By: Nina deVries
More than 70 percent of children in South Sudan are not receiving an education – the highest proportion in the world. Since the civil conflict began in 2013, nearly a third of all schools have closed as a result of the fighting. In 2017, UNICEF is aiming to provide 500,000 children with access to education and to establish or rehabilitate 400 learning spaces. Despite the challenges students face in the country, their thirst for knowledge has never been greater.
MALAKAL, South Sudan, 31 October 2017 – The road that runs through Malakal town is quiet. An occasional vehicle passes and vendors in small shops sell basics essentials like soap, as children play along the side roads.
Within the town, its entrance partially flooded from the rains, is the dilapidated Sobat Secondary School, bullet holes still visible in some of the classroom doors.
This town has been hit hard during South Sudan’s ongoing civil conflict. Since the fighting first broke out in 2013, control of Malakal in the northeast of the country has changed hands between government and opposition forces about 12 times. The Sobat school was partially destroyed in the fighting, another causality of the conflict that has forced 1.8 million children out of school.
Those fleeing the violence sought safety in safe havens and in protection of civilians sites established by the United Nations. Twenty one year old Sarah Lual was one of them, arriving with her mother and five year old son, Makuach, at a displacement camp in the town of Melut.
To try and relieve the constant fear she felt for the safety of her family, she says she pushed herself to stay focused on her studies in the camp until she completed her primary education. With no secondary classes available and unable to further her studies she kept herself busy by selling tea, saving a bit of money for herself and her son.
When Sarah heard that UNICEF had re-opened the Sobat Secondary School in Malakal town she was determined to go. She walked for three days back to Malakal during the intense rainy season in July.
“Getting drinking water was very hard, so I had to just take what the rain brought, when I was thirsty. I had to drink it from the puddles,” explains Sarah. “I brought a small amount of food in a small bag and after some time my feet were swollen, all the while I had to carry Makuach. Luckily, I met other people travelling too along the way and they helped me.”
She now stays in a small one bedroom brick house with support from her aunt nearby. Dressed in her school uniform of a white button shirt and long black skirt, Sarah, who stands a good six feet tall, smiles as she remembers how determined she was to make the journey back.
“I decided to come back to school because I know it’s the only way I can prosper, I need to support myself and my child,” says Sarah. “Even though I have challenges with Makuach, I cannot give up on school, I know it will help me. It’s hard leaving my boy everyday but I’m getting knowledge, after completing school I know I will get something better,” she says.
Sarah says she wants to eventually work as a midwife. She describes how scared and young she was when she was pregnant and when she gave birth at the age of just 16. She says wants to be able to help other young women to make sure they have safe pregnancies.
The Sobat Secondary School closed in 2014 and only re-opened in March of this year. It currently has 71 students, the majority are boys. With funding from USAID, UNICEF rehabilitated the school by fixing holes in walls, rebuilding the roof and classrooms and windows. Through it partner, War Child Canada, UNICEF also provides school supplies such as stationary and pays teachers incentives, about 40$ per month and training for teachers.
And it’s not just in town where young people like Sarah have a thirst for knowledge. Many fleeing the conflict in Malakal ended up at the United Nations’ protection of civilians site, a 30-minute drive from Malakal town. Eighteen year old Khames Koruom, almost didn’t make it there.
In 2013, he was also in Malakal town when fighting started.
“People were fighting and killing each other. I felt horrified when I saw dead people lying all around. I was living with my mother and my siblings and we wanted to take a boat that was going to Wau Shilluk,” he said. Wau Shilluk, a town north of Malakal, was a temporary safe haven for those fleeing the fighting at the time.
As Khames and his siblings boarded the crammed boat his mother realised it was too overloaded and called her children to come back.
“As the boat started moving, my mother was right, the boat sank, we saw people drown,” said Khames.
Khames and his family instead sought safety at the UN camp, despite the risks of being confronted by armed men along the way.
“It took us two hours to walk to the POC, we had no food, no extra clothes, we had to sleep outside for several days,” said Khames who speaks in a soft, low tone.
“I always wanted to get an education, but when the war broke out, it stopped because my school shut down. My favourite subject was biology and I missed it a lot when school closed.”
When he heard about a secondary school opening in the POC he enrolled immediately.
The secondary school in the UN site is also supported by UNICEF, which gives supplies such as books and teachers pay and is also funded by USAID.
John Anai, an education officer for UNICEF in Malakal, estimates that just 37 percent of those aged between15-24 are able to read and write. He says education is vital to both students’ futures and the future of the country.
“As result of conflict, youth are often sitting idle – idleness is always a devil man’s workshop, so they start to engage with trouble,” explains Anai. “In the POC there have been reports of drinking, smoking and at times young adults committing violence. Some are frustrated because they are distressed, we are trying to bring them back to their normal senses.”
Back in Malakal town, Sarah Lual heads home on a break to check on her son, who stays with a neighbor and her children. As Sarah cuddles him, her face takes a more serious expression, as she explains how she doesn’t want to see other young women get pregnant too young. She often encourages her peers and younger girls to stay in school and get an education.
“I say to them don’t fit into same shoes as me. My advice for them is pursue education first, don’t get too involved with men and relationships, let that come later,” she says.
She gives Makuach one last squeeze before heading back to her class.