She knows the sound of rain on a tin roof and what it feels like when the water leaks inside. Two of her sisters died of pneumonia as children. Her neighbors hacked boards off their homes to keep the wood stove burning and insulated the walls with newspapers. Before her family had plumbing, she walked to the outhouse.

That was four decades ago. But Terawana Keys-Bowman revisits this same poverty every day.

She grew up just 37 miles south of the nation's capital, on an isolated Charles County peninsula known as Nanjemoy. When she and her husband could afford to, she moved away. But she never really left -- or rather, it never left her, and improving her old neighborhood has become a personal and passionate cause.

She is relentless in her demands. Like some outraged docent, she leads officials, lawyers, church leaders, anyone who'll listen, through the tableau of want. She wants trash pickup, basic utilities, paved roads, job training, health care, a gas station, a laundromat, something more, anything.

"Our children are decades behind, and this cannot continue," she says. "They say poverty is hard to see. Well, God dang, try living it."

Her old family home still stands at the entrance to Gethsemane Hall Place, a potholed dirt road along a lonely bend in the Potomac River named for the biblical garden that was the scene of the agony, betrayal and arrest of Jesus. The road runs up a hill to a clearing ringed by the trailers and cinder-block shanties of a few dozen people.

In the dank woods, unknown even to many who have spent their lives in the county, the trash burns in barrels and the smoke wafts down the mud roads. Near that ground, about 50 slaves once toiled in fields owned by Col. John Tayloe III, one of Virginia's most powerful white landowners. Now their descendants pull their water from wells, hand over hand. Just miles away are quaint farmhouses and waterfront mansions. But hidden among them, many families live as if trapped in an earlier era.

The reasons are complex. Among them: the region's slave-plantation history, loss of the area's economic base, years of county neglect, and individual personal problems.

"It's like 'Jurassic Park' down here -- nothing but woods and water, mosquitoes and mayflies," said resident Edward Carroll. "This is really the end of the world. This is the last place a person would want to live."

'It's Rough Down Here'Survival can require creativity in Nanjemoy. Max Montgomery, unemployed and nearly blind, sleeps on a tiny cot in a barren trailer. No electricity, no heat, no phone, no running water, holes in the plywood floor.

With a wooden cane, Montgomery, 48, walks a memorized path from his front door down the gravel lane and up the road to Oak Grove Baptist Church, where he fills plastic bleach bottles with water from a hose. Back home, he fills a pot with water and puts in ramen noodles paid for with his disability check. He walks outside, places the pot on the trailer's metal roof, hot enough to cook his noodles.

"It's kind of nice to be blind," he said. "There are some things you don't want to see."

Angela Carroll, 38, a cousin of Edward Carroll, is raising eight of her nine children in a trailer. On a recent day, her children played hula hoop with an old bicycle tire in the dirt clearing in front of her home. It's a quiet weekday afternoon like all the rest: nowhere to go and no way to get there anyway. She leans against a picnic table, sipping beer. An unemployed man living with her off and on, Lowell Keys, has already pulled the day's water from the neighbor's well.

She might wash the clothes later, if the washing machine worked.

"It's rough living down here, for real, though," she says. "I would love to get me a decent home with running water. That's all I need."

As she talks, it's hard not to notice the ragged scars on her neck and arms. Nearly three years ago, police found her crumpled on the living room floor in a puddle of her own blood. Her left wrist was broken. Her neck was bleeding from a five-inch gash. Bits of the broken beer bottle that Patrick Harvey, the father of three of her children, was suspected of using to slash her in a liquor- and PCP-aggravated rage littered her black hair. He would go on that night to murder one of his best friends with a 12-gauge shotgun and to a life sentence in prison.

Carroll has her own criminal record -- disorderly conduct, theft -- and has been in and out of alcohol rehab. She has never held a full-time job for long, though she helped her mother clean homes for a while. Her only monthly income is $718 in food stamps.

In the census tract that covers most of Nanjemoy, nearly 100 people reported less than $10,000 in annual income. Although that swath of land accounted for 3 percent of the county's population in 2000, it made up 20 percent of the homes without adequate plumbing and 16 percent of those without kitchen facilities.

"I try to help her as best I can," said Keys, 49. "I fell in love with the kids. I hate to see them down this way, but there's nothing I can do about it."

Keys was living with Carroll despite a court order for him to stay away after a dispute. But his $539 a month in disability helped feed the children and pay Carroll's $100 rent.

Businesses, Jobs GoneAs a boy, Nanjemoy native and amateur historian Calvin Posey walked through a few of the old wooden slave cabins on Tayloe's property before they were torn down. Research shows that about 50 slaves lived on the 2,800-acre plantation. Posey, 81, has been told by elders that after the slaves were freed, the Tayloe family gave them 50 acres and a few tools.

"That's why so many African Americans live out in that area," he said.

The oldest woman in Gethsemane Hall, Ada Jackson, 83, grew up sleeping on a straw-and-wheat-filled mattress. After one year at the segregated high school, she dropped out to join her parents in stripping tobacco for $1.50 a day. She recalls how her mother would prepare fresh sausage links from hog entrails while her father hunted squirrels and rabbits. She remembers listening to the drums and accordions at Gethsemane Lodge, opened in 1891 and once used as a gathering place for dances and funerals. It has long since burned down and is just charred timbers overgrown by weeds next to her house.

Clothed like a schoolgirl from the '50s -- in a pink dress, white socks and black shoes -- Jackson tries to maintain some order while Gethsemane Hall decays around her. The wood for her stove is stacked in a tidy pile outside.

"Back then," she said, "people worked."

But the tobacco industry that drove the Southern Maryland economy for generations has been almost entirely abandoned. And the blue-collar jobs making gunpowder at the nearby Navy base have been replaced by high-tech explosives research. The nearest grocery store is 20 miles away.

Over the years, the commercial establishments have closed their doors. Gaines Store. Holmes Store. The Pine Tree Inn. The riverfront joint at Wellington Beach, with the slot machines and boxing matches. Now half the people who work said they spend more than 45 minutes getting to their job, according to the census. The residents who are employed tend to work in distant fast-food restaurants, construction, elderly care or cleaning homes.

Jackson lives alone in the home built by her husband. In the mornings, she walks the neighborhood, cleaning up by stabbing empty beer cans with her walking stick affixed with nails. Outside her house, the others from time to time gather around a bonfire of burning tires, and their revelry keeps her awake at night. But Jackson is careful not to speak ill of her neighbors.

She finds her community, and her solace, at the Baptist church. One afternoon, she sat on her couch and sang hymns until the tears streamed down her face.

"I don't have to worry, because He takes good care of me. I know it's Jesus looking out for me," she sang. "Open doors I can't even see."

'Nowhere to Go'Out by the picnic table at the Carroll home, the sky darkens. "Storm's trying to roll up in here," says Edward Carroll as the trees rustle and the smoke from the trash fire blows into nothing. "Wind's coming. Rain's coming." The neighbors decide to go ahead with their afternoon plans. Before long, they haul up a cardboard box of steamed blue crabs.

Angela Carroll goes to fetch the plastic birthday tablecloth out of the trailer, and her kids materialize from the woods. As the rain sprinkles, Lowell Keys finds a length of rope, takes out his knife and fashions himself a belt. The others play spades.

From somewhere, an argument breaks out between Angela Carroll and Keys. She begins to shout, her face suddenly enraged. Earlier this year, she spent a week in jail for disorderly conduct.

They square off by the picnic table. Keys holds the knife; she threatens to kill him.

"Stay out of my [expletive] house!" she yells.

"You ain't got no house."

"I got a piece a one."

The storm passes as evening falls. The argument dissipates as if it never happened. When the card game ends, Carroll and the others walk down the mud path through the dark woods out to the deserted intersection. They spread out across both lanes and walk away from Gethsemane Hall.

Where were they going? "Nowhere," Carroll says. "Nowhere to go. Just walking."

Layers of IllegalitiesAgain and again, Keys-Bowman, 43, has heard the stories of Gethsemane Hall. Her twin brother once struggled with unemployment and a cocaine habit.

She keeps in her scrapbook a photo of her great-grandmother, the daughter of a slave, who spent her life in the tobacco fields and passed that work down to Keys-Bowman's grandmother, and for a time, her mother.

"I wanted more," Keys-Bowman said. "I knew I needed to own something.''

While in high school, she got a job as a nursing assistant at the Charles County Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. Three to five days a week she would work, from 3 to 11 p.m., and she bought her first piece of land -- three acres for $300 -- from her grandmother. She was 15.

She married in 2001 and moved to a home just north of Nanjemoy, commuting to the nursing home.

Over the years, she acquired properties, one of which was a dilapidated mobile home. She was determined to improve it but had trouble finding a contractor who would work in the community. She watched one pull into her driveway, then turn around and leave.

"I started crying. And after crying, I called him up. I said, 'I'm not a so-and-so monkey, I don't climb out of windows and I will spend my money somewhere else,' " she said. "They just did not want to come to Nanjemoy."

She has become so familiar with arguments like these -- the struggle to be heard in Nanjemoy -- that when she became president of the Western Charles County Community Association last year, the official advocacy felt natural.

But there are perils in revealing the conditions. Many of the residents live under layers of illegalities: spliced electrical wires, trailers not up to safety and sanitation codes, an open-air drug market. Keys-Bowman said many won't ask for help for fear of eviction.

Sandy Washington, a longtime Southern Maryland activist and director of the nonprofit social services organization Lifestyles Inc., toured the community recently.

"I knew there was poverty in Nanjemoy -- we have had people that come to us for assistance at various times for food and clothing," she said. "I said, 'sure, I'll go ahead and go. I've heard about all this stuff.' "

Then she went. "I saw children walking around barefoot and dog droppings and trash piled up and the potential disease hazards there. . . . I thought we were in South Africa or something," she said. "Do you think I don't have a responsibility for that? Every person who sees it and knows it exists has a responsibility.''

Charles County Commissioner Edith J. Patterson (D-Pomfret), who was led on a tour last summer, said she had not been aware of the severity of the poverty in her district.

After seeing it, she bought water, toys, clothing and school supplies for Carroll's children, and she envisions a coordinated effort among government agencies. But first she wants to hold meetings to talk about the problem.

"I don't believe the county's ignoring them," she said. "I think the county has not come up with a viable solution. The bottom line is, if you have condemned these houses, where are the families going to go?"

Patterson wants to follow the model of the impoverished Bayview community on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, which received millions in federal and state grants to demolish shacks and rebuild two- and three-story apartment buildings affordable for those residents. But with lavish waterfront homes rising around Nanjemoy, Patterson warned that time is scarce.

Keys-Bowman, who has been waging her campaign for a year, said the county has not helped in the past, and she is skeptical about the future. On one of the cardboard displays of photos and information about Nanjemoy in her home office, the headline reads: "This did not happen over night."

"Everything we're sending out has fallen on deaf ears," she said.