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Why Build At All?

September 13, 2014

“Only one thing I know; that all things change. If we leave here in a few years nothing will remain. Our roofs fall in, timbers rot, grass will reclaim the land. And in a few years men will come and look and see nothing or maybe a few relics will cause them to wonder. Then why do we build at all? The joy is in the building. We had built with our hands and our hearts, although in each of us there must have been the feeling that this was not forever.” ~Louis L’Amour

When you drive on the road between Turmi and Omorate, the last stretch of gravel road before you reach the dusty pit of the town of Omorate, look to the left, and notice the signs, the official-looking ones. Town names take form on the familiar green background, white lettering. Omorate has never been a destination before this, until rumors of oil edged her from somewhere to pass through to somewhere to be. A road breaks off to the left, wide and relatively rut-free, with a camp of tents and mobile trailers after another quick left. The tents boast little AC units humming along their edges, and I won’t say we don’t look twice. Three hundred foreigners, they say, oil rigs and drills and trucks and floodlights and generators. We never saw, with our own eyes–the road is blocked, and guarded: we live in a distinctly suspicious country. And then, a steady hum from across the river–trucks, moving out. Moving those rigs and drills and trucks and floodlights, tents, generators, mobile trailers, those three hundred foreigners we never once laid eyes on. The earth is nothing if not tenacious, and guards her secrets. Oil lies in the belly here, but under rock too stubborn to give it up, and this is a blessing, or a curse–that distinction left to the ones who walk this scorched land.

We hear they left nothing behind when they moved on. Nothing, save a wide road to the left, and a green sign with white lettering.

Notice, again, the fields to the right now. If you look carefully, it’s been cultivated, with remnants of canals crisscrossing the land. I can remember even seeing a full sprinkler system rolling across the expanse once, a sight jarring with the tall Daasanech man trailing his cows, wooden stool hanging loosely from his fingers, striding long-legged on black tire sandals. Look again–yes, that’s a palm tree you see there, although it isn’t looking so good. There are more, here and there, the ones that have survived against their odds. This was a palm oil plantation, six years in the effort to grow palm trees, evidently for the purpose of running a power plant in Italy. I happened to meet the palm oil man once, he used the airstrip upriver when we happened to be nearby. He was accustomed to things working out in his favor–he said he’d be building a tarmac airstrip, and a hundred trucks a day would be driving out with palm oil. This was his seventh such palm oil plantation, all located across the same latitude on the globe. His girlfriend wore an outfit of pure white. I remember I couldn’t stop staring, at all that white.

They didn’t leave much when they moved on. A small, hand-lettered sign pointing out the plantation to the right. Some diesel pumps along the river bank. A few palm trees valiantly wave their more-brown-than-green fronds in the never-ceasing wind.

You’ll see some buildings when you skirt the town itself. You’ll want to go around, anyhow, no need to drive the streets that cut through the middle of town–this is a border town, after all. There are more than a handful of the buildings, enough to make you look twice, and oddly shaped enough to wonder who left them behind. It was the North Koreans, if you can believe that. They grew cotton–before it failed, and they, too, cleared out.

They left behind the buildings, the ones shaped like greenhouses. They left a graveyard of rusty tractors, other broken-down farm equipment. They left some traces of themselves–some kids that grew up a little different than all the rest, with no secrets left.

Drive out of town, and take the track that goes over the irrigation channel. Follow the ruts through the dirt, sometimes you’ll lose the whole car in a cloud of brown powder. The kids love it when this happens, when the dirt swirls and jumps and chases the windows. I won’t lie, it is beautiful. The last stretch before home is different than it used to be: with the kilometers-long irrigation ditch that rises to the right, in-laid with black plastic that can’t seem to stay in the ditch, and off people’s little domed houses. Who can blame them? It is a sugar plantation, or it was going to be–government investment, and I can’t keep up. The rumors and plans change, inevitably and interminably. Nothing grows but the plastic with legs of its own, it is anyone’s guess if anything ever will.

Eight kilometers down and finally reach the last turn, the one toward the river–where the fig tree sits at the water’s edge, and four windmills line up on the far bank. Home. Here, too, in the compound where we park our truck before taking the boat to the other side, there are the vestiges of another investment short on fruition. A 1970s bright orange tractor, a broken water pump. This was meant to be sesame. Or rubber? Garlic, maybe.

And then behind our compound, down from our village: an Indian cotton plantation. At the height of their optimism, they had five green John Deere tractors running day and night. Water pumps and diesel generators roared at all hours, until you could hardly even remember things used to be still, and the noise is a pollution. Ten thousand hectares marked for development–and right across our track to the fossil beds and the ridge, where we go for cookouts. Drip irrigation was the plan, pump stations and reservoirs, not to mention employment, a company clinic and three meals a day.

One spindly cotton crop and now they’ll move on, too. They leave behind acres and acres of plowed up fields, now neatly cordoned off by parallel roads, a wasteland of black plastic hose. The Daasanech like the hose, they use it for whips. Seems like every man has one now.


It is a full flood this year. The Omo has overflowed her banks, swelling and then bursting with the rainfall hundreds of miles north. We are an island: the river has flowed behind us and before us, hemming us in with thigh-high water. It is the best time of the year.

We, too, will be ones who move on. We, too, won’t stay. We will take some things with us, and we will leave some things behind.

We finish school in the morning and spend our afternoons at the water’s edge. It flows at the bottom of the hill, covers the path to the river, the mango trees and the banana patch stand in water. The fence around the perimeter is more than half submerged. It is a holiday that has flowed to us, with the inner tube blown up and the benches pulled close and the mat laid out under the tamarind tree. The river pulls and we won’t resist. I could watch on her bank for hours, and do. I don’t want to miss one afternoon at the edge, because this I know: all things change. We are all happy, and sad, because every day is a last day, and all things change.

If life could be written as an equation, then this is it: we are the sum of what we take with us, and what we leave behind. The river knows this, she who carves a new path for herself, eats away her borders and lays a new edge. She takes things with her–this year, a decades-old mango tree, one of the ones planted by Caleb’s grandfather. And she leaves things behind. There will be layers upon layers of thick, black silt left in her wake, and the people will plant. Life will spring.

We won’t be here to see her overflow her banks again next year. Or, maybe, this was the last flood, and we bore witness with our splashing and wading, our watching. Maybe the promise will come true, and the dam will fulfill its purpose, and this river will flood no more. Either way, we won’t be here to see it. And so I take my kids down to the river, and watch them play. I sit on the gray benches, next to their grandma, and say little, for there is little to say, when every day is a last day. But I am there, every day, and I will be: until the waters recede, until the river tempers her abundance. Until the yellow-billed stork moves on, until the pelicans relocate, further south, into the mouth of Lake Turkana. Until the fish eagle abandons his perch at the water’s edge. Until the water seeps back and leaves black sludge behind. Until the sweet breeze that sweeps over the water is replaced with the stench of rotting vegetation. Until everything dries up, again.

Because all things change. And in the end, there is only what we take with us, and what we leave behind.



3 Comments leave one →
  1. Karen and Merle Vander Sluis permalink
    September 13, 2014 5:01 pm

    I really love what you wrote and feel what you feel. We will pray for a smooth move and adjustment. We are fine back here and enjoy hearing about your life. Karen and Merle

  2. Ashley permalink
    September 14, 2014 9:17 pm

    I love everything you write…miss you friend. Tea time’s not the same without you!

  3. sandy lewis permalink
    September 15, 2014 10:25 pm

    Very beautiful Joanna. We are thinking of you.

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