South Sudan: The teacher-teachers take up the fight

South Sudan teachers are gaining qualifications for the first time

They are the teacher-teachers: "Mama Flora" Florence Motowa (centre) with colleagues Rose Yobu Ephatha and James Duku Lologo

They are the teachers of the teachers in South Sudan – a country of around 9 million with a literacy rate as abysmally low as 27 per cent. For decades it had an education system barely held together by unqualified draftees during a brutal on-again, off-again, but mostly on-again war.

If anyone has a job to do in terms of being an inspiring leader, surely it is the people tasked with the role of turning these draftees into qualified teachers. Luckily the job seems to have been filled well.

He is 34-year-old Lubari Stephen Elioba, a man who started teaching at the age of 16 in the Ugandan refugee camp where he was living. He went on to study in Norway and lecture across Europe.

She is Florence Motowa.  A pastor’s wife who took on the daunting task of a degree in psychology and early childhood education in a city were she was a stranger with four children in tow.

Their job is transforming thousands of people in the education system – people who first took on the pedagogy of southern Sudan’s youth in war circumstances – into teachers. The sustaining of “bush schools”, which sometimes have a teacher-student ratio of 50 to 200 students to one teacher, was their contribution to the war effort and qualifications were an unnecessary luxury.

Now that South Sudan is its own state it has to work hard and fast to turn these thousands of classroom leaders into true educators. The task of helping the government do this has been given to the Episcopal Church of Sudan (ECS), funded by foreign donors, including USAID.

The numbers to be trained are daunting and so are the politics. In each of South Sudan’s eight states the ECS must liaise with the local state government trainers and inspectors on the curriculum that will be taught in each region. The final decision on what constitutes a fully qualified teacher in South Sudan, taken at a national level, is yet to happen.

Once the teachers are in their two, six-week residential courses, the trainers must negotiate between teaching, at the same time, some people who are well educated and others who have not finished primary school.

Whatever the difficulties, they are being surmounted. By the end of the year, after 18 months of work, 415 teachers will have been through the ECS training.

There are 14 trainers, all of them local South Sudanese. Elioba and Motowa are pretty important cogs in the wheels of this task.


Pragmatic dreamer

Elioba, who is the education project manager, seems to me to be a pragmatic dreamer.

Calm and quietly confident in his business shirt as he sits at his well-ordered desk he is one of six siblings who lost their father while he was still very young.

In 1990, when he was 12, the rebels fighting for independence from Sudan captured their town of Yei and turned it into a garrison for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Elioba, his mother, brothers and sisters headed to Uganda as refugees.

It was in the refugee camp at the tender age of 16 that Elioba first started teaching – taking on the primary school students.

And it was in the refugee camp, on a piece of land given to them, that he and his brother did back-breaking digging, harvesting sim sim, a sort of sesame seed, in the year after Elioba’s graduation from high school.

He had no money to go on to university and it was this year of hard work, as well as a contribution from his aunty, who was also a farmer, which finally enabled him to pursue his dreams.

While in Uganda’s prestigious Makerere University Elioba’s older brother continued to “dig” (as farming is known in South Sudan) to support him. It was not all plain-sailing and there is still the echo of stress in his voice as he recounts the time he almost missed his exams.

“Before the end of my first year my brother fell sick by diabetes and he could not work,” he says. “I was studying for my exams not knowing if I would be allowed to take them because I had no money to pay the fees.

“A certain Ugandan student who we knew was able to pay some money, and my brother was able to recover a little. It was so critical a time – I will never forget it.”

EliobaIt is perhaps a sign of how important education is in his life that there is less stress in his voice when Elioba talks about his later life – when he was a hospital administrator for six months – even though this time involved constant showdowns with the rebel fighters.

Elioba wanted to return to southern Sudan to help set up education systems in the Nubian Mountains. Before he was allowed to do this he was told he must work as a hospital administrator in Yei for six months.

Key health problems in this area were tuberculosis, sleeping sickness and leprosy but the reason nobody wanted the administrator’s job was nothing to do with the health challenges: it was because of the constant fight with soldiers to keep your supplies.

People who took on this job were often physically beaten – and although Elioba never was, he was manhandled and slapped.

Getting your supplies from Uganda was also a dangerous business. Salaries were paid in Ugandan shillings and without functioning banks this had to be transported by car, across the border, millions of Ugandan shillings at a time – leaving the occupants ripe for robbery and sometimes death. Other times they’d be transporting medicines which rogue soldiers would want to confiscate.

“At one time we were bringing drugs into Sudan and there was an argument. I said you either kill me or I take the drugs with me.

“So from worse to better,” says Elioba.

The project in the Nuba Mountains was successful, he played a crucial role in training teachers, running an education campaign and opening a women’s centre for tailoring and brick-laying. Then he and two of his colleagues were given the chance by a Norwegian aid organisation to go to Norway for Masters in Education; a dream come true for Elioba – but there was a snag.

The governor was afraid the men would not return to Sudan and as Elioba was the youngest of the trio the governor was particularly keen to keep him at home.

In the end the governor relented and Elioba says with pride that when they left the governor “made a very big party and slaughtered two goats for us”.

Of course Elioba returned. His heart and soul is in the work he is doing. Even as a child in the refugee camp in Uganda he would send books and education materials back to his southern Sudanese compatriots.

He says his childhood dream was to at least have a Masters in Education, so that dream has been fulfilled, but he’s not finished dreaming yet.

He believes that the Christian church should continue to play a strong role in education as the modern nation of South Sudan develops and he would like to enter the education ministry.

Practical as always he knows that in a place where “when you look at the directors some of them just wait for the month-end to get money” it’s not all about skills and passion and he currently lacks the connections needed.

But he has a plan.

“For any voice to be heard what you need is good qualifications, a very clear focus and papers to back up what you do as a professional – so know I’m thinking of going for a PhD for me to enter the government system with a strong voice.”

As well as hoping to take a leading role in his profession Elioba is conscious of leading by example in his personal life.

His family line traditionally has a certain amount of standing in the clan but they have broken with tradition to institute a “new family strategy”. Instead of all decisions being taken by the male elder there is a communal pot of money for major activities like health and education and one family member has responsibility for a certain area of life.

So, for example, naturally Elioba is in charge of education, researching the best schools for each of his nephews and nieces, following up teacher reports and advising on higher education for his siblings – including the same older brother who supported him through his university in Uganda – who now has a degree in social work.

The fact that Elioba is not yet a father of children is also outside the norm.

“They would expect someone like me to be having two, three or four children by now and if I didn’t they would slaughter a sheep in sacrifice – we need to break that culture and some families have started keeping our lifestyle now,” says Elioba.


The feminine feminist

Leading by example is something that Motowa seems conscious of too.

Known as “Mama Flora” she heads up the training for the pre-school teachers, most of whom are women, and I would describe this large, smiling lady as a feminine feminist.

She tells me she has eight children “which in our African way is not too much”. At the same time she says the most important advice she gives the women she trains in the six-week residential is that they follow her example of continuing their education – even if they have their own children to look after.

“My advice is always to keep learning and progress themselves and keep studying – not to stop with the training that I give them.”

She is also well aware of the importance of her work to the progress of women in South Sudan. According to the CIA’s figures, the literacy rate for men is 40 per cent, for women it’s 16 per cent. But, If a girl goes to pre-school there is a greater chance she will go to primary school.

And, says Motowa:  “Formerly we women in South Sudan, we didn’t know our rights and without education we can’t know our rights.”

The particular challenges facing South Sudan are obvious in her teaching curriculum for the early childhood educators.

Along with the usual headings you might find in the west like ‘rights of the child’ and ‘planning, organisation and general administration’, there is a unit on ‘community capacity building and mobilisation’ and topics in the ‘general knowledge’ unit include land mines and AIDS.  

Bets are on among NGO workers in Juba that when this new country makes its entry onto the world development rankings it will come in at the bottom.

There is still war in the disputed, oil-rich northern border with Sudan and the  brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, which dreams of founding a state based on the 10 commandments, (but breaks the ‘though shalt not kill’, and ‘though shalt not steal’ commandments all the time) is causing havoc in parts of the southern border with Uganda.

There are reports too that hundreds of ‘returnees’, southern Sudanese who were living in the north, and were told to leave it are now dying of hunger in their new homeland.

As a pastor’s wife Motowa will have come into close contact with some of the worst situations a chaotic country can create. I ask her why, when choosing her university course, she decided to focus on early childhood education through the school of psychology.

She says: “Our foundation is completely people. This may not be well understood but in my view this is the foundation of our country. And without the correct foundation, education can not go well for our children – so that’s why I chose that.”

It is obviously a decision she did not take lightly and despite her calm, warmly-dignified presence, the passion for her work burns through; she makes sure to get in a message about the importance of more and continued donor money to fund it.

I ask her: “Shouldn’t teacher training be the responsibility of the government not aid organisations?”

She concedes that one day that might be the case – but it’s obvious that right now she is struggling to even imagine that day.

Yes, there is a lot of work to do in South Sudan but you have to start somewhere, right?

Motowa’s description of how the women change after their training is this: “Before it seems like they were hidden somewhere but now they have come into an open space and are ready to be recognised.”

It seems to me that’s not too bad a place to start.

Chrisanthi Giotis