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Southern Sudan Looks to Education for Future

It has been one year since a landmark peace agreement ended a two decade civil war between Sudan's northern Islamist government and southern rebels. Southern Sudan is starting over, with a new autonomous government, and many new challenges. Education is seen as critical to the success of the new south, and educators have been confronted with some tough obstacles.

One year ago a peace deal made Juba the new capital of an autonomous southern Sudan. Trade is booming and a slew of businesses have entered the capital. But not one new school has been built, and those schools that are open face overcrowding and severe supply shortages.

Southern schools are starting from scratch. Most schools are dilapidated buildings that lack books, desks, and teachers.

And there is still no curriculum. During Sudan's prolonged civil war the northern Islamist government forced southern schools to teach courses only in Arabic. Now, southern Sudan wants English to be the medium of instruction, but that will not be easy.

"This is quite challenging because we lack the teachers. Trained teachers to teach the new curriculum in English," said Pitia Wani, the Director of Secondary Education in Equatoria State.

Teachers have to learn English quickly. They are expected to teach all courses in English as early as April of 2006.

Students also face problems. Many southern boys were conscripted into Sudan's war to fight on the side of rebels. They are more used to combat than classes.

Mr. Wani says disciplinary problems are rampant.

"In our examinations we inspect the students before they enter the examination room. We have to disarm them," he said. "They remove what they are carrying and they enter the room with the assistance of the police. We had to use the police! But we never gave in and we had to convince them that they have the future in their hands."

Educators here are also struggling to improve the quality of girls' education. During the war, girls faced the threat of rape by soldiers if they left their homes to walk to school.

And in south Sudan's traditional culture, girls get married young and soon have children themselves. Even girls who are unmarried are often forced to stay at home and work.

Director of Girls' Education in Equatoria State, Esther Akumu says the best thing is to get girls out of home environments that view education as trivial.

"The parents say OK, today you remain at home. You do this work. I am going somewhere. You have to take care of your young brothers. All these will always keep the daughters out," she explained. "We feel we should have boarding schools to keep the daughters away from their parents in order not to be stopped from continuing their education."

Ms. Akumu says boarding schools for girls are already under construction.

South Sudan's biggest obstacle may be its biggest triumph. Southern Sudanese are now returning home in droves from refugee camps in Uganda and Kenya. They are thrilled to be home. But returning children speak only English. They cannot attend schools with Arabic instruction. And with some classes topping 150 students, there is simply no room for young returnees.

"We have got only two English pattern schools," said Edward Legge, the minister of education for Equatoria State. "This year alone we received 2,451 student returnees. The two schools were not able to take them. This is the problem we are facing now. We need expansion of the present schools and building of new schools."

Mr. Legge says that more children are arriving every day only to find there is no room for them in schools.

Though there are many challenges, educators here are optimistic. All of them are well aware that the youth they teach today will be the future leaders of the new southern Sudan.