Jasmine Bager, Civilian Global News Columnist
The Republic of Sudan was once the largest country in Africa. For decades, civil war broke out between the northern and southern parts, as it seemed that they were only geographically connected. Majority Arab Muslims dominated the northern part, and the southern half was made of mostly non-Arab Christians. After two wars and generations of fights over religion and oil, cultural clashes and extreme poverty, the southern part of the country gained its independence in 2011. The northern part remained Sudan, and the southern part was named the Republic of South Sudan.
Now, nearly three years into the independence of South Sudan, education is taking shape. The challenge is building an educational system with limited resources and lack of infrastructure.
“Imagine a blank canvas, a piece of land, no water, no electricity, no government no structure—that is South Sudan,” explained Angong Acuil, a native of South Sudan who works at the Embassy of the Republic of South Sudan in Washington, D.C. She is hopeful that things will improve for the next generation, however. It took many countries in the West 200 years to reach civilization, she says, and it took her country less than six years to come up with a new government.
Most children are learning under tents, in the open air, or in semi-permanent structures, according to Jack Howard, the project manager of the South Sudan Institute, an NGO based in Skaneateles, NY. The organization sends educators to South Sudan to train local teachers in weeklong sets of lectures and provides them with teaching materials to use. The teachers are typically given a black chalkboard and chalk, and the students do not easily have access to notebooks or pencils.
Howard says that the government seems to prioritize spending any generated income on building roads and paying salaries—so education takes a backseat. He says the government officials have been so poor due to decades of war, that when money passes through their hands, they want to hold on to it. But the local villagers in Duk county, disagree.
“It’s the local tribe people who know that education is important, not the government. So the chiefs hire teachers if they have any knowledge of how to read and write. They teach math, English, Christian studies and geography. The majority of the South Sudanese are getting their education in the small villages under the trees. They use sticks and write in the dirt. A few schools [in buildings] have opened up—but only when the grants come in.”
The schools under the trees can be troublesome as it can reach 120 degrees fahrenheit and can rain for seven months out of the year. When it floods, Howard says, the schools don’t operate. He says that one can not gain an education if one is unable to go to school. There are a lack of resources, too, as every four students share one English book, as well as every four students share one single mathematics book.
Since 2007, South Sudan has made English their official language, after they stopped using the Arabic system from Sudan. Despite the efforts, South Sudan is believed to have one of the worst literacy rates in the world, according to the latest UNESCO statistics from 2009. Only 27 percent of adults are literate—16 percent of whom are women—and 42 percent of all civil servants have no more than a primary school education, according to the World Bank.
Around one-third of South Sudan’s schools do not have safe drinking water and there is no lunch served at schools. The World Food Programme estimated in 2010, that 3.2 million South Sudanese people were facing acute or chronic food insecurity. One child in three is moderately or severely stunted due to malnutrition, according to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In 2010 there were just over 426,000 children in Grade 1 but only 22,000 in Grade 8. Many children dropped out to help their parents work or care for younger siblings. Their parents often could not read or write and thus could not help them learn in that way.
Jessica Hjarrand, an education specialist at UNESCO, says that there aren’t enough teachers or resources to accommodate the South Sudanese population. The quality of education is poor, she says, as many of the local teachers never completed their own education.
“It’s very difficult to do when you’ve got something like, I think, 66 languages in South Sudan, to have to develop materials for each of those languages,” she said. For now, English is working, she says. Arabic is still widely spoken, too, in addition to local languages.
As a result, teachers are unable to assist gifted students or those who have learning disabilities. Also, teachers are not trained to assist their pupils in reaching their full potential.
Due to scarcity in schools, South Sudanese citizen John Dau, 39, started school for the first time at 17-years-old and learned how to read and write by 20.
“South Sudan was terribly neglected by the northern regime, but deliberately so. In my own village of Duk, there was no primary school from kindergarten up to eighth grade—forget about high school. With education comes awareness and they did that [Sudan] intentionally to keep South Sudan completely out of the education world, because once you are educated, you will define yourself and you can fix your situation.”
When the 1983 war broke out, he left his Duk Dinka village along with 25,000 other young men, who were then known as the Lost Boys. They walked barefoot for a thousand miles through Ethiopia until they settled in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp for nearly a decade. There, he learned what a notebook was and what a pencil could do. Education and school, he said, were his substitutes for his parents whom he had left behind in Sudan. When he saw the United Nations cars as they drove by in Kakuma, he quickly realized that those with UN jobs got those high positions because they were educated. Since he was determined to become a leader, he knew that he had to continue to learn.
Dau was selected with 3,600 other Lost Boys to travel to the United States to start a new life in 2001. His move to Syracuse, NY was documented in the 2006 documentary, God Grew Tired of Us.
He still lives in Syracuse but now with his South Sudanese wife and their three children, all of whom are under the age of seven and educated in US schools. Before he knew what a school was, Dau’s mother’s folklore bedtime stories were his only education, he said, and he wanted his children to have an education in a classroom, not under a tree. Dau graduated from a community college then earned a public policy degree at Syracuse University in 2011. He is currently the President of the John Dau Foundation, which helps provide basic medical care for the community in South Sudan and helps raise awareness on basic medicine. In 2011, he was one of the 98.83 percent of people who voted for the independence referendum and was there to celebrate with his fellow citizens. Duk village now has a primary school that is taught under a tree, but if one wishes to continue studying beyond that, one must relocate.
Tut Pouch, a South Sudanese man living in Juba, obtained a diploma in law from the new South Sudan, and two diplomas from Uganda, one in social work and another in public administration—which took him two years to complete via distant learning, previously. He was part of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) since 2002 and is currently unemployed.
“Before the independence [from the north] there was no education yet in the South Sudan, many people going to search for education in north Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda. Now there are changes, like Rebuilding South Sudan Through Education [an organization, founded by South Sudanese native and US citizen Moses Deng-traffic Joknhial II], which came from USA. It started to make a big number of children educated,” he says.
That organization’s founder, Jokhnial, is a South Sudanese who created the Rebuilding South Sudan Through Education center in order to create educational opportunities for those in his native Panyang, which is a South Sudanese community. The programs includes opening the first primary school in the country, drilling of wells for clean water and providing medical facilities—particularly ones for treating women.
“My dream is improving the lives of my people through education,” Jokhnial said. The school, United Panyang Primary School, opened its doors in 2011. The building contain a metal roof, wooden desks and students wear blue uniforms.
He is now based in South Dakota and recently became a US citizen. He returns to his native land every chance he can to raise money and build schools, but has not decided whether or not he would return for good.
Born in South Sudan in 1983, Father Abraham Machiek Machar, a Catholic priest in South Sudan, speaks fondly of his country. He says he learned English in 1995 at his missionary school, deep in the village and graduated high school in 2006. He then worked at a hospital and then at the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (SSRRC) for several years. He is currently enrolled at Juba University, where he is studying economics, since 2011. His university is housed within a single building.
“I have a dream that one day the world would be ruled by one president—each continent would be governed by a governor, and each country governed by a commissioner. Ministries for defense and for foreign relations wouldn’t be necessary. All will be done through education,” he said.
Although he is a priest, he says that his ultimate life goal would be to live his life as a businessman and open a factory. He has never traveled out of South Sudan “since birth” and starts nearly every sentence with a prayer and blessing to South Sudan and its people.
Despite harsh challenges and struggles, South Sudan is learning from the mistakes of others, particularly their experiences with Sudan. In addition to rewriting basic laws and creating a new anthem and currency, they are building schools and filling their population with the tree of knowledge. Sometimes, the students literally learn under a tree.
Jasmine Bager is a reporter for Civilian Global News. She is a 2013 Masters graduate from Columbia Journalism School and reports on international affairs. She can be reached at email@example.com.