It’s 7AM outside a school in a camp for displaced families in South Sudan, and hundreds of children are arriving — all of them balancing objects on their heads. Some carry empty cans of food aid, others broken buckets and small stoves. These items are not the makings of a science project, but rather will be used as seats in classrooms that consist of little more than thatched walls, dirt floors and perhaps a blackboard.
“My mom cooks for us on this stove and I use it as a chair in school,” says Nyagnyag, a second year primary school student. “When I come back home after classes, she takes it away again to cook dinner for us.”
Every child you meet in South Sudan has the same simple dream: “I want to go to school.” These young minds – starving for knowledge and for breakfast, which many don’t get – wake before the sun rises to walk long, grueling kilometers, barefoot, to get to this most basic of dirt-floor schools by eight o’clock.
On a Tuesday morning, a group of us walked into a classroom with more than 100 children in it. When we started to take photos, all of them started posing! They were not shy and not hiding. They made faces and were happy to be photographed. But once the teacher walked into the classroom, everyone became quiet. The discipline and the teacher’s attention were all they needed to learn as much as they could.
As many as 1.8 million South Sudanese children don’t go to school. Only half of those who are eligible for primary education attend classes. For girls the figures are even worse – just 30 per cent go to school, and only one out of 10 finishes her primary education.
Even before the conflict broke out in 2013, the education system in South Sudan was struggling: There were not enough schools, not enough trained teachers and no national curriculum. With the conflict, more and more children were forced to drop out, and more and more teachers were forced to leave schools to look for alternative sources of income.
In 2013, when United Nations Protection of Civilians Sites (POCs) were established in Juba, Bentiu and Malakal, UNICEF launched Education in Emergencies activities and established schools at each one. They were immediately filled with the voices of young children, most of whom had never been to school before. Now the schools are organized and structured, providing a safe space and learning opportunities to every child. UNICEF established partnerships to run the schools and trained teachers to provide something truly life changing – education.
In the POCs, everyone is an internally displaced person: all the teachers and all the students. They live in small shelters. Many have witnessed atrocities.
Dang Madang, a teacher at Hope Primary School says, “These children have seen and witnessed things that no adult, let alone a child, should have witnessed. Teaching them science, math and English is the best thing we can do for them, the only thing we can do to ensure their safe future.” Dang used to be a teacher in one of the primary schools in town, before it was occupied by an armed group, forcing him to run for his life to the camp.
Teachers inside and outside the POCs make the equivalent of five dollars a month. This amount is barely enough to buy food for their families. One teacher says, “We don’t have much here, we do our best to survive.”
“We are thankful to UNICEF, WFP and other organizations that we have food, access to medicine, and our children have an opportunity to study. For as long as I am here, I will do my best to give these children all the knowledge I have, to try and give them a chance to grow up safely and have a profession to develop our country.”
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenges children face in South Sudan – ongoing fighting, displacement, hunger. But these children, so eager to learn, so eager to survive – they give me hope and inspiration. These children – with stoves on their heads at seven o’clock in the morning, and whose only hope is education – should not suffer. They deserve a chance to grow up, be able to read and write, and become doctors, engineers and teachers, as dedicated as their mentors, as dedicated as many of the aid workers in South Sudan.
After years of support, we cannot stop now. We cannot give up on South Sudan, and we cannot give up on thousands of children who want to learn and have a meaningful life and be able to develop their young country.