A future without fear

26th May 2006 at 01:00
As Sudan faces the aftermath of a 21-year civil war, Wendy Wallace reports on its brave bid to educate a million children

Next time you fear Year 9 will drive you mad, spare a thought for a colleague in a rougher, tougher, role. Bennet Bullen, 52, is head of Supiri secondary school in Juba, southern Sudan, where he has taught biology for the past 10 years. His 800-plus students are aged from 15 to 20-something; many of the boys are former child soldiers.

Mr Bullen has a box of chalk on his desk but no computer; he has a working telephone but too few teachers or textbooks, and class sizes can be up to 100. And at Supiri, these are the good days in a country recovering from more than two decades of civil war. As Mr Bullen says: "We have that courage now, to speak freely. Because we are in peace."

Chancellor Gordon Brown says of Africa as a whole that "it is no longer acceptable to a civilised world" that less than two-thirds of its children complete primary education. And he has announced that the UK will contribute pound;8.5 billion over the next decade to the global drive to get every child into primary school by 2015.

Nowhere is this challenge greater than in southern Sudan. Here, according to the United Nations' children's agency, Unicef, only one in a hundred girls completes primary education and fewer than a quarter of all children are in school. Unicef launched a campaign last month to get a million children into school in this vast, war-ravaged region of north-east Africa.

Even as the violence draws to a close, the new regional government confronts an educational wasteland, in which schools have been bombed, children enslaved, and teachers intimidated. Most of the remaining staff are untrained volunteers and many "schools" consist of just a blackboard propped under a tree. Education minister Dr Michael Milli Hussein says his major problem is the lack of teachers. "Without teachers, everything else will be a waste of time. From where do I recruit them? How do I train them? Keep them? Any other thing, you can get in a year or two. But there is no short cut to teachers."

One of the first tasks the new education ministry has set itself is to assess the existing education facilities in southern Sudan. A trip just a few miles outside Juba, the regional capital, to the village of Kworijik-Luri, highlights some of the issues. In temperatures of more than 100F, a group of people sit in the coolest spot available - a semi-circle of chairs set under spreading mango trees.

Unlike most villages in the south, Kworijik-Luri has a brick-built primary school - Sacred Heart Basic school - but no electricity or serviceable furniture. Priest Father Venusto Modi, with help from teacher Sabina Laja, tries to provide answers to Unicef's education officer, who has arrived with a seven-page questionnaire and a global positioning system device; part of the mission is to establish the precise whereabouts of existing schools.

Some answers are simple. Library? No. Latrines? No. Volleyball? "There is a team but they are lacking the ball." Disruption of school due to conflict, drought, hunger? Yes, yes, yes. Problems with salaries? Yes. "You see the teachers are thin like myself," says Father Venusto. "Despite this, they really work with love."

Sabina Laja, 28, is one of only two women in the village to have completed secondary school and now she is a teacher. "Some of our people don't want the girls to go to school, because of the bride wealth and because of housework," she explains. Girls are married early in southern Sudan, and effectively "paid for" with dowries from the groom's family, a key part of the economy. Even if girls begin school, they tend not to complete it.

There are 20 girls in the P1 class of five-year-olds at Sacred Heart, but only four in the top one, P8, for pupils aged 13 and over.

This primary school draws children from a 50-mile radius; they come and stay with relatives in term-time. Ten children from the village walk the seven miles into Juba each day for secondary school, says the priest, adding that some of them "get discouraged" and drop out.

Of the 22 rural schools the ministry team has surveyed so far, this is only the second with a permanent building. Of the rest, half were in temporary structures made of dried grasses and the remainder were conducted under the trees.

The great advantage for educationists here is a hunger for schooling on the part of students. Young men take any opportunity to implore visitors to put them through school; fees are low, yet still too high for many. There is no shame in studying for the primary school certificate into your 20s or 30s.

Even small children may put themselves through school.

Rejoice Jada, head of Buluk A primary school in Juba, relates how many of her primary school pupils carry water or sell goods in the market outside school hours, to pay for pens, paper and food. At school, they crowd in to sit on the floor. "We don't have books," she says. "Desks are not there.

Everything is empty. But they like their learning. They are in a hurry to go to senior school and university, so they can work in special places.

Without certificates, you will suffer more."

William Ater was one of those in charge of the rebel army's education policy, during the long war. Now, he is under-secretary at the ministry of education of the government of Southern Sudan. One of the first issues is to establish a curriculum that reflects local languages, religions and culture. "The question of who are we, the issue of identity, was a key part of the war," he says. The few southern Sudanese children who have been in school - whether in the south or as refugees in neighbouring African countries - have studied curriculums in a variety of languages. The ministry's ambitious plans - rapidly to offer early primary education in a range of half a dozen locally-used languages, with a junior and senior curriculum in English - have allowed little time for consultation with communities about what they actually want.

All members of the new government agree education is a priority, says Mr Ater. Next to military spending, education will take the largest budget share, of around 8 per cent. Other funds for schools are coming from international donors, including the UK's Department for International Development, the Japanese government and the United States, as well as a multi-donor trust fund.

There are plans to create teacher-training institutes in each of the 10 southern states. The ministry aims to have sent 35,000 potential teachers on courses by the end of the next academic year, as well as training a large number of teaching assistants to work in schools. Unicef, with the ministry, is building new schools and providing rudimentary training for staff in curriculum content and teaching methods.

Even before the peace, Unicef had helped begin to address girls' education by building 140 community girls' schools. These one-classroom schools are meant for girls living within a 15-minute walk; one main reason for parents keeping their daughters at home during the insecurity of the war years was the fear that they would be raped on the way to school.

The community schools offer accelerated learning, condensing four years of the curriculum into three, and run for just three or four hours a day, freeing girls to do their quota of domestic work. One such school, Panbarkou in Lakes state, has tripled in size from 35 girls to 110 in three years. One woman on the school management committee, with daughters in the school, said: "I didn't go to school but I want my daughters to learn so that they can help me after they finish, like the other daughters are doing with their parents."

Despite small advances, the scale of the task facing the southern Sudanese remains huge. As in many developing countries where children are not at school, human and physical capacity is a key issue; even in Juba, government ministers are living in tents because of the lack of housing.

With no public transport, and few roads outside the town centres, travel has to be either on foot, by plane or in a four- wheel-drive vehicle hefty enough to traverse the bush. Petrol, ironically in this oil-rich land, is imported from neighbouring Uganda.

Even if new schools are built of local materials, they need clean drinking-water sources, so machinery must be brought in to drill boreholes.

Communities have to be mobilised to build the structures, with donated materials. At the administrative level, there are far too few trained planners, managers, advisers...

Bismarck Swangin, 25, a southerner who grew up as a refugee in Uganda and graduated from Makerere university in Kampala, is back in Juba working for Unicef. He describes his peers asking him about his laptop, as they have never seen one, but he is optimistic about the fruits of peace. "The challenge is to adjust to the environment and then become part of the process of reconstruction," he says.


Education is always political. But in Sudan - the site of a war waged by an Islamist northern Arab government against a non-Arab and mainly non-Muslim southern population - schools became sites of coercion. Juba, the capital of the south, was occupied by troops of the northern government. Schools that had taught in English had to begin teaching in Arabic, using a curriculum infused by political Islam. In maths, for instance, students might be required to work out what part of an inheritance family members would receive, based on the fact that each boy receives twice as much as each girl. In history, Christian students had to expand on "the golden age of Islam".

Bennet Bullen, 52, above, is headteacher of Supiri secondary school in Juba in southern Sudan. Some of those studying at Supiri in the war were government soldiers, recruited to spy on their teachers, who dared not venture off the limits of the curriculum. In exams, those same students arrived with guns to remind their teachers of the grades they deserved. One of Mr Bullen's fellow heads, from Juba Day school, was imprisoned, accused of recruiting for the rebel army. Pupils were routinely taken out of classes at gunpoint to carry food for soldiers - or recruited to fight.

For more details of Unicef's Go To School campaign for southern Sudan, visit www.UNICEF.org. For further reading on education in southern Sudan, see Islands of Education by Marc Sommers, which can be downloaded from www.unesco.org. Share expertise, enrich learning and promote global citizenship by working with schools overseas - and enter the TESHSBC Make the Link awards, worth up to pound;5,000 each. Tell us about your links: Make_the_Link@tes.co.uk www.tes.co.ukMake_the_Link

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