By Pablo Moraga
Aweil, South Sudan, Feb 17 (EFE).- John Garangdeng, a teacher in rural South Sudan, squints through the dense haze to find the spot where he teaches his students: the shade of a solitary tree in the middle of a dusty plain.
“This is a public school. We asked the government to pay for the construction of classrooms. But it replied that it had no money,” Garangdeng tells Efe.
Public funds have not yet arrived in Payam, a tiny village in the northwestern state of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, where the teacher and his colleagues provide education to more than a hundred pupils.
In South Sudan — a young nation that has been immersed in a civil war for nearly nine years, despite the peace agreements of 2018 — the distribution of the most basic social services, such as health and education, relies largely on aid from NGOs.
Clashes between fighters loyal to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and those of former Vice President Riek Machar have ended in much of the country, but the smell of gunpowder left behind a broken nation, which continues to slide into the abyss.
Today, according to the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef), the country has the highest percentage of children who aren’t in school.
“Many teachers quit their jobs because the government gives us a salary of 5,000 South Sudanese pounds (just under $40) a month,” says Garangdeng. “It’s so little that if we get sick, we can’t even pay for treatment.
“What’s more,” he adds, “the money doesn’t even arrive every month. Sometimes we have to wait four or five months to be paid.”
Thirteen-year-old Abraham Maduok, one of Garangdeng’s best pupils, is reluctant to join the long list of out-of-school South Sudanese children.
Maduok’s tattered clothes and dust-covered skin tell the story of a life punished by crippling poverty in a region with no cities or paved roads, where the sun beats down mercilessly on mud and thatch huts.
The boy faces this harsh world with a mischievous smile and a dream that he holds onto with an iron determination: when he grows up and finishes his studies, he insists, he wants to become an evangelical pastor.
“These people are our people and tomorrow they will be the next leaders,” Garangdeng says. “That is why we continue teaching in this school even though we have nothing.”
The girls in Elizabeth Ajok’s village — a handful of huts in Northern Bahr el Ghazal — cannot choose their future. For them, finishing their studies is a mere pipe dream: the only school in the area does not provide the last two grades of primary education.
“Girls either drop out of school or get married before they turn 18,” Ajok tells Efe.
But this young woman was determined to finish her education. She managed to move to Aweil, the capital of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, where she completed her studies.
She also started collaborating with a radio program to raise awareness and defend the rights of girls, including her cousin, Angelina Arek Dut, who still lived back in their home village.
“My mother and I thought that if she came with us [to Aweil], she could study at a nearby school,” Ajok says.
Dut is 17-years-old. She is about to complete her primary education. She speaks slowly, smiling timidly, but that shyness disappears when she starts walking to school: she walks upright, with solid steps, as though her maroon uniform imparts an unbreakable security.