She sets out before dawn, the earth cool beneath her feet. She walks with slender poise, her burdened head erect, her steady pace measuring the miles, step by step.
She is fourteen years old.
After a mile, the sun rises. For an instant the naked thorn bushes form skeletal silhouettes before the white horizon. Then the dazzling face of the sun appears and begins its climb, its heat an instant body-blow. She continues to walk evenly, placing each foot with tender precision: heel, sole, toe; heel, sole, toe. She begins breathing a little more heavily.
After two miles, she stops and breaks her fast. Reaching the stippled shade of an acacia tree, she opens the bundle at her hip and pulls out chapatti and water. A snake glides away at her approach.
Her stomach filled, she takes up her load and continues with her unhurried stride. A couple of gaunt cattle shamble past, their skins pulled tight like canvas over the frame of their ribs.
At three miles she starts to sing. It is a traditional song her mother taught her.
Man, he walks in the light of the sun
Woman, she dances by the moon.
Her regular tread marks the rhythm of the words. Her arms swing a little and she dreams secret dreams.
At four miles she is alone in an empty world.
A rising flock of birds first warns of danger. But before she has time to respond, it is upon her – two trucks of rebel soldiers. They are armed, idle and drunk.
She stands like a cornered animal. They drive around her in tight formation. She trembles at the brandished machine guns and quails at the cat-calls.
Finally one soldier vaults over the tail-gate and saunters towards her.
‘Been thinking I’m gonna get me a wife.’ He looks her up and down.
She keeps her eyes lowered, her arms slack by her sides.
He pulls a pistol from his belt and pushes her chin up with the barrel. ‘Look at me, girl.’
She raises clouded eyes. She cannot speak. Her lungs are flat, collapsed. Little gulping noises keep escaping from her throat.
A hiss and a crackle. The jeep radio is on. Shouted orders, and they are off, bouncing along the track like children on a joy-ride. At her last sight of them, they are making obscene gestures and laughing, ‘We’ll be back.’
She falls to her hands and knees and spills her fear onto the ground with deep retches. The greedy earth soaks up the moisture and is as dry as before.
Presently, she takes up her burden and starts walking, the same steady tread, her feet curling off the baking ground at each step.
At five miles, her path takes her across a dried-up river bed. She clambers down into the trench, heedless of the scattered animal bones. In the rainy season, God willing, the river will once more burgeon with life and cleanse itself of its forgotten dead.
At six miles she halts. Her destination is close, but danger is closer. Step on it, and it will bite.
She shuffles forwards with timid movements. Her eyes flick back and forth across the ground.
There! A tiny flash of metal.
She inches up to it. Grasping a stick with trembling hands, she draws a wide circle around it before planting the stick as a flag of danger. The plain is festooned with such sticks, each a monument to hatred.
For three hundred yards she proceeds with infinitesimal steps, finding and marking another two mines. Only when is she sure she is through does she lengthen her stride once more to her accustomed pace.
At seven miles she arrives. The lake stretches before her, blinding her with its ripples. She approaches with caution. Flamingos watch with idle curiosity. A family of zebras are knee deep in the water nearby.
She seizes a rock and throws in into the water. The splash subsides. Nothing stirs.
She lowers the pot from her head. Wading into the water, she dips it rapidly and hurries back to the safety of the shore. The life-giving, death-dealing lake smoothes itself over and forgets her.
She hoists her pot to her head and begins to retrace her steps. There is no need to linger. She’ll be back again tomorrow.
In Africa, landmines kill, injure and disable over 12,000 people per year.
300 million Africans have no access to safe drinking water.
Children as young as eight years old are kidnapped, tortured, raped, virtually enslaved and sometimes killed by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda.
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