Washington DC, 14 September 2010 – Walking amidst the lush tall grasses of Eastern Equatoria State in Southern Sudan and looking at the peaceful verdant hills dotted with trees, it is hard to imagine the chaos and carnage that raged throughout the area from 1983 until 2005. After a generation of civil war, the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) on January 9, 2005 ended armed hostilities between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the Government of Sudan. The agreement created the semi-autonomous Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS) controlled by the SPLM, and provided for a six-year interim period leading up to a referendum on independence that is due to take place on 9 January 2011.
Challenges to Peace
Since the signing of the CPA, some 320,000 refugees and 50,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have returned home to Southern Sudan. Re-establishing their communities has been no easy task. There is little modern infrastructure in the country, as development was stalled by more than twenty years of war. Returning refugees have had to relearn the skills of subsistence farming, growing cassava, maize and beans in the rich red soil, often competing for land and water with those people who stayed behind during the conflict. Gradually, peace has made possible the beginnings of improvement in education, health, and sanitation, although much remains to be done. Throughout this period, Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has contributed to this development by building schools, supporting teacher training, providing school supplies, encouraging the education of girls and building the capacity of local communities to take charge of their own educational needs.
Yet as the referendum draws closer, tensions between the two Sudanese governments, that in Juba in the south and that in Khartoum, have only grown. Many provisions of the CPA that were to have been resolved prior to the referendum remain unimplemented, such as the delineation of the common border and an agreement on how oil revenues will be shared after the referendum. In addition, Southern Sudan struggles to control spreading internal violence that has killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. It also faces a food shortage in Jonglei State, home to Akobo County, which a local UN official recently called the “hungriest place on earth.” With time running short and many complex issues left to resolve, international observers are concerned that Sudan’s north-south conflict could reignite and destroy recent progress.
The Need for Education
Education in Southern Sudan is important because it is through education that we can sustain peace," said JRS Lobone Project Director Lam Leone Ferem.
During the civil war, Southern Sudanese refugees eagerly sought education for their children in affirmation of their hope for a better future amidst desperate circumstances. Parents in camps such as Adjumani (Uganda) and Kakuma (Kenya) understood that without education their children would become a lost generation. The schools operated by JRS in these camps gave the Southern Sudanese valuable basic skills and a sense of dignity and normalcy during their displacement. When return to Southern Sudan became possible, many families delayed their departure until the end of the school year, and refused to return until they were assured that their children’s education could continue “back home.” Working with UN agencies and the Southern Sudanese government, JRS anticipated these needs and worked to renovate and staff schools in locations targeted for repatriation.
Initially, and often still today, the quality of education in schools founded by the returned Southern Sudanese refugees has been limited by local resources and teaching capacity. UNICEF’s 2006 Rapid Assessment of Learning Spaces found that the majority of schools in Southern Sudan were located outdoors, under trees, and that fewer than 20% of teachers had a teaching qualification. The Government of Southern Sudan, facing challenges on numerous fronts, simply could not provide the necessary support to local schools, and urgently requested assistance from international non-governmental organizations, including JRS.
JRS saw a clear need to continue the educational ministry it had begun in the refugee camps so as to meet the needs of returnees. At the invitation of returnee communities, JRS began education projects in and around the towns of Nimule, Lobone, Kajo Keji, and Yei. The trust created through many years of previous interaction has allowed JRS to foster community involvement in the schools, including school management committees, parent teacher associations, and cultural activities. JRS considers these programs an opportunity for returned refugees to experience the full benefits of peace while preparing for an independent future.
"It was a turning point in my educational knowledge when I recently attended a two-week teaching program organized by JRS in Yei. The program covered the core subjects which include English, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and geography… More than 150 students from six different secondary schools benefited from the program … All the students who attended said it was the best and most remarkable preparation program they cold imagine." ~ Ade Samuel, student at Equatorial College in Yei.
"Given educational opportunities, people have the potential to rebuild their lives, to help rebuild their communities and thus to strengthen and stabilize their countries for generations to come," said JRS International Director Fr. Peter Balleis, S.J.
Long Term Commitment
Lobone, an area in Southern Sudan’s Eastern Equatoria state where JRS has worked since 2001, has more recently witnessed the return of the Acholi people. JRS is the only international agency working in this community. Through grants provided by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), JRS has improved access to primary education by building three primary schools and supporting seven schools.
The schools in the Lobone area (Paimakong, Lerwa and Palwar) receive supplies, in-service training for untrained teachers, support for fifteen teachers to attend university, and encouragement of female education. Presently these projects directly benefit 2,200 students and 58 teachers, and also bring indirect benefits to thousands more in these communities.
"I was a beneficiary of JRS. JRS educated me, and now I work in the Lobone Administrative office during the morning, and teach adult education in the afternoon. Education for children is important, but adult literacy is also important, so I chose to teach adults." ~ Assistant Administrator of the Lobone Regional Government Office.
In 2009, JRS built the first permanent school in Lobone, at Paimakong. The local chief commented that "JRS really made a miracle, building the first permanent class