Every day, Manut Ngor Koot leads his family's cow for miles across the southern Sudan plains to a murky swamp that serves as his village's chief source of water. The cow is balky and has a limp. Looking after her is time-consuming, often frustrating.
The boy's routine is about to change.
In a few weeks, he'll be taking a shorter walk in the opposite direction to attend school for the first time. There, in a stand of trees, a 260-foot-deep bore-hole is being drilled, endowing isolated Abilnyang and its more than 1,600 inhabitants with a perpetual supply of safe drinking water.
Resting under a fig tree in 123-degree F. heat, drilling crew chief Salva Dut spies a sparkle in Manut's eyes. Considering his own passage from war-frayed youth to American immigrant as one of the rescued "Lost Boys of Sudan," Mr. Dut understands about wondrous possibilities.
"You never know what person will change the world someday, maybe in a corner of this bush. It's very important for us to do this hardship work ... to show them the path where they could go."
When Dut discovered in 2001 that his father, Mawien, had survived not only the war but stomach surgery to remove Guinea worms and schistosomes contracted from dirty water, he knew right away how to help. Among just a handful of now-grown Lost Boys to return with a humanitarian project, he spends half his year in Africa, half raising funds in America for his Water for Sudan charity.
Dut's destinations are invariably settlements so remote that they don't appear on maps. In his father's village of Lou-ariik, a bumpy two-hour drive north of here, his first well in 2005 had a transforming effect: A bustling market emerged, and a German charity recently opened a clinic.
In Aliek, 40 miles to the south, a brick-making quarry business immediately sprouted next to a well installed last year, and a large schoolhouse – absent windows and doors – was erected. In a town that typically enrolled 60 students, the new school this year has 566 pupils.
Headmaster Augustino Agoth credits the well: "The water is clean. It protects them from sickness. When they are healthy, they are good students."
Backed by $1 million in donations, Dut has slashed his costs to $8,500 per well by importing drilling equipment from Alabama and Japan. His wells sustain 60,000 people. Abilnyang is 18th on his list, and his 12-man crew hopes to sink 10 to 20 new wells before the rains come in May, leaving roads impassable.
Abilnyang was promised a well three years ago, and the crew's arrival releases ripples of joy. Dozens of people come by to help daily, some clearing tall grass where scorpions and snakes nestle.
"We need the well desperately. With it, everything will start. There will be no more hunger," says former soldier Ayok Thiep, the village's police chief.