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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 – Advanced)
Topic: Walk (07/20/06)

TITLE: Umuhoza's walk
By Helen Paynter


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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This article has been read 1686 times
Member Comments
Member Date
Dara Sorensen07/28/06
Very strong piece of writing. I was there with her every step of the way.
Gregory Kane07/31/06
terrific sense of isolation. Loved the statistics at the end – turned a haunting narrative into a personal challenge. No easy answers were given – there aren’t any – just a sense that something should be done, that someone should care
Phyllis Inniss07/31/06
Powerful writing. You depicted Umuhoza's committment clearly and her fear at the soldiers' approach. The statistics clarified events for the reader.
Marilyn Schnepp 07/31/06
Fourteen miles round-trip every day for water! And to think it's just a few steps for me! So MUCH to be thankful for - and yet I forget to thank HIM every day for my many blessings. Great story, and written extremely well - Kudos!
Lynda Lee Schab 08/01/06
Oh Wow! Excellent, bold writing - I was captivated throughout. Loved the revelation at the end of the woman's intended destination. The footnotes were also a nice addition to this based-on-fact piece. Well done!
Joanne Sher 08/01/06
Oh wow! I was engrossed from the first to the last word. I was walking with her - that's for sure! Your passion comes through so clearly here! Excellent job!
Jan Ackerson 08/01/06
Flawless writing, and I loved that the time and place was revealed just a bit at a time. You've created a heroine in just a few short words for such a simple, courageous act. Awesome.
Sue Dent08/01/06
While I did not like this nearly as much as I like all the other things you've entered, I'd be hard pressed to find a darn thing wrong with it! I think you did it this week. I really do!!!! I dare say number one, two or three in Advanced!!!!
Debbie Sickler08/01/06
Whoa. Brilliant writing and so tragic that such is the way of life for so many. Thank you for this awesome story and your foot note was the perfect final touch.
Dr. Sharon Schuetz08/01/06
This was a powerful piece of writing. It really makes one stop and think. Great job.
Trina Courtenay08/02/06
Yes indeed a very powerful piece of fact-based writing. I found I was walking right along with her. Awesome job.
Jessica Schmit08/03/06

YEAH FOR YOU!!!!! Your canadian fried is SOOOO happy for you!
Sue Dent08/03/06
I told you, I told you! And it doesn't count that I've told you before on other entries and nothing happened. I actually stated a place you would get on this one and you actually got 1st!!!!! YAAAAAAAYYYY! So you and Stephen can go "Paynt" the town tonight!!
Trina Courtenay08/03/06
Congrats on placing 2nd in the EC Helen! This is a great piece.
Rita Garcia08/03/06
Congratulations Helen! Master story writing!
Bonnie Derksen08/03/06
Congratulations on your first place win! I read this story last night and found myself still pondering it this morning. Well done and thanks for allowing God to use your pen for His kingdom work. Looking forward to reading more.
Sherry Wendling08/04/06
Spare and powerful, fabulous piece. You make every word count, carefully unfolding her path, drawing in the reader for a vivid taste of an existence vastly different from what most of us have known. Exquisitely moving!

Dear Helen, you've been writing at Level 4 quality (and above!)for some time now, and I've had the sense that your major markdowns, perhaps, have come simply because the judges were looking for a more direct connection to the topic. This one sure did it, and I'm delighted to see you merited as you deserve!
Alexandra Wilkin09/15/06
The passionate heart of the writer shines through the sparse, tender style. You have drawn the reader in - again I can almost feel my feet on the dry earth - and nailed the reader fast with every word. Excellent, powerful stuff. God bless. xx