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Learning to live independently

16 February 2011

Last month, South Sudan voted for independence. Naomi Pendle has spent the past year there

TURN right at the market in the village of Marol, then left past the tree where the first bombs fell in 1983, and you start the hour-and-a-half’s walk through the scrub­by bush of South Sudan to Marol Academy.

The heat of the sun has baked the path into golden sand, while occasional, elegant mahogany trees offer a wel­come moment of shade. As you emerge through the scrub, the primary school, Marol Academy, spreads itself in front of you. Hundreds of children in blue uni­forms play in front of its bright-yellow walls.

These childen are part of a genera­tion that will know independence for South Sudan for the first time ever. As a teacher at the Academy, last month I witnessed the hope and excitement as the community voted in the referendum.

They voted with optimism and cer­tainty. Although we had to wait un­til last week for the official national results to be announced, the local vote was a foregone conclusion. The village counts were posted out­side the polling stations, often using thorns as pins; more than 99.9 per cent were in favour.

I FIRST found my way to Marol Aca­demy a year after its 2008 opening. I am told that, on the first morn­ing, uniforms were handed to every pupil. The childen disappeared into the bush and emerged, smiling and singing, to start this first school of the village, and to add new, vivid colour to this semi-arid, war-torn land.

Back then, trees formed class­rooms, twigs were used instead of pens, and the dusty ground was paper. I have now lived there a year and have seen the community de­velop the school to this little cluster of brightly painted buildings. More than 600 pupils now make the jour­ney to the school. Some walk a daily round-trip of 20 miles.

Marol village is found in the home­­land of the 90,000 Apuk Dinka people, in the northern reaches of South Sudan. For a lifetime, the village had not seen development and education, but lived under the weight of war.

Even before Britain gave Sudan independence in 1956, battles broke out as southern rebels tried to free their country from northern rule. They feared living under a strict Islamic regime, and longed for free­dom.

They are traditionally a semi-nomadic com­munity, moving hun­dreds of miles a year to feed and water cattle. Their strength allowed them to fight hard in the long civil war, whose second phase began after a short peace in the early 1980s.

The first bombs fell near Marol on a Sunday morning. People had gathered for church, and had to run for their lives into the bush. For the next five decades, children would learn neither to read nor to write. Bibles did not reach the village, and could not have been read if they had. Instead, children watched their younger siblings starve. They spent nights in wild forests, fleeing the militia, and spent days listening for the planes that would bring “rains of death”.

JOK MADUT JOK was a son of the village. He was one of 17 siblings, and his father was determined that they should have an education. So Jok fled from the war, winning an Egyptian scholarship to be schooled in Cairo, living away from family and home for more than a decade. The endless raids and con­trol of the roads by the militia made it impos­sible for him to return.

Now Dr Jok, he was enabled by his education to find work for aid agencies, and even­tually the UN, that brought relief to the communities of South Sudan at the height of the civil war and famine in the 1990s.

Finally, he found a way home, uncertain whether his people would still be alive. There were indeed survivors, and their consistent re­quest was for education. But gather­ing in groups brought fears of bomb­ing raids, making the establish­ment of a school impossible.

In 2005, everything changed. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) brought an end to civil war in Sudan. The terms of the agree­ment meant that, after six years, the people of South Sudan would get a chance to vote for independence in a referendum.

It was this peace agreement, and the prospect of eventual independ­ence, that gave people fresh hope to build on. With this peace, Dr Jok — who by now had become an associate professor of history at Loyola Mary­mount University, in Los Angeles — had the opportunity to build a school in his community.

He sold all his property to try to fund the school, but was unable to raise enough. His dream looked as if it was over before it had even begun.

AT THE centre of a distant village, there stands a tree. Beneath the im­mense span of its branches hundreds of people can shelter. To walk there from Marol takes days, under the heat of the sun by day and braving the creatures of the night at night.

When he was a school-age boy, Dr Jok made that same journey to listen to Baroness Cox of Queensbury — a visiting kawaja (white person) of whom the elders spoke with respect.

Just a small face in the swarming crowd, Dr Jok listened to her prayers and her hopes for his nation. Many years later, he recalled her when the plans for Marol Academy seemed to founder.

Travelling back from the United States via England, Dr Jok, who is now under-secretary for South Sudan’s Ministry of Culture, found the courage to approach Lady Cox again.

Over a cup of tea in the House of Lords, Lady Cox promised that the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), which she had founded, would contribute the first salaries at the school. Marol Academy could now open.

Dotjang, a teacher there, is a direct beneficiary of HART’S sup­port: “I dreamed of a school in our village since I was a little boy. I used to talk of books and pens and study­ing, but the others just laughed at me”.

He yells his story to me as we ride on his blue motorbike, rushing through the thorns and past the grazing cattle. He was born some time in the early 1980s, the year after the militia burnt his village. No one recorded his birth­day, but he knows he was born in the season when they re-thatch the mud huts.

By the time he was big enough to carry an AK47, a notorious South Sudan splinter rebel group started forcibly recruiting young boys from Marol and the surrounding villages.

They would steal the grain, burn the houses, and take the boys at gunpoint. Boys too young to carry a gun would be made to walk for days with heavy sacks of stolen food on their head.

Afraid of being abducted, Dotjang and his cousins fled their village. After weeks of walking, they were rescued by the UNHCR and taken to a refugee camp in Kenya. Without their parents, in the middle of a violent community, they managed to scrape together a basic education.

When they returned, Dotjang and his cousins, because they had es­caped, were the most educated people in Marol.

AT ABOUT the time when Marol was starting up, I was waking up in Berk­shire to the sound of the chapel bell calling me to prayers, and gazing out of the window across the cricket pitches of Wellington College. I could not have been more content.

Yet, for a long time, it seemed that God was calling me, like St Peter, to “get out of the boat”. One evening, Kirstin, another teacher at Welling­ton, made me accept a last-minute invitation to hear Lady Cox speak. That was the first time I heard of Marol Academy, and the story of the people of South Sudan.

I raised some money, and, in January 2009, travelled with Lady Cox to see Marol. On that visit we met presidents and orphans, doctors and bishops. Everyone repeated that, more than anything else, education was what was needed in South Sudan.

I visited again in my summer holidays, and, in 2010, left Welling­ton to work at Marol Academy under the guidance of HART, which still supports the school. Many people’s prayers, and generous funding from Vodafone con­firmed that it was time to go.

Throughout 2010, our little school has continued to expand. On a short return visit to the UK, I went one evening to see some former Wellington pupils perform in a school talent show. I sat next to two parents, who, after a few con­versations, agreed to fund the building of an education centre at Marol. The centre acts as a collection of resources to support teachers throughout the whole of Gogrial East.

Gifts from other individuals en­abled teachers to be trained, class­rooms to be built, and teachers’ salaries to be paid. Churches in Bath and Reading funded shipments of textbooks and Bibles, and some mem­bers of their congregations have gone out there in order to offer their skills.

UNDER a blue plastic tar­paulin, sitting in the dust or on lumps of wood dragged from the bush, the children of Marol gathered for their final assembly of 2010. They had just eaten their Christmas dinner of brown, lumpy sorghum.

The food, provided by the UN, may look like dog food, but it tastes much better, and it provides the children with one good meal a day.

That morning, I had woken to the sound of a cockerel and the sight of a scorpion in the shower. My feet had turned a permanent dust-colour, and my morning’s drink of water had the usual handpump smell.

Yet, as the school year ended, it was heartening to see how much so many of them had grown. I would not have wanted to be anywhere else, and I hope I will not be anywhere else for many years to come.

The thoughts, dreams, and prayers of the pupils of Marol, beneath that blue canopy, were all of the referendum. “This is our land,” one schoolboy prayed. “Please give it back to us.”

These people had struggled for years to be free. Most families had lost sons in battle and daughters in the famines. “My vote is my final bullet in this war for freedom,” one teacher said.

FOR Marol and me, inde­pendence and peace allow new prayers and fresh visions. There is no functioning secondary school among the Apuk Dinka, and, with­out one, no hope of professional skills.

A young woman is more likely to die in childbirth than be able to read or write. The community craves an educated class to lead hospitals, schools, and churches. With peace, Marol Academy hopes to open as a secondary school in April this year. If finances allow, I hope I will be among its first teachers.

Yet, as I sit in the market, eating beans with my fingers beneath a grass roof, I am reminded that the peace is yet to permeate deep into the community.

Three teenage boys pull alongside this little restaurant, squeezed on the back of a motorbike. No older than 15, the two passengers casually carry AK47s. They bend down to enter the hut, and sit on the table next to me to eat. As much as peace is promised, war is still in the air, and even boys fear to be without a weapon.

“We are still waiting for war,” Bol Mawien, a parent, says. “We fear its return more than ever as we wait for independence on 9 July. It is hard to believe they will let the South go.”

We have not seen any planes yet: only circling UN helicopters. The most significant change in daily life is the rising food prices. My friends warn me that me that this can be just as deadly as warfare.

Because of fear and increasingly complicated borders, the roads are no longer filled with aid lorries bringing food. My friends, teachers, and pupils will not be able to afford to eat.

Their harvest is starting to run low, and there is no food to buy. They remember with fear the famine that, just a decade ago, killed 100,000 people, and lined the road to market with dead bodies

After 50 years of war, the past five years of peace have allowed the people of South Sudan, and villages such as Marol, to start to build a fu­ture and a nation. Marol Academy was built because of peace, with the promise of South Sudan’s indepen­dence.

As the Academy grows, it aspires to provide people who can lead and construct this new nation. Having heard stories of the pains and suffer­ings of its birth, to see this new na­tion and this new school in its in­fancy is the greatest privilege. It is worth getting your feet dirty for.


100 years of hurt

1899-1955 Sudan is under joint British-Egyptian rule

1956 Sudan becomes independent

1962 Civil war begins in the south

1964 The “October Revolution” overthrows General Abboud, and establishes an Islamist-led government

1972 The south becomes a self-governing region

1983 Civil war starts between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south

1985 President Numayri is deposed

1988 A ceasefire agreement is drafted, but not implemented

1989 The National Salvation Revolution takes over in a military coup

1998 A new constitution is endorsed in a referendum by more than 96 per cent

1999 President Omar Bashir dissolves the National Assembly and declares a state of emergency

2000 President Bashir is re-elected

2001 The Islamist leader Al-Turabi’s party signs memorandum of understanding with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA)

2002 The government and SPLA sign ceasefire agreement

2005 The government and southern rebels sign a peace deal; a constitution giving a large degree of autonomy to the south is signed; a power-sharing government is formed in Khartoum; an autonomous government is formed in the south

2006 The Khartoum government and the main rebel faction in Darfur sign a peace accord

2008 UN takes over the Darfur peace force; counting begins in a national census (seen as a vital step towards holding democratic elections)

2009 Leaders of north and south say they have reached a deal on the terms of a referendum on independence

2010 President Bashir says he would accept a referendum result; he declares the Darfur war over; he gains new term in the first contested presidential polls since 1986; the International Crim-inal Court issues a second arrest warrant for President Bashir — this time on charges of genocide

2011 9 January — the people of the South hold a referendum; they vote overwhelmingly to secede

2011 9 January — the people of the South hold a referendum; they vote overwhelmingly to secede

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