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Feeding hungry minds in the world’s youngest country

24 November 2017

Against a backdrop of conflict, poverty, and illiteracy, a new Anglican university in South Sudan hopes to build a generation of leaders, reports Eeva John


Building with a vision: workshop meeting

Building with a vision: workshop meeting

OVER three long hot days this year in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, a group of 30 theological and vocational educators gathered to hammer out the vision, values, and mission of a new Anglican university (News, 21 April).

One could question the need for a new university in South Sudan, when there are so many immediate and seemingly more urgent needs. Despite signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, and gaining independence from Sudan in 2011, the world’s newest country remains politically unstable and economically precarious. The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that, in a country with a population of 13 million, there are 1.9 million internally displaced people, and another 1.8 million refugees in neighbouring countries.

The almost total collapse of the economy makes buying a bottle of water (the only safe kind to drink) too expensive for many ordinary South Sudanese. The continued attacks by government and rebel fighters on towns and villages, and the general lawlessness, which results in banditry, makes it unsafe to travel by road. This affects food imports by truck from neighbouring countries, and farmers’ ability to farm, causing inflation of up to 800 per cent. Famine has been declared in several areas, and more than a million children are malnourished and at risk.


WHEN it comes to education, the challenges are enormous. Only 27 per cent of South Sudanese above the age of 15 are literate. The government spends only five per cent of its national budget on education, compared with the international benchmark of 20 per cent. The conflict that erupted in 2013 has resulted in a decline in primary school enrolment from 81 to 62 per cent; and 79 per cent of primary pupils are still in classes below their age group, increasing the risk of dropping out, especially for girls (News, 7 April).

EEVA JOHNIndoor and outdoor learning: the college exterior

More than one third of classrooms are open-air or roofed spaces. Most lack basic facilities and equipment such as desks, blackboards, and textbooks, and many do not have a water supply. In 2015, only 41 per cent of teachers were appropriately qualified. Many have not mastered English, the main language of instruction from the fourth year of primary school. This means that students who do complete their secondary education do not yet have the language and other study skills needed for university-level study.


IT IS against this backdrop that the Episcopal Church of South Sudan (ECSS), with its long history of education and peace-building, is operating. Underpinning all the discussions at this year’s planning workshops was the belief that education is the key to stability, peace, and development in South Sudan. Only education can put an end to the cycle of violence, and meet the country’s desperate need for doctors, nurses, trained teachers, engineers, agriculturalists, lawyers, and businesspeople. “Poverty of mind is our biggest enemy”, says the Revd Dr Joseph Bilal, who gained his Ph.D. in the UK. He returned to Juba in 2014 to manage the university project.

University education has been profoundly affected by the recent conflict. Many students with the financial means have left the country to enrol in universities in neighbouring countries. A number of South Sudanese academics have left to seek employment where salaries are higher and more secure. This brain-drain has resulted in large class sizes and a huge lack of university places in the existing state universities. This means that the increasing numbers of secondary-school leavers have nowhere to go, and are therefore more likely to perpetuate the violence that plagues the country.

Among the organisations seeking to address the challenge is Reconnect, which encourages skilled academics to return to South Sudan; and the Windle Trust, which offers scholarships for postgraduate study abroad while ensuring that the individuals return to South Sudan to serve their country with their much-needed knowledge and skills.

For the ECSS, founding a university with a Christian ethos is part of building God’s Kingdom in South Sudan. The mission, agreed this year, is “to develop students holistically and inspire them to be servant leaders who transform communities in South Sudan and beyond”. During the workshops, it was agreed that values such as integrity, accountability, transparency, team work, and justice were foundational to its ethos: the nation needs people who can model good governance and leadership in a country where these qualities have been lacking.


THE challenges are vast. The university is being set up using a geographically dispersed, multi-campus model, which uses the Church’s existing higher-education colleges as its building blocks. But these colleges are beset with problems. Many report the difficulty of finding and maintaining teaching staff when other job opportunities — especially with NGOs — offer better pay and conditions. Housing and feeding students is also expensive.

EEVA JOHNBuilding with a vision: a workshop meeting at St John’s College

Students — mostly already ordained, but untrained, pastors — are without support; for they have left their families in faraway villages to train. With no municipal electricity, studying is limited by the availability of light in the evenings, and by the stifling heat of the day.

St John’s College, in Wau, shares its modest site with a primary and a secondary school, the old cathedral, and a new one. Since it was established in 2013, the college has grown rapidly: more than 200 students attend courses. This leads to cramped conditions for learning, since students have to share classroom space with the schools on site.

At the end of January, more than 4000 people flooded this compound, fleeing fighting between Dinka cattle-herders and members of the rebel group aligned with the former Vice-President, Riek Machar. The Church welcomed them, and helped to feed and clothe them, and the resident theology students vacated their dormitories to make space for the most vulnerable (News, 26 May). The rest were camped outside, finding shade where they could.

Moments before we walked through this makeshift refugee camp, a child had died of diarrhoea and vomiting in one of the dormitories. Two weeks after our visit, we heard that government troops had surrounded the church’s compound, and forced the internally displaced people to disperse. The college continues to function, however: the hunger for education and progress is unwavering.

One hundred miles from Juba, the entire body of students and staff at Kajo-Keji Christian College had to flee to neighbouring Uganda when fighting broke out in the town. The college has had to establish a temporary site in the Ugandan border town of Moyo, teaching students in shifts because of the limited accommodation available. Staff from the college visit Kajo-Keji every few weeks to check whether the college site — now occupied by rebel forces — has been looted, and to monitor the security situation for an eventual return.

At the Archbishop Ngalamu Theological College, in the diocese of Mundri, buildings were destroyed during an attack in 2015. Many of its staff and students fled back to their villages, or to refugee camps in Uganda.

EEVA JOHNFollow the sign: St John’s College, Wau, displays its motto

As a result, of the eight colleges represented at the workshop, only four were deemed ready to be part of the first phase of the launch of the new university. But all those present pledged to help the other colleges reach the standards required to join in a second phase, such is the resilience and the strength of hope among theological educators in South Sudan.

Discussions were often heated as the colleges wrestled with issues such as how to set student fees, staff salaries, and admissions criteria in a South Sudanese context: how to square the circle of making education accessible, with a determination to reach for high standards? Eventually, everyone agreed on a core first-year curriculum that would enable students to make up for a patchy secondary-school education.

IN A country where 78 per cent of the working population are subsistence farmers, the university hopes to produce lawyers, administrators, accountants, engineers, entrepreneurs, and medical professionals as well as teachers. It will also continue its long history of training pastors and lay workers for South Sudan’s growing Church, enabling its members to grow in depth of discipleship, and skills in peace-building at a local level.

There are more hoops still to jump through before the university is fully registered with the South Sudanese government, but it is well on its way. “I’m hopeful that, together, we shall stand strong and make the Episcopal University dream a success,” says Geri Wani, who attended the workshop as a representative of Juba University.

The Bishop of Rokon, the Rt Revd Francis Mori, says that the university needs to be a “powerhouse for the South Sudanese who find themselves unable to pursue their talents”, and exhorts us to join their efforts “in prayer and action”.

Here, in South Sudan, theological educators are at the forefront of the Church’s determination to serve the nation. The road ahead is long, but this does not deter them from working for a better future that may not materialise in their generation. Our South Sudanese colleagues embody a solid hope and a gritty, joyful faith that makes it an incomparable privilege to accompany them in this work.


Dr Eeva John is director of pastoral studies at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and chairs the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan University Partnership.

For more information, see the website of the UK charity that supports the Episcopal University of South Sudan, www.ecsssup.org; as well as the Episcopal University site (currently in development), www.teu-ss.org.

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