MARIAL BEK, Southern Sudan, 7 August 2007 – Progress has come quickly to Southern Sudan. Two years after a historic peace agreement ended Africa’s longest-running civil war, urban roads are congested with traffic and classrooms that once lacked students are now overflowing.
Outside the bustling urban areas, however, progress has been slower. The countryside is dotted with cattle camps in which communities move with their herds according to the seasons. Children who grow up in the camps are taught traditional skills like how to milk cows and fish with spears, but formal schooling has almost never been an option.
“Here in Marial Bek cattle camp, children have never gone to school,” says David Malik Mayik, 19, a student and volunteer with the UNICEF-supported Girls’ Education Movement (GEM), a grassroots initiative that promotes equality in education through participation of both girls and boys.
“I was born in a cattle camp, and everything here has always been about the cows,” David adds.
Challenges of rural education
The ‘Go to School’ initiative in Southern Sudan is rebuilding the education system and aims to bring 1.6 million children to school by the end of 2007. The initiative was launched in April of last year by UNICEF and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, in conjunction with a wide range of partners.
But the lack of learning spaces in rural areas – coupled with cultural taboos on sending children, especially girls, to school – has been posing challenges for the campaign. As a GEM volunteer, David visits cattle camps to meet with local elders in order to ensure that children who go to school have support from the entire community.
Youth volunteers travel to rural communities to discuss the importance of education with village leaders and children.
“I came to GEM to encourage our people,” says David. “I came from the cattle. Now, I am in school. Education is all over the world. Tomorrow, it will be our time.”
The students in GEM provide a positive example for their peers. Discussion groups provide a forum for children and their families to air concerns and come up with solutions.
‘The skills we need to survive’
While the youths in the cattle camp gather important traditional knowledge, they are at a disadvantage when it comes to taking cattle to market. There, the ability to read and write can help drive a better bargain.
“These are the skills we need to survive in new Sudan,” says Malok Mangui, who grew up at Marial Bek. Malok is a rarity in the cattle camp; he decided to attend school and now works for the State Ministry of Education.
“I learned about school through one of my relatives,” Malok adds. “His life and his family’s life were good. I compared his situation to the situation of the person who is not educated. I took advantage of going to school, so that I should be like him.”
Today, Malok works with GEM to reach out to children in remote areas and persuade them to come to school. “It can be very hard to show people that it is good to leave the cattle camp,” says Malok. “They are especially reluctant to send girls. But we are beginning to see some progress.”
While the long walk from a cattle camp to the nearest classroom can present a physical obstacle, the real challenge is to convince families that their children will be well served by formal education.