From Rowan to South Sudan: Local group works to aid war-torn nation
Editor’s note: Salisbury resident Karen Puckett is a member of Sudan Rowan, a nonprofit group working to improve the lives of people in a region ravaged by a lengthy civil war that left millions dead and survivors with limited access to basic necessities of life. Earlier this year, she traveled to South Sudan as part of a contingent looking for ways to expand educational partnerships in the area known as Aliap. This is an account of her journey.
By Karen Puckett
For the Salisbury Post
Our plane taxied uncertainly down the small runway at the Juba Airport. Finally, rather than stopping near the terminal, the plane parked farther away and passengers disembarked onto the black, smoldering asphalt tarmac. As we prepared to exit the plane, a passenger across the aisle said to me, “You should know, this is the absolute hottest time of the year you could have come to South Sudan.”
As I and my two travel companions walked through the sweltering heat toward the austere airport terminal in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, we noted the Sudanese presidential airplane was parked near the terminal entrance. Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, was visiting Juba that day. His presence at the airport had precipitated our having to trek from far down the runway, rather than disembarking near the terminal.
Al-Bashir is currently president of all of Sudan, North and South. In 2011, there will be a referendum in which the South will determine whether it will break from the North and become a separate country. This agreement was brokered during a 2005 peace deal between the North’s Republic of Sudan and the South’s Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA.) The peace deal, called the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), came after a 22-year war, conducted under the command of al-Bashir and the northern armies against the South, caused the deaths of 2 million people and forced another 4 million from their homes. (While we were in Sudan, the International Criminal Court ordered an arrest warrant for al-Bashir for crimes committed in Darfur.)
The purpose of our visit to South Sudan was most likely very different from that of al-Bashir. We were traveling there to visit an area along the northern border of South Sudan called Aliap. One of my fellow travelers, Ngor Kur Mayol (John Madut) was born there around 1980 but was forced to flee the area as a young child when northern troops and Islamic militants attacked his home and family. When he fled, he walked with tens of thousands of other boys from all over South Sudan to refugee camps in Ethiopia and later Kenya. These children were reared in these camps ó most of them without their parents ó and came to be known as the Lost Boys of Sudan.
In South Sudanese society, boys around ages 6-10 are in charge of taking care of the family’s cattle in removed locations called “cattle camps.” These boys were isolated from the men, women, girls and younger children of their villages when the attacks from the northern troops and their proxies, the Mujahideen, took place. From that vantage point they were able to escape. (The Mujahideen were nomadic armed horsemen acting in collusion with the Northern army. They were encouraged to attack Southern villages, kill randomly and take whatever they wanted ó including people. Similar groups called the Janjaweed are known to commit atrocities in the current conflict in Darfur.)
Ngor was brought to the United States with close to 4,000 other Lost Boys by the U.S. government in 2001. He was resettled in Atlanta. Some of the other Lost Boys also were placed in Atlanta, while many more were relocated to cities throughout the United States, Canada and Australia.
My other travel companion, Judy Maves, is an advocate for the Lost Boys in Atlanta and has expertise working with volunteer groups that specialize in educational projects in South Sudan. Judy has traveled to Africa numerous times. Her love and admiration for the people there was palpable.
Our journey was sponsored by Sudan Rowan, a Rowan County-based organization created to take on manageable projects with partners in South Sudan. We were seeking information about educational initiatives in Aliap.
Our journey included a flight to Washington, D.C.; a connection in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; then to Juba (the capital of South Sudan). Two days later, we flew on a twin-engined plane to Bentiu, the capital of Unity State and from there took ground transportation to Pariang Town. We stayed six nights in a traditional grass-and-mud dwelling on the county commissioner’s compound in Pariang Town.
When the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed between South Sudan and the Northern Khartoum government, the South was segmented into American-style divisions with states and counties. Pariang Town is a village of 18,000 residents in Ruweng County, which is in Unity State. Aliap is a “boma” or district in Ruweng County that currently serves 400 students and is about 45 minutes from Pariang Town.
Every area in Unity State has educational needs. More trained teachers are required. More secondary schools need to be built. More emphasis needs to be placed on educating girls and women. Efforts need to be made to educate former child soldiers who are now adults.
Unity State is often called South Sudan’s “ground zero” because this is where attacks from Northern militia were first made on innocent villages during Sudan’s 22-year civil war. These attacks, which began in the early to mid-1980s and prompted the exodus of the Lost Boys to refugee camps, ended in 2005 with the CPA. Unity State, which is on the border of North and South Sudan, contains most of the oil in Sudan and will most likely be disputed territory when and if the North and South decide to separate. It’s ironic that although Unity State was the first area to be terrorized by the North and one of the areas most horribly damaged, it still receives insufficient aid from the international community and the government of South Sudan. While there, we saw only smatterings of work by outside organizations.
We visited the school in Aliap ó a grass hut with a falling roof ó and announced our hopes of a partnership with the people of Aliap during a ceremony of chiefs and other dignitaries. The Aliap community is very enthusiastic about educating its children. They have built traditional huts for school buildings, hired a teacher using their own money and resources and acquired curriculum materials from the state.
However, their teacher has only an eighth-grade education and no teaching degree. The grass hut is impermanent and has to be rebuilt constantly due to the heavy rains. Learning materials are basic, and school supplies and reading books are nonexistent. A worn chalkboard stands at the front of the classroom. Children come to school barefooted. Water is provided in a single cup that the children share, causing the spread of contagious diseases. Although 400 students are currently enrolled, many more are on a waiting list because the school is now well beyond capacity.
As war refugees return, populations in Pariang Town and surrounding Bomas are rapidly growing. This has created problems with school overcrowding. Schools were nonexistent during the lengthy war and are ill prepared to handle the current influx of students.
Students in Ruweng County are taught English in the schools as well as Arabic and their tribal language, Dinka. UNICEF provides some curriculum materials. The Unity State government provides some teachers, many recruited from Uganda and Kenya. A few schools are permanent concrete structures. However, most instruction takes place in grass huts or under trees.
In all, we visited four primary schools and one secondary school. The only students in attendance were eighth graders taking high-school entrance exams, high school students taking yearly exams and adult students who had returned to finish their schooling. The rest of the students were herding cattle to the Nile to be watered because the one well in Pariang Town was drying up ó thirsty for the onset of rainy season. It is customary for schools to go on holiday during February and March as these months mark the end of the dry season.
When we visited the secondary school, a teacher told us how frustrating it is to teach science without chemicals or equipment. Many of the teachers are men from Kenya and Uganda. They told us one day that the thing they miss most is reading material. Ngor and I proposed sending books to them if we could find a way. I asked whether there were any titles they were interested in. They said they would like to have copies of the Bible as well as books from the Harry Potter series.
In addition to visiting schools, we met with national, state and county education ministers regarding educational needs. We delivered three large duffle bags of school supplies that were donated by a variety of individuals and groups. We also met with an official with the World Bank regarding applications for project resources.
The memory that stays with me the most from our life-changing week in Pariang Town was this: One day a group of ladies approached Judy and me. Like most of the women in the area, they did not speak English. (Most likely they were speaking in Arabic or in Dinka.) They offered to take us to their huts, share some Sudanese wine, eat Sudanese food and get to know each other. Through Ngor, our resilient translator, we politely declined because we had other matters to attend to. I did ask them how they felt about education ó were they interested in education? They said yes, but they’d never had the opportunity.
Maybe it was my thirst for more female companionship ó as most of our time had been spent with men who spoke English ó but the realization that these women wanted something so simple as education and had no access to it tore at my heart.I think about this group of ladies often and wish I could have spent more time getting to know them.
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Literary look at Lost Boys
Readers who want to learn more about Sudan’s Lost Boys should check out “What is the What” by Dave Eggers, one of the titles in the Libretto Book Club’s annual Summer Reading Challenge. The theme for this year’s challenge is “Stories of Courage,” and Eggers’ work captures the courage, hope and heartbreak of the Lost Boys’ saga. The book is a fictional account of one of the Lost Boys who resettles in the United States after surviving the brutalities of civil war and dislocation in his native land. New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani described the book as “a testament to the triumph of hope over experience, human resilience over tragedy and disaster.”
See next Sunday’s book page for more information about the Summer Reading Challenge, which the Salisbury Post is helping to sponsor.
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