Jackson Wayongo stands in a cloud of fine dust, the ground beneath him shaking and the air exploding with the racket of rock being pulverized.
A crowd has gathered, as it always does, to watch this momentous event: Wayongo and his crew are drilling a well in a place that looks so dry one wonders if water could possibly be percolating down below. But Wayongo, a public health engineer and well driller for Oxfam, is optimistic.
"We have not struck water, but the formation is giving us courage," he shouts over the roar of the hydraulic drill. "The problem is during the dry season, the water table is very far down."
This will be the fourth deep well Wayango and his crew of five men have drilled recently in the rural areas around Kebkabiya in North Darfur. The water improvements are part of an Oxfam program to help the people in 11 small villages in this region manage as the conflict that has consumed Darfur for more than three years rages on. The initiative also includes constructing latrines and distributing farming tools.
While most of Oxfam's work during the conflict has been geared toward preventing the spread of waterborne diseases among hundreds of thousands of people who have fled from their homes, the agency recognizes that the needs in Darfur extend far beyond the temporary camps to which displaced people have flocked.
"Although there are two million internally displaced people in camps, there are many others remaining in villages who need help too," said Alun McDonald, Oxfam's communications officer based in Khartoum.
And some of them are here on this small hill in Igro. Under a scorching sun, Wayongo is making his second attempt of the day to locate a new source of water for the inhabitants of this village. After drilling about 90 feet down on a nearby rise—and coming up empty—Wayongo decided to move a little closer to a dry river bed and try his luck there.
If he hits water, he'll quickly send a sample to El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, to have it analyzed for salt and other contaminants. If it passes the test, the work crew will install a pump and build a platform around the well to keep the water clean when people draw it up.
Wayongo prefers to drill for water during the dry season because he knows that if he does strike it when the water table is at its lowest, then the supply will be a reliable one. Besides, during the rainy season, which typically stretches between June and October, this kind of work is difficult. The rain swamps the dirt tracks that serve as roads, turning them into mud that can swallow heavy trucks loaded with drilling equipment.
But it is not just the rain that makes movement difficult for Wayongo and his team. As with much of Darfur, the area around Kebkabiya is prone to hijackings and militia activity, and is not always safe to travel around, particularly after dark. When things are secure enough for the team to travel to the villages, they work late—and stay where they are.
So, after a hot and dusty day, Wayongo's crew won't be heading to Oxfam's headquarters and their own comfortable beds in Kebkabiya. They'll camp at Igro—and get an early start on the next day's drilling operation.