POCHALLA, South Sudan (PNS) — “They said their teacher has not come,” said Peter, the education facilitator for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) partner Across, translated from Anyuak to English.
“Where are your friends?” came the next question to the 10 boys sitting in the muddy field.
“They did not come because of the rain,” they responded, referencing the rain that had fallen two hours earlier, around 7:30 a.m.
Looking at the classroom, which had been constructed from a few wooden poles and a tarp roof, Peter explained, “There used to be three structures, but the wind blew two down.”
Once Obang, the teacher, arrived, he talked about his experience at the teachers’ training. Teacher training is part of the South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding Project (SSEPP), a collaborative effort of PC(USA) partners to address the gap in educational development caused by years of conflict.
“Have you seen any changes since the training?” A few teachers from several of the schools in Pochalla, a rural part of South Sudan near the border with Ethiopia, attended the training facilitated by Across. Obang’s school, with 250 students, has five teachers, none of whom are trained professionally. Two attended the course.
“Before the training, the teachers were smoking in class. Now they don’t,” Obang said, crediting the lesson on the teachers’ code of conduct.
After discussing some of the challenges present in his school, Obang was asked, “How long do you want to teach at this school?”
“I will teach here all years, because I need the child to develop,” Obang stated, his commitment evident, his English broken.
Once the interview concluded, Peter headed to another school, the Presbyterian Education Center of Pochalla (PECP). Because the rain closed Obang’s school, the 10 boys spent the morning playing soccer and throwing rocks at a baboon climbing branches well beyond their stones’ reach.
The scene at PECP presented a completely different picture. Under the shade of three different trees, groups of students listened attentively to their teachers. While the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade classes choose to sit outside in the breeze, students in grades 1-3 remained in their respective classrooms indoors. The few seventh-grade students took notes on their teacher’s presentation on the veranda of a building constructed with SSEPP support.
The fifth-graders learned about rainfall in swampy areas while the fourth-grade class tackled big words like “evaporation” and “condensation.” After completing a lesson on God’s Creation, the first-graders filed outside to form a large circle in the sandy dirt, their teacher in the center.
“Write letter ‘A’” the teacher said.
Squatting close to the ground, the students used their fingers to carve “A’s” into the earth.
“Good!” the teacher repeated enthusiastically, after inspecting each child’s work.
“Now, write letter ‘B.’” The children quickly erased their “A’s” from the dirt blackboards, and replaced them with “B’s.”
The early morning’s rain had not canceled PECP’s classes, but the students have class only in the mornings. Lunch marks the end of the day. So, the children headed home, plastic chairs resting upside down on their heads.
“The school does not have chairs,” one teacher explained, “so they bring a chair from home.”
After the students left, the PECP teachers reflected on the SSEPP teacher training, the challenges their school faces and the progress they see. Like Obang, they were grateful for training on the teachers’ Code of Conduct, lesson planning and classroom management. On the topic of challenges, they lamented the absence of water, a security fence and uniforms.
A volunteer teacher named Ojullu explained his commitment: “(When I was a student) I left Pochalla in 2010 because of a lack of proper education here, and I came back to help my younger brothers who I left here. I need this place to be changed through education, and it starts through me first … A long journey starts with the first step. If the first step is in the right direction, then the journey will be in the right direction …”
In Pochalla, many children do not attend school, and most teachers are not trained. Through partnership with the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCOSS) and Across, the PC(USA) is supporting educational development in Pochalla, including an emphasis on the education of girls. With partner, church and community support, the PECP school strives to be a model for the area. Peter’s visit confirmed that they are moving in the right direction.
by Nancy Smith-Mather, mission co-worker, special to Presbyterian News Service