JUBA, South Sudan — When COVID-19 hit South Sudan last April and shuttered the school system, one faith-based organization used it as an opportunity to educate children that didn’t normally attend class. The Holy Trinity Peace Village Kuron, launched mobile classes, reaching five times more children than during a regular school year.
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In Kuron, a remote village in Eastern Equatoria state, teachers traveled hours on foot, three times a week between May and November in 2020, to teach some 2,000 children under trees or in houses, many of who were not previously in school, said Atanga Sebit, headmaster for the St. Thomas primary school in Kuron, supported by the faith-based group.
“When COVID-19 broke out, we had to look for an alternative of how to help the children. The only option was mobile teaching,” Sebit said. “It kept the children busy learning during the lockdown, it gave room for teachers to complete their syllabus and the children did not forget what they were taught,” he said. The classes were also a way of piquing the interest and attracting students not enrolled, to come to school, he said.
In addition to classes, some teachers conducted workshops for parents, showing them how to make toys and games from local materials, to keep their children occupied while at home. The organization hopes the enthusiasm for class will continue when classes resume in April but has already seen a drop in attendance from students that returned in November to write their exams.
“[There is] cultural resistance that has not fully understood the value of education.”— Rev. Henry Gidudu, director, Kuron Peace Village
A history of fostering education
For more than two decades, Peace Village Kuron, launched by the now retired, Bishop Paride Taban, has attempted to foster peace through education and development, in one of the most impoverished and conflict-riddled parts of the country.
Few places in South Sudan can be considered oases of peace, but since 2000, the Roman Catholic Church has tried to sustain one, in Kuron, an area with a history of intercommunal violence. The group focuses on long-term approaches to peace, mediating, and encouraging dialogue between rival communities, and since its inception, it’s united people through its health, agriculture, and vocational training projects, and most notably, by improving access to education in a place where families often place little emphasis on learning.
Schools in Eastern Equatoria state are not well attended, due to a shortage of qualified teachers and a lack of will from the families to send kids to school. As a pastoralist community, many parents did not attend school themselves and don’t understand the importance of education, preferring to send their children to work to support the family, said locals and aid workers.
During a visit to Eastern Equatoria in 2018, Devex saw young children working in mines and laboring on the streets, pushing heavy wheelbarrows of water, trying to earn money. Those who wanted to go to school often couldn’t afford it.
“[There is] cultural resistance that has not fully understood the value of education,” Rev. Henry Gidudu, director of Kuron Peace Village told Devex.
Since the group built the only school in Kuron in 2005, enrollment has grown from 49 students to 378 and from eight girls to 86 and the mobile service allowed teachers to reach more students. Through the school, the Peace Village has also been able to create coexistence between adversary communities, such as the Toposa and Murle, whose students now study, play, and pray together, Gidudu said. Peace Village also employs and trains teachers and supplies schools with learning materials.
The Catholic Church has played a key role in South Sudan’s development for more than a century, particularly in terms of health and education, and those familiar with its work, say the approach at Peace Village is essential to pull the country out of violence, said John Ashworth, who’s worked as a Catholic missionary in the country for 38 years. “Without development, a just and lasting peace is elusive,” he said.
Conflict and COVID-19 impeding access
South Sudan’s five-year civil war that killed nearly 400,000 people, has already impeded millions of children from receiving an education. At least 60% of schools were either destroyed or partially damaged during the fighting, according to World Vision. COVID-19 school closures have compounded the problem, nearly 5 million children in South Sudan are out of school, according to the ministry of education.
While students taking final exams have resumed class, they won’t officially reopen for everyone until April, meaning that children will have been out of school for more than a year. Aid workers say prolonged absence from school, threatens to cause irreversible consequences, especially in less developed parts of the country, like Eastern Equatoria.
“The impact of longer school closure can be immense and especially in an area such as Eastern Equatoria where many children are denied their right to go to school in the first place,” said Helene Sandbu Ryeng, a communications specialist with UNICEF in South Sudan. The more time children are out of school, the harder it will be to bring them back, she said. Teachers and students say the closures have already caused children to drop out, join gangs, use alcohol, become pregnant, or be forced into marriage.
“The worst thing about school being closed [is] we lost our sisters and our brothers. Some get pregnant and some of them went to the market and sell,” one girl in Torit, the capital of Eastern Equatoria, told UNICEF in a video seen by Devex. A lot of boys lie and say, “I want you to be my wife,” said another girl.
UNICEF is working with roughly 2,500 people across the country to speak with communities about child marriage and early pregnancy and will work with the government on a back to school campaign when classes are expected to resume in April.
But even when schools reopen, places like Kuron, still face huge challenges, primarily because it’s hard to entice anyone to work there. Substandard accommodation and a hostile community mean few teachers want to go, said Okumi Samuel, one of nine teachers at the school.
“The community is involved in stealing, robbing the property of staff, which cannot be recovered,” he said. As the school is 270 kilometers (168 miles) from the nearest town, if anything happens there are no authorities to help, he said.
Fighting between communities also disrupts learning and traumatizes students, Samuel said. Child abductions are frequent, children can be kidnapped on the way to school by rival communities and sold for between 50-100 cows, often forced to spend their lives rearing cattle for their captors, never seeing their families again.
Peace Village is trying to attract more teachers but says there needs to be a more enticing environment, including better infrastructure, such as roads, access to communication, and proper accommodation for teachers, some of who come from Uganda.
If education doesn’t become a priority, the organization worries Eastern Equatoria will be left behind and negative cultural perceptions about learning will persist.
But despite the challenges, the organization says there’s been progress, such as communities using Kuron as a neutral place to diffuse conflict through mediation and negotiation, rather than violence. There’s also been an increase in families sending children to school, particularly girls, said Sebit the headmaster. He’s grateful for the church’s involvement, not only because it provides students with an education, but because it teaches them how to be good people, he said.
“The teaching of the church, from what Jesus said, love your neighbour as you love yourself … if students grow with love for one another, there will be no war in our country,” he said.
Devex, with support from our partner GHR Foundation, is exploring the intersection between faith and development. Visit the Focus on: Faith and Development page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of GHR Foundation.