Maban, 18 May 2016 – Today in Upper Nile, South Sudan, a primary school student is more likely to find men armed with guns in their classrooms than teachers with chalk and books in hand.
Since the most recent conflict in South Sudan erupted at the end of 2013, 1.7 million people have become internally displaced and millions of children have lost their chance to go to school. Displacement from home, severe malnutrition and poverty, recruitment into armed groups, and the constant fear of violence are perpetual interruptions to learning.
In August 2015, after a vicious internal conflict between the president Salva Kiir- government forces (SPLA) and Riek Machar – opposition forces (SPLA-IO), the two warring parties signed a peace agreement. Finally in April 2016, after several delays, the Transitional Government of National Unity was formed bringing together Salva Kiir and Riek Machar in Juba, the country's capital.
"Today, all over South Sudan there is a shared hope that the time has come for peace and reconciliation, and consequently the much needed stability and development in the country. Some analysts, however, are very cautious and indicate that the situation is so fragile that a single bullet could bring the whole country back into war," said Pau Vidal SJ, JRS Maban Project Director.
Schools under siege. Furthermore, the consequences of the peace deal and presumed restored relations in Juba have yet to practically trickle down to the majority of civilians in conflict-affected areas. In Upper Nile alone, 63 percent of schools are still occupied by armed forces, but communities are slowly claiming back their learning spaces as peace seems to finally settle in.
Three years ago, in Maban county, a vocational training centre built with foreign aid money was handed over to the South Sudanese government, neglected and eventually looted before being occupied by a local militia– serving as their military barracks – in mid-2014.
In late 2015, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) requested the Maban County Commissioner to negotiate to re-establish the space as a place of learning. The centre was demilitarised and the school, now named the Arrupe Learning Centre, offers English, computer and teacher training courses.
New future in learning. "Education transforms lives, creates communal bonds, and shares hope that another way of life is possible. When violence has darkened your heart and taken the life of your beloved ones, you realise how powerful the value of education is, because knowledge is something no one can take away from you. Therefore, education breeds confidence. And confidence breeds hope and peace," said Alvar Sanchez, JRS Maban Education Coordinator.
Since its opening in October 2015, more than 1,000 people have enrolled in four-month training courses. In March 2016, 209 adult and teenage students graduated from a European-recognised English course while 18 secondary students received basic computer skills certificates at a graduation ceremony. A month later, in April, graduates who wished to continue learning were promoted to higher level courses, while a new group of students was admitted.
Thirty-five primary teachers were also welcomed into the newly opened residential Teacher Training College (TTC) by H.E. Luke Sadalla the County Commissioner, who encouraged them to focus on serving their communities with their knowledge. The college is one of a kind in Greater Upper Nile.
The TTC is run through a partnership between JRS and Solidarity with South Sudan, an inter-congregational Catholic initiative which has successfully run similar teacher training programmes in the country for many years and offers certificates, recognised by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, to teachers who complete two-year training courses.
Crossroads of coexistence. The centre is located at an intersection of displacement – home to more than 130,000 refugees from Sudan; 15,000 internally displaced persons; and a war-affected host community. It is place where all are welcome to study and learn together.
"By opening the school to all those struggling to overcome war, we are making a small step toward Pope Francis' call to 'blaze trails of reconciliation with God and with all our brothers and sisters," said Alvar.
Often times in displacement situations, refugees and host community members struggle to coexist in areas with limited resources. Maban is no exception, where grazing and agricultural land is limited violence between the two communities sporadically erupts. Bringing members of the various communities to learn together for two years helps to build bridges and mitigate conflict.
"In the two months since the teacher training program started JRS team has witnessed how suspicion and stereotypes between the two groups have been replaced by a shared purpose to learn and become good teachers. All the courses offered at the Arrupe Learning Centre are meant to open avenues for a better future," said Pau.
"We've inherited a spirit that seeks excellence. Even in a place where people first and foremost hunger for food, the hunger for education is strong. Providing quality opportunities for students to learn creates an environment where they can think critically, make sense of the world, and find their way in it. We want to see them reach their full potential," added Alvar.
After providing opportunities for community members to improve their teaching, English and computer skills in the county, JRS hopes that community leaders will be able to spread their knowledge to others. Down the line, JRS plans to offer online higher education courses from Jesuit universities by launching Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins, a programme that has been successfully running in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya and other refugee contexts for five years.
The JRS Maban Arrupe Learning Centre not only provides access to education throughout on-going humanitarian crises but also promotes reconciliation and peace building in a country affected by war and displacement for more than five decades. Since the initiative is still in its nascent stage JRS Maban hopes that with time "the centre will become a safe and protected space where study, reflection and debate can shape the sensitivity of a new generation committed to serving others."
--Angela Wells, JRS Eastern Africa Communications Officer