YEI, SOUTH SUDAN — In newly-independent South Sudan, students whose education was lost to five decades of civil war are coming back to their ABCs in the hope of building a better future for their new country. World Literacy Day is September 8.
At Lomuku Primary School in Yei, South Sudan, students perched on thin planks of wood for benches recite English words from a blackboard.
The gloomy, dirt-floor hut is packed, not with children, but with adults who are determined to catch up with the education that civil war took away.
The director of fire brigades in Yei, Joseph Laku Henry, says he was in primary school when war broke out. He joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Army when he was 15 years old, a year after the second civil war began in 1983. A 2005 peace declaration ended the fighting and paved the way for South Sudan’s independence last year.
But Henry says that despite freedom, generations have lost the chance to shape their nation because of a lack of education.
Henry says South Sudan has the highest rate of illiteracy in Africa and that it is time to reduce it. He says in war, every child, mother and father has gone without an education, and so now the time has come to educate the people.
Only 10 percent of the population has finished primary school, almost three quarters of the nation is illiterate and only 16 percent of women can read and write. A 15-year-old girl in South Sudan is more likely to die in childbirth than finish her education.
Mary Aker, the wife of a soldier, says the only way to ensure that children grow up healthy and wise is to educate women.
“Learning is good," said Aker. "I want to know everything. Like if I learn, I want to teach my children to be healthy, and my home to be healthy too.”
Aker says people often attribute South Sudan’s freedom to years of struggle by bush fighters and overlook women, but she says they should be rewarded for their sacrifice too.
“The women are also part of human beings," she said. "The woman educator can teach people many things, like if you have a job, you could help your husband. The women is productive in the war here. Many people, the woman have protected - this is good. People are the same in mind. But the duties also, if you have suffered, you can become educated [like a man]”.
Educated adults are more likely to send their children to school, breaking the cycle of illiteracy in families and communities.
The United Nations Children's Fund recently says that more than 70 percent of children ages 6 to 13 in South Sudan have never been in a classroom.
Headmaster Michael Adier Kuol says that even though schools in the country’s three southern states are much better than those in war-ravaged states nearer the border with Sudan, they still face many challenges.
At Lomuku, school enrollments have almost doubled in one year. Parents have pitched in to try to build more classrooms, but there is only enough money to buy local materials for more shacks, not solid structures.
Another challenge is teacher salaries. All 14 teachers in this school are untrained and only have primary school education.
In January, during a transport dispute with Sudan, landlocked South Sudan shut down oil production that brings in 98 percent of the country's revenues. Aid agencies fear that one of the biggest casualties of the oil shut down will be education.
Headmaster Kuol says that even in this breadbasket state and major trading hub, teachers cannot survive on community handouts that have greater symbolic than real value.
“The government is unable to pay all the teachers of South Sudan," said Kuol. "In the school I am teaching now, the payment of the teachers is done by the parents . The parents are the ones raising money every month so that their children are taught. It is very little really; it cannot really maintain a teacher, but it is the faith that is working for the teachers. They have the spirit of being patriotic, nationalistic. So they are only 200 South Sudanese pounds, which is maybe $50, or even less than $50 per teacher per month.”
But Kuol says schools here are better than in other states, where children are taught under the trees and many are kept at home because parents worry about the lack of security.