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Bit By Bit

A letter from Leisa Wagstaff, serving in South Sudan

June 2018

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Individuals:  Give online to E200501 to Leisa Wagstaff’s sending and support

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Dear Partners in Mission,

He looked no more than fourteen as he came forward to welcome me with a hearty handshake. Assuming he was a primary school pupil (because children often enter school at an older age.), I asked about his teacher. The surprise was all mine, as he responded, “Hello, Mam. I am the teacher.” Still skeptical, I began a full-scale inquisition: “How old are you? How long have you been a teacher? Which class are you teaching?” And finally, “Are you r-e-a-l-l-y the teacher?” 

Ultimately, I heard his life’s journey, one that is all too familiar. Like so many South Sudanese youth, he has struggled for the educational level he has attained: studying in bits and pieces here and there, needing pens and school fees but somehow doing without, struggling to hear the teacher’s voice above a growling stomach and, so often, learning while running from one danger or the other. Remembering what it was like to yearn for schooling, he explained that he wants to “share the little I have with these children who are just like me.”

At sixteen, he is a teacher as well as a secondary school scholar. During the morning hours, he is in the classroom trying to provide the younger ones some of the tools for success: basic academics, lots of encouragement, a few life skills, boundless faith, and a sense of belonging. Later in the day, he transitions from teaching to being taught and is hoping to “sit the exam” for his own first secondary school certificate this year and continue to his next level of studies. “One day,” he stated profoundly, “I want to be able to do more for my community. This is just a start, and with God’s help, I will change the conditions in which these smaller ones live and learn.” He tacked on an appendage, one that is in everyone’s mind and is almost always stated at the end of any discourse — “when peace comes.” Like most teachers serving in the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCOSS) schools, he does not receive a salary, not even an incentive.

Eager to learn: Kindergarteners at a Presbyterian school

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Our teachers are doing wonderful things and are unselfishly giving of themselves. Another teacher started a school simply by hanging a battered chalkboard outside of his house door and writing the ABCs and numbers on it. At first, his only pupil was his adult cousin, a PCOSS evangelist. “I did it because I can do something about (the lack of education in this community). As people passed by on their way to the market or farm, they would stop to observe. Bit by bit, the enrollment grew…. Pretty soon, the pastor asked me to be the headteacher,” and the school moved from the entryway of his house into the church structure. Today, 135 children of all ages crowd into the mud and bamboo classrooms while adult learners gather for afternoon classes.

And with conflict, trauma and bad will all around them, teachers, parents and children are changing their attitudes and beliefs and, thus, how they relate to others and the world around them. At one of the afternoon capacity-building clubs started in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp school of 1000 learners in a large, opened dirt-floored church, the children are learning about perseverance, acceptance of self and others, problem-solving, decision-making, self-expression and what it takes to be a good leader. At the outset of a discussion on gender equality, the majority of the young male and female participants took the stance that boys are smarter than girls. After a group task that required the input of both male and female group members for successful completion and a subsequent guided reflection, a shift in thinking took place. There was a lot of laughter and empowerment at the discovery that girls had made just as many contributions as the boys, and had it not been for the input of their female peers, each group would not have succeeded. One boy’s exclamation, “Me, I have changed my thinking … we all should,” received lots of endorsement.

The results of the standardized South Sudan Examination Leaving Certificate (SSELC) have been released, and many of our dedicated Presbyterian teachers and encouraging PCOSS church school communities and parents are seeing the results of giving the little that they have. Many schools that are supported by the South Sudan Educational Project are celebrating 100% pass rates, and one Presbyterian school is ranked second among all primary schools in the country. This is something to be proud of and is a motivator for continued passion for education.

“Bit by bit” is how the headteacher sees the process of bringing about education, and perhaps this is the most apropos description of it in a place where there are so many factors against its success. The spirit of “sharing the little I have” and a willingness to struggle will surely one day bring about a true transformation in education and in life.

Thank you for joining our school communities in their journeys. Your contributions may seem small or only a “bit,” but you are profoundly and positively changing the present as well as the future of many South Sudanese.                                                                   

In Partnership Together,                                                                   

Leisa Wagstaff


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