The Local Meaning of the Global Water Crisis

Editor's Note: Today, in honor of World Water Day, we're publishing this guest post from Doc Hendley, the founder of Wine to Water, a nonprofit organization focused on bringing clean water to the nearly one billion people lack access to clean water. The water crisis is one of the largest and yet most under-reported humanitarian crises in the world, says Hendley.

What's the Big Idea?

We started digging early that morning. It was July, so we knew it was going to get really hot, really quick— daytime temperatures in Darfur that time of the year can easily reach a hundred and thirty degrees Fahrenheit. Plus, there was much more to do. The digging was only the beginning.

There were at least a dozen of us men working together in a wide- open spot on the western edge of Nyala, just past the outskirts of town. Very little vegetation grew there— the place was all sand and rocks. In fact, many local women collected the smallest of these rocks, arranged them in piles on the roadside according to size, and sold it as gravel. I always made a point of buying my gravel from these women for whatever building projects we had.

We each took turns digging; the first foot or so was mostly loose sand, but that soon gave way to a thick crust. Slowly we chipped away at the hard earth until our hole was approximately three feet deep and about two and a half feet wide and seven feet long. That was when Amir jumped down inside the hole.

He stood at one end, then quickly dragged his left foot lengthwise along the dirt, leaving a dusty path about a foot wide and six feet long. Without a word, an older man handed him the shovel. Amir began digging again, quickly yet carefully, within the outline he had created. All of the men took turns digging the smaller hole.

I was struck by their precision and efficiency. It was as if this digging was instinctual. Once the second hole- within-a-hole was neatly carved out to a depth of three feet, all of the men from Ismael’s family and I then walked over to the open bed of a small, dusty white pickup truck and lifted out Ismael’s limp body. He had been dead just over twelve hours and was wrapped in a white linen shroud customary for Muslim burials. As we gently lowered Ismael’s body down to Amir, who was standing in the hole, thoughts and emotions were storming inside me. I was heartbroken for Ismael’s family.

I was pissed at the Janjaweed for wrecking everything they touched. Most of all, I felt like Ismael’s death was ultimately my fault. I believed he was probably murdered because of his work with me, bringing fresh water to the very people the Janjaweed were mandated to kill.

For the past three weeks, my team had been working extra hard. We rehabbed a dozen old wells, completed chlorine tablet drops to rural villages, and dug hundreds of latrines for Sania Afondu, as well as establishing a new hygiene education program. We had been very busy, and I was proud of my guys, so I gave them a couple days off to rest. Ismael hopped on the bus to spend the weekend in his home village visiting with his wife and three children and bringing them his week’s wages.

On the half- day ride back to Nyala and back to work, Ismael’s bus was stopped just after nightfall about one mile short of the Nyala police checkpoint. Four Janjaweed soldiers blocked the bus, aiming AK-47s at the windshield, while two others pushed open the door and climbed aboard. 

One by one the men forced all of the passengers out the door. They lined them all up, men, women, and children, and made them lie facedown in the cold sand. A soldier walked back and forth along the line of frightened travelers, interrogating them about their involvement with the SLA. Then he picked out four men, including Ismael, and loaded the rest of the people back onto the bus.

With all of the passengers watching, the soldiers forced Ismael and the others onto their knees, yanking their hands behind their backs. Then they lowered their rifles and shot each one of them in the back of the head, execution style. It all happened very quickly. Amir gently rolled his friend onto his right side, facing Mecca, and slipped him into the smaller interior hole. Ismael fit perfectly inside. Amir carefully covered the hole with large, fl at, chalky white stones and climbed out. Following Ismael’s father’s lead, we each took turns shoveling dirt atop the stones, slowly refilling the grave.

Everyone wanted to pitch in. I think maybe in a strange way it helped with the healing process of losing a son, father, and friend. Of course, in the Muslim culture, burials are an event that only the men are allowed to attend; the rest of the family would feast together night and day for the next three days in celebration of Ismael’s life.

From that whole event, the one thing that was seared into my memory, the thing I still ponder most during those dark times when I have neither strength nor will to suppress such thoughts, is the image of Amir dragging his foot across the bottom of the grave without hesitation to perfectly fit our friend into his final resting place. 

What's the Significance?

I lived in Darfur from August of 2004 to August of 2005. During that year, the UN estimated that more than a hundred and twenty thousand people were killed as part of the fighting between the SLA and the Janjaweed and, of course, the genocide of the black African population.

Death was all around me during my tenure. Hell, I even came close to dying a few times myself. But it took seeing Amir measure out a man- width hole using the length of his foot for me to realize that, sadly, the Darfuri people had become experts in the matters of death. I think whatever scraps of innocence I had left in my body were buried with Ismael that day in the grave that I helped dig.

Reprinted from Wine To Water by Doc Hendley by arrangement with Avery Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright © 2012 by Doc Hendley.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.