead them to the rebel camp. Salva, forced to join the group of women and children, spends the night in a barn. When he wakes up, the others have gone and he is alone. A woman from Salva’s tribe, the Dinka, befriends him. Four days later, she prepares to leave and will not take Salva with her. Strangers approach who are Dinka, but Salva’s family is not among them.
As we alternate back and forth between stories, we learn that Nya’s family must move to a camp near a lake for the dry season. It is a three-day journey from her village. Their tribe, the Nuer, fight with the rival Dinka tribe over the land near the lake, so it is too dangerous to live near the lake year-round. Every day for five months, Nya digs for water in the lake. Her father and Dep, her brother, hunt, hoping not to encounter men from the Dinka tribe. When Nya’s sister, Akeer, becomes sick, Nya and her mother travel with her to the nearest medical clinic, a several day’s walk away. Akeer receives medicine and recovers, but her sickness, the nurse tells them, came from the water, and now Nya’s family must boil their water to destroy the germs.
When we return to Salva, he has been walking for weeks. He meets Buksa, from the Jur-chol tribe, who leads the group to a beehive. With his energy renewed from honey and beeswax, Salva continues walking, and meets Marial, a Dinka who also has not found his family. One day, Salva hears someone calling his name. It is his Uncle Jewiir. Uncle promises to take care of Salva. He has a gun and can protect Salva as they travel through the land of the Aruot, “people of the lion.” Soon afterward, Marial disappears in the middle of the night, the victim of a lion attack. Salva, crippled with grief at the loss of his friend and by his thorn-torn feet, staggers on, coaxed by his uncle to take “a step at a time.” The group crosses the Nile River and begin the treacherous journey across the Akobo desert. After several days, armed men from the Nuer tribe confront the group, and kill Uncle. Though Salva mourns the loss of Marial and Uncle, he feels their strength. He reaches a refugee camp in Ethiopia and searches for his family.
When we pick up the thread of Nya’s story, the rainy season has come and Nya’s family has returned to their village. One day, two men visit and speak with Nya’s uncle, the chief of the village. The strangers survey an area between two large trees and decide that this is where they will find water. After the two men leave, villagers begin clearing the land. Men and trucks have arrived at the village with a large drill, plastic pipes, and other equipment. Nya continues her walk to and from the pond.
Salva’s story continues. In 1991, he is almost seventeen, and still in the refugee camp. However, war has come to Ethiopia and the soldiers force the refugees into the crocodile-infested Gilo River. Salva survives the crossing and finds himself the leader of over a thousand boys traveling to Kenya. The journey will take a year and a half.
Fast forward to 2009 where drilling continues in Nya’s village. Workers need water to operate the drill, so they bring water in trucks from the pond to the site. When discouraged, their leader encourages them. On the third day of drilling, Nya hears a loud whoosh sound. Water shoots out of the hole. People cheer. The water that gushes forth is muddy, but soon becomes clear. Nya continues to walk to the pond while the men finish the well. Meanwhile, men from the village begin clearing the land near the second tree, preparing the land to build a school. Soon, Nya will spend her days at school rather than fetching water.
When we rejoin Salva, he is twenty-two years old, and living in the Ifo refugee camp in Kenya. Michael, an aid worker, teaches him English. Michael tells him that 3,000 men will be chosen to go to the United States. Weeks later, Salva’s name is among the list of the men chosen.
The year is 1996. On the journey to America, Salva learns that he is a Lost Boy, one of the many who have lost their families and homes in the war. Six years later, Salva is living with his adopted family in Rochester, New York, going to college, and studying business. He learns that his father is alive, recovering from surgery in a United Nations clinic in Sudan. Salva journeys to Sudan and after nineteen years apart, reunites with his father. He learns that his mother and sisters, Akit and Agnath, are alive. Two of his brothers, Ariik and Kuol are dead, but Ring is alive. Salva returns to the United States with a plan. Three years later, his goal is near.
Back at Nya’s village, the well is finished. Villagers gather around as the crew’s leader holds up a sign. It says Elm Street School, the school in the United States whose students have raised the money for the well. Nya lines up to fill her bottle as her uncle works the pump. She drinks the clean, cool water. The leader watches the villagers from a distance. He is Dinka, Dep tells her. Why, she wonders, has he drilled water for the Nuer? She approaches him and thanks him for bringing the water. She tells him her name. Then, he introduces himself. His name is Salva.