What it takes to educate South Sudan's 'forgotten' communities

A view of the Warabiei cattle camp in South Sudan. Photo by: Mariah Quesada

JUBA, South Sudan — “We knew nothing before,” said Mangar Kual, deputy of Warabiei cattle camp.

Situated just outside of South Sudan’s Rumbek town, Warabiei is one of thousands of sprawling camps where South Sudan’s cattle keepers diligently care for their livestock.

The smell of manure hangs in the air, and the ash from burnt feces, meant to keep the bugs away, is smeared across the faces of young men and women tending to hundreds of cows. 

Cracking a smile, Kual stares at the keypad on his mobile phone. “Now we can dial our phones and we can write,” he said.

For the past year Kual, once illiterate, has attended the cattle camp’s new school without walls. Spearheaded by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the Pastoralist Livelihood and Education project is an European Union-funded pilot program and the first of its kind in South Sudan. It’s aimed at promoting education, specifically for roving and isolated communities.

As the world’s youngest nation battles starvation and allegations of grave human rights abuses, its 4-year civil war shows no signs of ending. While the majority of organizations in South Sudan are focused on the immense humanitarian needs of more than 6 million people—half the country’s population—several agencies are putting resources into developing and improving the country’s ailing education system, specifically for displaced and remote communities.

“Without literacy and numeracy skills, gains made through pastoralist livelihood support cannot be sustained,” said Ezana Kassa, project manager for FAO.

3 tips to design education programs for roving and displaced communities

While humanitarian actors in South Sudan are stretched ever thinner, some development agencies are focusing on improving access to education for remote and displaced communities. Devex asked experts from the Food and Agriculture Organization and Girls Education South Sudan how to design and implement these specialized programs.

FAO’s new field schools target South Sudan’s cattle keepers and their families by embedding trained facilitators into the communities. As pastoralists are required to move frequently, Kassa said they’re often left out of basic services, including education. In order to combat this, FAO has trained 20 facilitators, who live and travel with the communities. Currently, the program is operating in 10 cattle camps around the country, employing two teachers per camp and educating approximately 1,600 children and adults in total.

Huddled under a tree with 30 other students, Kual rests his gun, which he uses to protect his livestock, on the ground before trading it in for a book for his daily, hour-long class.

“Repeat after me,” said Chol Mafet, the camp’s 22-year-old facilitator, pointing to the small portable blackboard. “What is science?”

The students echo back Mafet’s words, likely not yet fully comprehending the meaning of what they’re saying. Although school is optional, Mafet, who’s been teaching in the camp for a year, told Devex people are keen to learn.

“They ask questions about how to achieve peace and how to live together and how to be healthy and protect themselves and their cattle from sickness,” Mafet said.

As the nature of the school is unique, so is the curriculum, which is tailored to meet the population's’ needs. It’s designed to provide context and practical examples including relevant livelihood skills.

“Literacy and numeracy are not taken as side learning,” Kassa said.

Instead, he said, it’s integrated in practical “livelihood discussions so that they are more functional to their everyday use.”

Additionally, the teachers are selected from the same community in which they work rather than deploying a professional from outside the town or villages. Potential teachers don’t need prior experience, but they do need a high school education. They receive three months of training beforehand and periodic trainings thereafter. This helps to ensure that the facilitators are able to live in remote and often challenging environments, which might include sleeping on feces-soaked ground surrounded by hundreds of cows.

A few hours from the cattle camp, outside of Rumbek in the remote village of Wulu Gedim, 20-year-old Martha Abel teaches literacy, math and livestock and animal production to the villagers who have been “left behind.”

“This area is forgotten,” said adult student Barnaba Yaor, sitting on a wooden bench in his outdoor classroom.

Wulu Gedim sits between two larger towns and, as a result, residents say that, over the years, they haven’t received much support.

Eighteen-year-old Abraham Mading dropped out of primary school years ago because of the arduous 2-hour walk. Since April, however, he’s started learning again.

Through the program, adults are offered classes once a week and youth have the option to come on a daily basis. Currently, 60 women and 15 men are taking advantage of the adult class.

Although FAO’s program is the first to focus on pastoralist communities, other development organizations in South Sudan are adopting similar practices in order to target the increasing number of displaced civilians. Since the onset of the war, more than 4 million people have been forced from their homes, 2 million of whom have been internally displaced.

“When communities are displaced, we make an effort to follow them where they are,” said Akuja Mading, team leader for Girls’ Education South Sudan, a United Kingdom aid-funded program focusing on increasing access to quality education for girls. By providing cash grants to girls and schools, as well as through teacher training, the goal is to remove barriers that prevent girls from receiving an education.  

Four years ago when the program was launched, just before the war broke out, Mading said they weren’t planning on strategizing to reach displaced populations.

Due to the conflict, however, they’ve had to adapt. As a result GESS has selected what they refer to as “county-level colleagues” who move with displaced communities and act as the program’s point of reference on the ground.

“Wherever they settle or resettle and are interested in rebuilding a school for their community, we still have that contact,” Mading said. She says having that focal person embedded within the community provides for continuity.

GESS also greatly relies on the use of radio when reaching and educating remote places.

“Even in the deepest village in South Sudan, someone usually has a radio,” Mading said.

GESS produces programs in nine local languages and airs them on FM stations. For areas without coverage, they use portable wind ups. The goal of the radio programs is not only to focus on education, but to stimulate discussion and shift behaviors and mindsets.

Ultimately, Mading said, school is about the community and the teachers—not the location.

“As long as you can provide support and the community is set up, it doesn’t matter where you are.”

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About the author

  • Sam mednick profile

    Sam Mednick

    Sam is a freelance journalist based in South Sudan. Over the past 12 years she’s reported on humanitarian, human interest and conflict stories from around the world. Sam’s work has taken her to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America and Europe, writing for VICE, the Associated Press, Devex, Barcelona Metropolitan and iPolitics among others. Sam also produces and hosts the Happy Melly Podcast, interviewing authors, speakers and thought leaders about what it takes to live productive and fulfilling lives.