Blog: The harsh reality facing schools affected by conflict in South Sudan

In April 2016 Ellie Caine visited Mayendit, a remote town in Southern Liech (formerly Unity) state. The town has been under army control since May 2015, when the majority of the population was displaced by the onslaught of conflict. Many people have only recently returned.  She writes:

The purpose of my visit was to conduct training with our local NGO partner on the School Sample Survey as part of the Girls’ Education South Sudan (GESS) programme. The survey, which is part of the Knowledge, Evidence and Research component of GESS, is designed to assess the impact the programme has had on schools and individual girls. Unfortunately, as a result of the conflict, coupled with continuing insecurity in the area, very few of the schools in and around Mayendit have been able to receive funds from GESS in the form of Capitation Grants and Cash Transfers to individual girls.

During my stay I visited a number of the schools in Mayendit, accompanied by the local Community Liaison Officer who supports the implementation of GESS in the area, to investigate how the conflict had affected the resources available to the schools, the quality of education on offer, the status of teaching and the number of pupils attending school.

One of these was Bhor Primary School, which consists of a building that originally housed the Payam Education Office and now contains two classrooms, a small tukul used as the Head Teacher’s office and a smattering of trees. It has never had a permanent, purpose-built site; classes were originally set up under trees until UNICEF provided a tent in March 2014. The tent blew away in a storm in May 2014 and the school reopened at its current site until the army overtook the area in May 2015. At that time most of the children and teachers were displaced to a school for IDPs (internally displaced persons) in Nyal, only returning to Mayendit in February 2016.

The school offers classes from P1 to P5, and all the teachers are volunteers. The Head Teacher said he would like to be able to open P6 but under the current circumstances there is no realistic prospect of doing so. The original complement of 20 teachers has diminished to ten as they leave to seek paid work, predominantly in NGOs, and on the day of our visit a number of the teachers were not present at the school.

Bhor Primary has not yet uploaded enrolment data for 2016 to the South Sudan Schools’ Attendance Monitoring System (www.sssams.org), a real-time database developed as part of GESS. According to Samaritan’s Purse, an international NGO with a permanent base in Mayendit, there are currently 208 children enrolled, including 108 girls – figures which were corroborated by the teachers we met. When we visited, however, several of the girls were not at school, having gone to a distribution of health and sanitary items by the International Rescue Committee. We were also told that when food distributions take place, it is always older girls who accompany their mothers to the collection area, never boys.

“The work of teachers is not fair” – Head Teacher

The Head Teacher was adamant that he would not leave the school, despite not having received a salary since 2013, and was certain that “when South Sudan becomes a good country, we will have things we need again”. For the time being, however, the school, like many others in Mayendit, is hanging on by a thread. The absence of teacher salaries, and therefore teachers, is seriously affecting the school’s ability to function. The Head Teacher said: “when there’s no incentive I will not ask them to be in the school because they are not getting anything,” adding that “all the teachers were motivated before.”

Although the school does not charge any fees, the Head Teacher told us that he had asked the parents to pay 5SSP to help fund an incentive for the teachers but none of them could afford it. None of the children I saw on my visit were wearing school uniform and a few of the younger ones were not clothed at all.

The Head Teacher’s reasons for continuing his work were tied to the obligation he feels towards young people in his community. “It is important to continue because what I teach here is my children, from my own community. I cannot stay at home while these children are suffering.” He insisted that “even if I got a job with an NGO I will stay here.”

Sourcing supplies for schools in Mayendit

The absence of any kind of teaching and learning materials was eminently obvious. “Before the crisis there were enough learning materials from the government but now they are not there,” the Head Teacher said. When an individual child or teacher is able to afford an exercise book in the market he or she will tear out pages so that they can be shared with other pupils or colleagues. During our interview the Head and Deputy Head sat on a mat on the floor; the chair I was invited to use was borrowed from a pupil. “There’s nothing,” the Deputy Head Teacher said. “We sit like this on the ground.”

Other than educational resources, there are other deprivations facing the school. The Deputy Head Teacher told us there were no boreholes or latrines. He explained this meant that “to go to the toilet the children go home, and the young ones just go outside.” The school, which is surrounded by family tukuls, also lacks a fence, and the Deputy Head said this compounded the challenge of pupil retention: “they leave anyhow – they don’t even ask permission.”

However, “the big problem”, we were informed, “is chalk. Today we have run out.” Before conflict hit the area, this kind of basic school equipment was provided by UNICEF, but since 2015 the Head Teacher says these resources have stopped coming, a claim corroborated by two other schools I visited in Mayendit.

The gap has been filled by a different supplier, but at a cost. Verbal testimonies from teachers, community members and NGO staff in Mayendit indicated that the looting of schools and homes was a feature of the army’s conduct when it captured the town in May 2015, with soldiers taking furniture, blackboards, textbooks, even chalk. When we asked where Bhor Primary had sourced the chalk that had just run out, the Deputy Head Teacher told us that it was bought for 100 SSP from the army barracks. “It’s a high price. Before we did not pay.” He said the school used to have four blackboards, all of which were taken by the soldiers. “Now,” he added, “we beg and they give us one.”

Another school we visited, Pabuong Primary, whose former site had been burnt down and was now within the army barracks, was also almost completely reliant on the soldiers for school supplies. The incidence of textbooks was higher here, most likely due to the proximity of the new school site to the barracks, and we were told that most of the textbooks in the children’s possession, originally provided by UNICEF, would have been bought back for 100SSP from the soldiers. Blackboards propped up against trees which constituted the school’s classrooms had also been purchased from government troops, as had the chalk.

During my visit to Mayendit it became clear that for many in the community, including the schools, the only way to source many of the goods they need is by purchasing them from the soldiers at a high price.

The value of education in the midst of crisis

There were two classes going on during our visit, and the Head Teacher said that despite the lack of basic materials the children still want to learn “because in the future you will get good things”. His conviction was underpinned by the belief that “When you are educated you will be a doctor, you can build things, your life will be better. When you are not educated you are like a blind person.”

The reasons the teachers gave for educating girls, specifically, were slightly more nuanced. Although noting that “now, in South Sudan, girls are not as well-educated as boys,” the Head Teacher said that girls at Bhor Primary are motivated to continue education because “they see some girls who complete P8 and now have jobs with Samaritan’s Purse” – the only INGO to maintain a permanent presence in the county.

The Deputy Head Teacher saw the value of educating girls in relation to their skills as a wife. “It is important to educate girls because when you marry an educated girl she helps you look after the family.”

Within the community, however, both teachers agreed that it was harder to persuade parents of the value of sending their daughters to school. The Head Teacher asserted that “All the parents, when the girl is mature enough, they will not let her go to school because they want her to marry.” This statement was later slightly revised, with the Deputy Head Teacher recognising that there are “some parents, very few, who know the importance of education.”

The school itself does not provide any specific activities or assistance directed at keeping girls in school, other than buying skipping rope from the market. However, the Deputy Head said that “some girls want to continue to secondary” rather than leave school to get married and, according to the Head Teacher, “when the girls reach P5, P6, they know the importance of education.”

Neither the girls nor the school receive support from the majority of parents, though, with the Head Teacher revealing that “At PTA [Parent Teacher Association] they say this school for mature girls is not OK.” The PTA does, however, assist the school in tackling absent pupils. The Deputy Head says that if a child is absent for just one or two days “we talk about it to the PTA and they will go to see the parents because everyone here knows each other.”

“Boys are the ones parents want to go to school” – divergent pressures on boys and girls

During my visit to the school, I spoke to a female student in P2 who was 16 years old. I interviewed her with the help of the Community Liaison Officer, who acted as a Nuer translator. She told us she is one of seven siblings, three of whom are also at Bhor Primary. The older ones either help to look after the children or work as traders.

She said she wants to continue her education all the way to S4, an ambition that her parents support. After she finishes school she would like to get a job as well as finding a husband and having children, and would look for a job with an NGO if the opportunities were there. Her favourite subject is Social Studies, mainly because the “teacher is very friendly”. After the school day ends at 12.30pm she goes home to read “because I want to remember what I have learnt.”

Education is important to her, she told us, because she wants “to help sustain the lives of her parents and also her community”, but sometimes the dearth of resources at Bhor Primary makes it difficult to learn. “When I come to school there are no learning materials and often not all the teachers are here – sometimes we only have one or two lessons a day.” The school day begins at 8.30am and finishes at 12.30pm.

Most of her friends are planning to continue their education; only a few want to leave school and none are already married. Despite this, she said that the reality for many girls is that their education is restricted by their parents, and that only a few communities allow girls to go to school. Most parents want their daughters to be married in exchange for a lot of cows. Opportunities for boys are more extensive. “Boys are the ones parents want to go to school because they think boys will be able to do things in future.”

For this particular student, though, “in learning there is no difference between boys and girls.”