A letter from Leisa Wagstaff, serving in South Sudan
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Dear Partners in Mission,
I have no idea how long she had been crouched near the door or from which direction she had come. In fact, I assumed she was with one of the pastors, elders or members who had gathered to work through a conflict within their internally displaced persons (IDPs) camp church. In this traditional culture, however, children do not loiter where adults are and are not allowed to “be all up in grown folks’ business,” as my elders would say. But there she was, watching my every move. I did not see this as strange or bad in that the character of this young girl is like every other child throughout the world — inquisitive.
Finally, her true reason for being there and why she would run the risk of a scolding were revealed. She sidled over next to me, bent down and whispered into my ear one of her deepest-rooted yearnings: “Mama, I want school.” The audacity of one so young in a place where only grown folks “belonged” made my heart tremble and my eyes flood with tears. She did not want a toy, new clothes, money or even food, just a chance for an education. With few happy memories, constant shifting to safer places, conflict and the rumors of it, and lack of opportunities and basic necessities having filled her ten years of living, she understands well that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world (Nelson Mandela),” and thus, what she wants her life’s narrative to be.
Looking at the much-used simple covering she wore and her bare, dusty feet, I knew she would also need other implements to be able to study adequately and hold onto the belief that she can be a “somebody” who is enabled to help positively change the trajectory of her country.
South Sudan along with almost every country in the world has signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which states that each child has “the right to education which ‘shall aim at developing the child’s personality, talents, and mental and physical abilities to the fullest extent.’” Yet, the statistics on children’s access to education in this country remain poor. Recent studies by UNICEF put the primary completion rate at 10%, a sure indicator that education is not a right for all children but often a chance privilege gained through hardship.
I did not want her yearning to go unfulfilled a second longer, for I feared she would lose hope, give up and opt out. A quickly written note was sent to her guardians and the camp’s Presbyterian school headteacher to request their cooperation in getting her immediately enrolled. This girl-child who lives in one of the tens of thousands of tents and makeshift housing in a place packed with involuntary nomads is now in school and even has a new uniform, socks and shoes and a notebook and pen. She is studying well, respects her teachers, enjoys playing with the other pupils, and is never tardy for school. I know that her road to literacy is paved with setbacks, including violence stemming from politics, ethnic grouping, gender bias, economic inequalities, being born in a developing part of the world, and the dehumanization of one’s personhood. For camp life, either as an IDP or refugee, is a harsh reality even for the strongest and most equipped.
The PC(USA) South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding Project (SSEPP) wants her and all of her agemates to have more than just an education. Those involved with SSEPP believe this education must be a quality one whereby all the needed components are there: peaceful coexistence within communities, trained teachers, basic teaching and learning aids, strong parental involvement, solid school management, shelter from the sun and rain during class time, psychosocial support, and prayers. As accompaniers in this mission, you are arming this girl and her family and community in many positively impactful ways for generations to come.
As we loaded the “brand spanking new” shiny desks advocated by you onto a large truck, the children walking from a neighboring school stopped to watch the activity. Finally, a few of the onlookers mustered the courage to ask if they could sit at them for a moment. All of the children (and adults as well!) rushed forward to occupy the desks and pretend that they were in the classroom. A woman passing by on her way to the market lingered awhile as she congratulated us on the construction of these desks and repeatedly stated, “They are beautiful, so, so beautiful.”
After arriving at the schools to offload the desks, the hired day laborers’ work was hampered by the rush of children wanting to help carry the heavy desks while others were trying to sit at them and pose for photos. Cries of ululation could be heard throughout the area as adults rejoiced at what people in the USA take for granted as standard classroom items.
One headteacher commented, “Surely this will encourage everyone — pupils, teachers and parents. I know that the parents will be more active now and the enrollment of (out-of-school) children into this school will rise. This is a great incentive.” Prior to these, none of the recipient schools were in possession of a child’s desk. Learners either brought a chair from home or sat on the floor, a rickety bench or a rock and always used their laps as desktops. It was indeed a day full of promises to come.
A week ago, the rains started, and along with them, the wind, so much so that it blew off the zinc roof and damaged the mud and bamboo walls of one of the Presbyterian churches that also serves as a learning space for two hundred pupils. Within a stable environment, this would have been just a momentary nuisance, but not here where resources are limited, and hopes are easily slain. Thankfully, because of you, we were able to quickly buy a tent in the market so that worship, community and study activities could continue.
The future of the girl I have written so much about and her fellow mates looks a bit brighter, and we are hoping when armed with a higher standard of education, the continuing civil conflict, marginalization, stigmatization, and hopelessness will be conquered, and there will be an audaciousness in each of them that goes beyond mere survival to promises of peace with justice and prosperity. Thank you for journeying with her and all of South Sudan.
In Ministry Together,
Leisa Tonie Wagstaff
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Tags: Leisa Wagstaff
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