A chance for girls in a country 'like no place on Earth'

14th June 2013 at 01:00
UK private school offers helping hand to scheme in South Sudan

She says she is the only woman from her region to have been educated beyond the age of 10.

But now Bridget Nagomoro (pictured, left) has quit government to work with British volunteers and build a state-of-the-art boarding school in the world's newest country, South Sudan. Due to open in February 2014, it is intended as a model for the country's education system as it emerges from the shadow of decades of civil war.

"I went through a lot of hardship," Ms Nagomoro said. "I had to walk for 10 miles to and from school. I had to wake up at 5am, walk with clay pots to get water and then go to school. I would eat at 10pm after doing my homework and chores. My parents were very poor. But I was stubborn: I'm the only woman from my region ever to stay in education beyond the age of 10."

The charity Save the Children describes South Sudan as "like no place on Earth". Ravaged by civil wars that began in the 1950s, it became a nation only two years ago. It is so poor that girls are more likely to die in childbirth than to enter secondary education, according to a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) report from 2011. Many of the schools that exist have no buildings: 80 per cent conduct lessons under the shade of trees.

As one of the tiny minority of women in the country to have been educated to university level, Ms Nagomoro became an official in the interim government. There, she met John Benington and Jean Hartley, both then professors at the University of Warwick's business school in England who were advising South Sudan on governance and management. She asked them to help her build a grass-roots education system.

"It has to come from the bottom up. It will take time for things to trickle down from the government," Ms Nagomoro said.

Professor Benington agreed that it could take government policy "20 to 25 years to have any kind of impact", and admitted that he had wondered how realistic Ms Nagomoro's plan was. She intended to leave her job, return to her home region of Ibba as a commissioner and buy land where she could build a school.

"Bridget came to me and said, 'I have a dream'," Professor Benington said. "She would go back to her village and build a girls' school, and she asked if I could help. I thought it was pretty crazy at the time. It seemed like a nice, romantic story."

But it is about to come true. She has secured a 29-hectare site (the school will ultimately cater for around 600 students, but needs large grounds as it will grow its own food and become a centre for agricultural education). Enough funds have been raised to construct classrooms and a solar-powered borehole, bringing clean water to the village for the first time. The charity backing the school boasts high-powered trustees such as former education secretary for England and Wales Estelle Morris.

Only the dormitories and staff quarters now need to be completed: boarding is a necessity so that students do not have to walk long distances from their isolated rural communities.

The charity is now recruiting a principal - not an easy task in a country where 90 per cent of people are illiterate. One option is to recruit from nearby countries (the school already has links with Uganda's oldest girls' school, Gayaza High School) and employ a local deputy who can learn on the job.

The Ibba Girls School will also be supported by the Mount School in York, in the North of England, Professor Hartley's former school. The independent Quaker institution intends to offer assistance on issues from teaching to governance and hopes to introduce teacher and student exchanges.

"This is the power of education at its absolute finest," Julie Lodrick, the Mount's principal, says.

Ms Nagomoro hopes her school will be able to repay the favour by showing the rest of South Sudan how education should be. "I want it to be a role-model school," she said.

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