Education provides an opportunity to step beyond ethnic distrust, a seemingly never-ending war and the lack of past opportunities. It can change the dismal statistics of a 27 percent adult literacy rate, 36 percent primary school age enrollment and 10 percent school matriculation for girls – just some of the challenges facing South Sudan, one of the world’s newest and most impoverished nations.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been involved in Sudan for more than a century and has longstanding relationships with two partner churches in South Sudan: The South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church and the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCOSS).
Presbyterian World Mission works in partnership with the PCOSS education department and the PC(USA)’s South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding Project to empower communities to reverse these negative statistics. Parents are learning how they can contribute to the school’s success whether it is simply committing to send their children to school every day, giving students time to do homework before chores, sharing hard-earned food with volunteers, carrying the pupil’s drinking water from a faraway watering hole or taking responsibility for the upkeep of the school grounds.
Because of scholarships and available training at Yei Teacher Training College, PCOSS’ untrained teachers can look to the future of better education for all. In a text message, one of the scholarship recipients wrote, “We are having the time of our lives. It is not easy academically, but this is what we have longed for, a chance to see how far we can go. Thank you, Mama Leisa for believing in us. Thanks, PCOSS Education for selecting us. Thanks, American Presbyterians for not forgetting us.”
Yei Teacher Training College was founded in 2001 to improve the quality of primary school teaching in South Sudan. Alongside professional and core subjects such as early childhood development, special needs education and integrated science, the student teachers are taught practical skills that will help them improve their lives and those of their communities upon graduation. For example, learning to prepare the land for cultivation to grow vegetables such as maize, carrots, cabbage and eggplant is just as vital to their training as theory.
In 2013, PCOSS requested an education facilitator to work with its primary and secondary schools in Jonglei and Upper Nile States. This area is among the most underserved in South Sudan in terms of government support, police protection and provision of educational and health services. The PCOSS leadership wanted to strengthen its school system, including the establishment of a teacher-training program and development of logistical and curriculum plans.
After having journeyed in faith with citizens in several other African countries for 30 years, training pastors, lay leaders and primary school teachers and also acting as a school administrator, building curriculum and training youth leaders, my work now as part of the South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding Project is focused on teacher training and strengthening communities as they seek to provide education. However, the most important work is the sharing of self — shortcomings included — and the ministry of presence, walking with the host community at their pace through the challenges of having been born in places where people have not been allowed to reach their fullest potential.
Colleagues Lynn and Sharon Kandel share in this work with our Presbyterian partners in South Sudan. They serve as regional liaisons for the Horn of Africa and advise the PCOSS education department as they establish and implement systems for logistics, management and financial reporting that strengthen the department’s capacity to provide quality education.
The South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding Project is a joint effort between PCOSS, Across (an ecumenical group), Yei Teacher Training College and Presbyterian World Mission to provide access to quality education for all children that instills Christian values. RECONCILE (Resource Center for Civil Leadership), another ecumenical partner, is working to train leaders to be agents of peace and reconciliation throughout the country — an important component for education to thrive.
Created in March 2004 by the New Sudan Council of Churches, RECONCILE’s purpose is fostering peace through training in trauma recovery, conflict transformation and civic education. Field activities are in areas of high inter-ethnic conflict, where the churches are often the typical point of entry into these communities. RECONCILE also offers three-month certificate programs in community-based trauma healing as well as peace studies and conflict transformation through the RECONCILE Peace Institute (RPI).
Malish James Morris, a graduate of RPI, is an example of one who is working to develop agents of peace in the region. He was only 7 years old when his village in South Sudan was raided. He stood powerless as soldiers lined up all the male members of his family and shot them one by one while his mother and sisters watched. When they turned the gun on him it misfired three times. He lived.
Haunted by the experience and consumed by revenge, Morris became a child soldier at 12. As he grew older, with help from the South Sudan Council of Churches (a Presbyterian World Mission partner), he could let go of the anger and bitterness. In fact, he saw the people responsible for his family’s deaths in his village and offered his forgiveness.
Today, Morris is the embodiment of RECONCILE. He became a leader among his peers, was voted president of the student body in 2015 and continues to participate in reconciliation and peace-building activities.
Africa area office coordinator Debbie Braaksma visited this past fall and saw the dire situation in South Sudan. “But despite conflict,” she said, “Christian brothers and sisters are investing their lives in making these plans a reality. While the news reports of the violence and the pervasive hunger are sobering, hearing first-hand accounts of the suffering is beyond words. Yet it is so encouraging to hear how each of our partners are working tirelessly to be a faithful witness in such a conflict-ridden environment and how grateful they are to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for our prayers, our advocacy and the sacrificial service of our mission co-workers who work alongside them in peace building and education.”
Leisa ToniAnn Wagstaff has served in education-related mission assignments in five African countries for more than 30 years. Since 2013 she has served in South Sudan alongside PCOSS to address the root causes of poverty through education and peacebuilding. Civil unrest forced Leisa’s evacuation from South Sudan in July 2016, but she returned just weeks later to continue God’s mission through the ministry of education.