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Home Africa Lessons under the tree: building a school in South Sudan

Lessons under the tree: building a school in South Sudan

The wanton vandalism of hundreds of South African schools during the current lockdown prompted Levinia Pienaar to reflect on the disregard for education in some communities. She compares this attitude with an experience of building a school in war-torn Juba, South Sudan.

The recent widespread vandalism at schools has made me sad and angry. Although our education system is far from perfect and many of our schools lack much needed infrastructure, we have one of the best school infrastructures on the continent. Not only do we take it for granted, but some members of the community think nothing about breaking into schools and causing malicious damage.

Meanwhile, in other parts of Africa, children and adults are hungry for education but have only a tree to gather under. This juxtaposition reminds me of a school that Rwandan soldiers built on the outskirts of Juba, South Sudan during my time there as a peacekeeper for the United Nations and African Union Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

What happens when a community builds a school?

The civil war in South Sudan, from 2013 till the present, has killed thousands of people, forcing the most vulnerable – women, children and the elderly – to live in extreme circumstances and depend on the UN agencies. The peacekeepers protected the people living inside the refugee camps, while the soldiers were responsible for patrols outside the camps.

One rainy day, a contingent of Rwandan soldiers who were patrolling Kapuri village found some children, hungry to learn, sheltered under the trees in the pouring rain. They were moved to do something for these children.

With considerable effort, they were able to get a little funding to build a school. In efforts to cut down on costs, the soldiers decided to build the school themselves!

The project soon captured the attention of the surrounding areas. People came from nearby villages to help to build the school. Their motivation was very simple: the school gave them hope.

The peacekeepers got involved too. Every Saturday, everyone who was free would get into an army truck and go to the site of the new school. Small kids would pick up rubbish around the building site or they would stand on the side, encouraging the workers with their singing. Meanwhile, the adults helped the soldiers with the hard labour.

Their motivation was very simple: the school gave them hope.

The money saved through the community building project meant that the school could be equipped with a borehole to provide the school with water. The classrooms were equipped with blackboards, desks and benches. The teachers also got a small staff room.

The significance of such a school

This is the meaning of ubuntu, where everyone works together with limited resources towards a common goal. Building this school showed me the meaning of the expression: “When you raise a child, you raise a village.” This school was about so much more than a building or the task of teaching and learning. This school represented the rebuilding of an entire community that had been devastated by war.

There isn’t much formal learning or many schools in Sudan or South Sudan, especially in the villages. Adults who have some form of education often step in to assist the very few teachers. Qualified teachers themselves do not receive a salary. Instead, the government gives them a stipend, which they often share with the volunteer teaching assistants. This is dedication to a vocation.

A school in Darfur, Sudan. It consisted of a shelter forming a classroom, one teacher and 123 pupil // Photo supplied by Levinia Pienaar

Imagine the challenges that they face. Children are not separated by age or intellect. Sometimes there can be up to 50 children in a classroom, ranging in age from six to eleven. The classroom might be nothing more than a shaded area in temperatures of up to 53 degrees Celsius.

Qualified teachers themselves do not receive a salary. Instead, the government gives them a stipend.

Despite all the challenges, the value placed on education is so high that parents and children will go to incredible lengths to access even the most basic form of learning.

Leaving a lasting imprint

Shortly before the new Kapuri school was to open, my team paid a visit to the principal and asked what we could do to help. He said: “Whatever they can learn. Every little bit helps.”

We decided to get the children to put their handprints on a cloth that would be hung in the new school and would become part of its history. The expression on the faces of the children, teachers, and soldiers as they put their painted handprints on the cloth will stay with me forever.

The children placed their hand prints on the cloth to commemorate their new school // Photo supplied by Levinia Pienaar

I love teaching through music, so I had the idea of teaching them the song, “Heal the World” by Michael Jackson and to help them to understand its meaning. I wanted to make it relevant to them, so we choreographed a dance to accompany the song.

One would think that it would be difficult to teach the children an English song, especially when they spoke only Nuer, but the day before the official opening, they could sing the song perfectly.

The ribbon cutting ceremony took place on a Saturday. The Rwandan soldiers handed the school over to the Minister of Education, the village chief, and the school principal. There were many tears… tears of joy.

The children, in their worn out uniforms and clean faces, were as excited as I had ever seen them. They performed their dance and the song. Parents and other villagers who attended the ceremony danced around us as a token of appreciation and joy, giving us their blessing in the traditional African way.

Parents and other villagers who attended the ceremony danced around us as a token of appreciation and joy.

Together, the soldiers, UN agencies and villagers worked together to make a difference in the communities outside Juba. The peacekeepers were there not only to maintain the peace, but also contributed to the rebuilding of a war-torn country. However, it always strikes me that there were many soldiers from different countries building roads and other infrastructure, but it took a contingent of Rwandan soldiers, who themselves would have seen the worst effects of a genocide in their own country just a few years earlier, to recognise that a school could have a far greater impact than any other structure.

This brings me back to the situation in our own country. In a three-month period, 1 500 schools were vandalised. On one side of Africa, communities would do anything for education, including building it with their own bare hands. But on the “better” side of Africa we think nothing of destroying public infrastructure that provides much needed services, often to poor communities.

Do we value these goods less because we have them? Or do we have to wait for everything to be destroyed to recognise their worth? Perhaps we have a greater respect for our public goods when we build them with our own hands.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Levinia Pienaar
Levinia Pienaar worked for the South African Police for 27 years, leaving as a captain in 2017. She has worked extensively to prevent violence against women and children and served as a UN peacekeeper in Sudan and South Sudan. She is a gender activist, photographer, filmmaker and is currently documenting the stories of women living in the rural Western Cape. She describes herself as a feminist.

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