Education in South Sudan: Maurice Sadlier's Story
Maurice Sadlier, Programmes Director for World Vision Ireland,
recently visited South Sudan on a field visit. This is what he observed.
“The words of Proverbs16:16 came to mind on a recent visit to World Vision Programmes in South Sudan, ‘How much better to get wisdom than gold, to get insight rather than silver!’ The sentiment of the verse came through in discussions with parents, teachers and community members throughout my visit – highlighting over and over the importance of education for the children of South Sudan.” Maurice said.
“South Sudan is the world’s newest state, born out of a long and bloody conflict. It finally became an independent state in July 2011. Unfortunately, independence did not bring peace to the South Sudanese people with a civil war erupting in 2013. While there have been recent advancements with a peace deal and a government of national unity, South Sudan remains an extremely fragile context.
There are approximately 1.7 million internally displaced people within South Sudan and 2.1 million others have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. Even though there is some progress in relation to the peace process, many people I met do not feel it safe to return home yet. World Vision, with support from Irish Aid, have been implementing education and child protection activities in South Sudan for 8 years. According to UNICEF, the UN Children’s Agency, 2.2 million school-aged children in South Sudan are out of school and an astonishing 30% of schools are damaged, destroyed occupied or closed. Our Education programme works in Melut, Upper Nile State and focuses on providing safe learning spaces by rehabilitating classrooms and focusing on the quality of education with the provision of learning materials and training for teachers.
“On my first evening in Melut sitting with my back to the World Vision compound and watching the River Nile wind its way past it would be easy to forget where I was, but a glance to the left showed the vast Dengtoma Camp for Internally Displaced People. Sitting there earlier that afternoon I had spoken with teachers, members of Parent Teacher Committees and parents of children.
Many of them had walked more than two weeks from their homes in search of safety, carrying what they could with them. As a development practitioner I am well-aware of the multiple benefits of education, however, sitting there I wondered if investing money in education was the correct thing to do here at this particular time.
“I needn’t have worried. Sitting in a tin-roofed room in 400C heat with 50 or so camp residents I heard again and again the appreciation for, and importance of, the education work World Vision is supporting. There are very few things in life that can never be taken away and education is one of those. I sat listening to parents and teachers who had lost almost everything, telling me that ‘education is the one thing that cannot be taken from us’ or ‘when we have to leave here the one thing we know we will have been our children’s education’. The parents I spoke to wanted wisdom and insight over silver and gold despite their enormous needs.
“The next morning, we were back at Dengtoma to visit one of the primary schools. Through support and funding, the school had grown from a collection of grass buildings to corrugated iron classrooms. It was still temporary, given they were in a camp, but at least it was more weatherproof than the thatch. We were greeted by 3 young women who attend the school. They read out poems they had written for our visits – these young women spoke of the need for equality and inclusion and said, ‘only when men and women were treated equally would South Sudan be free for all’. I was astonished by how articulate, intelligent and full of potential they were.
“One of the women Achol read her poem Our Country, Our Pride which opened with the line ‘This land full of brave and intelligent people’, Achol delivered a passionate plea to the leaders in South Sudan, asking for people to ‘sharpen the pen not the gun’ so the children of South Sudan could have a future. Her final lines asked:
When will we be proud of our nationality, When will we sing our national anthem with happiness? Let us not destroy our country because of today, it will be ours tomorrow.
“This is why education is important. It enables expression. It enables growth. It enables opportunity. The Irish poet William Butler Yeats is often credited with the words ‘Education is not just the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire’ and this is what was happening in South Sudan – providing education is not just teaching children to read and write but is bringing about social change, enabling the next generation to hold the government to account for their rights.
“The school had over 1,500 pupils and we went from classroom to classroom to greet all the pupils, all who had gathered on Saturday morning to meet the visitors. The first class had 150 seven-year-olds all exceptionally well-behaved. I wondered if my own seven-year-old’s class of 28 would be as well-behaved if I walked in to say hello! Going from class to class, we heard of the dreams of children who wanted to become nurses, doctors, teachers, scientists. Despite being in a dire situation all these children had dreams and aspirations to have ‘normal’ jobs when they grew up. They were hungry for knowledge and to contribute to society. As we got towards the older classes, there was an obvious reduction in the numbers of girls in the classes. This is something World Vision is working with the parents and community leaders with, to enable and encourage girls to stay in school longer.
“A few days later, I was further up the country in Renk county visiting Wunthow National School. Wunthow is a small settlement on the border with Sudan. There I met Headmaster Chirillo Athian. In 2017, he started teaching classes under a tree. The classrooms had all been destroyed in the previous wars and Mr Athian wanted to do something for the local community and started teaching under the tree. With support from Irish Aid and other donors, the classrooms are now rehabilitated and Wunthow is a bustling primary school with 366 pupils. Such is the thirst for education in South Sudan the school only opens in the afternoon – that way pupils can attend the school over the border in Sudan, thus benefiting from education in Arabic and English.
What motivates Mr Athian the most is education. When I asked him why he did this his answer came with no hesitation or thinking ‘The only solution is education. Without education, South Sudan will be in the same situation in a thousand years.’”