A powerful, EU funded approach tackles the root challenges of education in South Sudan’s remotest communities

FCA pioneers an integrated approach that links parents, teachers, children and youth to reap both immediate and long-term benefits of education. The project is funded by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid (ECHO).

Text: Erik Nyström, Photos: Maria de la Guardia

FOUR YEARS AGO, education was not considered of high priority among inhabitants in Fangak County’s rural setting. The conflict that started in 2013 led to forced displacement and insecurity, further complicating children’s opportunities to access education.

In 2016, Finn Church Aid (FCA) opened its office in New Fangak, Jonglei State and began with an EU Humanitarian Aid (ECHO) funded project by constructing schools and attracting learners. It sought to build the population’s resilience to respond to challenges, such as conflict and adverse weather conditions leading to a lack of food.

One of the key pathways to education in New Fangak is motivating parents. In predominantly pastoralist communities, parents have not traditionally sent their children to school. Boys normally look after the family’s animals, while girls marry young, even before coming of age.

The long-term benefits of children and youth going to school are not self-evident. Families usually look to their immediate needs for food and income first. This is why FCA has integrated livelihoods into its project.

Parents of children going to school are supported with agricultural training and tools for farming and fishing. Cash transfers help them feed their families and start businesses at the market. Communities are actively involved in constructing and rehabilitating schools constructed using locally available materials.

Catering to these basic livelihoods needs and building a sense of ownership is crucial. Another vital component is the quality of education – parents want to be convinced that their children benefit from school.

It is hard to find qualified teachers in remote areas in South Sudan, with education being rare in the first place. Local teachers have rarely even completed secondary education. FCA tries to bridge these gaps through training that includes pedagogy, lesson planning, psychosocial support and schemes of work.

A total of 130 teachers has received training within the project, and more than 7,000 pupils can access learning spaces and materials. With awareness campaigns included, the project has reached more than 20,000 direct beneficiaries and an estimated 60,000 indirect beneficiaries.

The project reached a milestone early this year as 43 pupils sat and 28 passed the first primary school leaving exams in the northern part of Fangak County since the conflict started in 2013.

Teachers Lony Doar (left) and James Chuol welcome their pupils to school on a regular morning at William Chuol Primary School. The iron sheet structure in the background is one of six semi-permanent structures built in New Fangak with EU Humanitarian funding.

Teachers in South Sudan’s remote areas seldom have an opportunity to enrol in higher education. James finished his primary education in 2010 but never completed secondary school, while Lony completed secondary school in 2012. Both have worked as voluntary teachers for years.

“We are proud to work as teachers. Before these structures were completed, we used to teach under trees, even throughout the conflict”, James says.

Teachers are a valuable resource for the community also when it comes to teaching necessary health practices. This lecture on hand hygiene was given on March 10th 2020, before Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic that forced schools to close worldwide.

Schools have since been closed in South Sudan but FCA continues to work through teachers and parent-teacher associations to sensitize the community about the global scourge.

When FCA began implementing EU funded projects in 2016, education was not considered a priority in rural communities. The conflict that started in 2013 led to forced displacement and insecurity, which also harmed education opportunities.

Teacher training is crucial in ensuring quality education. Skilled and motivated teachers inspire their pupils. When learning and the school’s reputation improve, more parents are encouraged to send their children to school. The training covers lesson planning, work schemes, pedagogy and psychosocial support.

James and Lony have participated in sessions since the early years of the project. They are convinced that education is the foundation of a peaceful society because schools bring children and parents together.

“Playing and learning together creates unity and empathy. These children are the future of the nation”, Lony says.

FCA’s William Kuony trains and mentors teachers. The training sessions are widely anticipated because they are quite practical, and William says that the feedback is encouraging. As a mentor, he also attends lectures to assess the teachers individually.

“Teachers are motivated because we dedicate time for their individual development. They are humble and perceptive in hearing our views on their strengths and weaknesses”, William says.

“I’m also happy with the fact that our teachers debate with us trainers about teaching methods. The training has clearly sparked their critical thinking and interaction, and it also affects their interaction with pupils positively.”

Nyakan Diang, 15, is in her third year in William Chuol Primary School. She enjoys school because her friends are there, and the teachers make learning interesting for her with their lively explanations.

“When I started school (in 2017), teachers used to be very repetitive, and there was much less interaction. Now I feel that they are interesting and that they care for me and my learning.”

“I also feel safe in school because there are many girls there. If they are safe, I am too.”

Nyaluak Maker, 15, is in class 2 in William Chuol Primary School. She says that a good teacher is punctual and listens and interacts with learners. Bad teachers are intimidating and repeatedly absent. She thinks that teachers in her school have improved much during her two years.

“I now feel very comfortable with asking my teacher about things I did not understand during the lecture. They will come to me individually and explain patiently until I understand”, she says.

“I feel confident in asking because I know that they are friendly to me and want to help me.”

Nyaluak Maker’s mother, Teresa Nyalong, does everything she can to support Nyaluak’s and her three other school-aged children’s education. Teresa never went to school herself. After a cash transfer by FCA, she has established a tea shop at the local market, supported with EU Humanitarian funding.

Teresa lost her husband and supports her children alone. The income from her business helps feed the family and buy clothes for her children. Teresa also received seeds to plant maize and pumpkins. The family currently eats two good meals a day, which is better than before the support.

“Me being illiterate does not mean that I do not know how important school is. I have seen that those who grow up with an education succeed better in life, while those who don’t might end up just loitering without any employment or income”, Teresa says.

“Education is particularly important for girls, and in school, they are also safe from violence and other bad things. It is better that they become responsible and educated mothers in the future than to marry them off to men when they are only children.”

Nyadeng Chan and Wal Diew are both widows. They lost their husbands during the conflict that started in 2013 and now support three school-aged children each. Combining their cash transfers of 6,050 South Sudanes Pounds (35 euros) allowed the two women to establish a shop for tea and the local bread kisra.

“We decided to use the cash for something that keeps us going in the future instead of spending all on food. That would have soon taken us back to square one”, Wal says.

The EU Humanitarian funding is directed particularly to vulnerable, single-headed households. When parents have an income, they can fully support their children’s education. Having an income lowers the risk for children engaging in livelihood activities and child labour at the expense of getting an education.

The project also supports farmers with seeds and agricultural training, both for their own consumption and for selling their surplus food at the market.

The women earn on average 1,000 South Sudanese Pounds (6 euros) per day, which they describe as a good amount for basic needs, such as clothes and food. Nyadeng says that it is common for women to cooperate in businesses.

“Of course we cooperate. It is a relief that the business doesn’t depend on yourself alone. And it would not have been possible to start alone”, she says.

Parents also receive an income from building school structures for their children through a cash-for-work component of the program.

Temporary learning spaces, such as this one, are made from local materials. The EU funded project has supported the construction and rehabilitation of ten temporary learning spaces and six semi-permanent structures in New Fangak and surrounding areas.

Involving parents in construction, school management, parent-teacher associations, and livelihood programs gives the community ownership of the schools. It builds dedication to the common mission of providing future generations with an education.

Child-friendly spaces give children of all ages an opportunity to play with letters and numbers, promoting familiarity with numeracy and literacy. These child-friendly spaces are set up within the school setting and also attract children who are yet to enrol in school as well as older children that are out of school.

The parents can focus on livelihoods when the youngest children are under the supervision of facilitators trained by FCA. Activities surrounding the child-friendly spaces include games and sports tournaments, such as football matches between FCA supported schools in New Fangak and surrounding areas.

“We train in giving children psychosocial support. Children from vulnerable families have been through an incredible amount of hardship during the conflict, and many are from single-headed households where the father is missing”, says Rose Achola, who trains the facilitators.

“We give individual attention to children who need it. The facilitators are also trained to notice if children show signs of disability, like poor vision or hearing. They can then be referred to specialised care, which in the future helps them pursue their learning despite their challenges.”

17-year-old George Juang sits outside the home he shares with his mother. George is one of the first in New Fangak to have sat and passed his Primary 8 exams in February 2020, the first exams in the northern part of the county since the conflict started in 2013.

“My teachers helped me prepare well, and I had a flashlight so that I could study even after sunset. When I passed, many people I know are more eager to join the school because they also want to pass like me”, George says.

George now dreams of an opportunity to enrol in secondary education, which is not currently available in the whole of Fangak County. Despite a physical disability as a result of polio, he is determined to become an accountant.

“School is good because it educates you to take care of yourself and it exposes you to different cultures. You know how to protect yourself and how to pursue your dreams.”