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Championing the Continuous Climb

A Letter from Leisa Wagstaff, serving in South Sudan

December 2018

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Dear Partners in Mission,

While speaking alongside school, church and government officials at a local school during the recent launch of the 2018 South Sudan Primary Leaving Examination, it was hard not to share in the mixed emotions. I knew that for all of the exam candidates, “life … ain’t been no crystal stair. It’s had tacks in it, and splinters, and boards torn up, and places with no carpet on the floor — bare” (Langston Hughes).

Indeed, it had been more of rugged mountainous climbs with precarious holds and constant tumbles backward, intensified by worries of where school fees would come from and so many ifs: if the 83 cents needed for a school identity card and entrance into the exam hall would be available, if one’s shoes and sole uniform could withstand the wear and tear of an entire academic year, if rebounding from malaria and typhoid (typically going hand-in-hand in South Sudan) without the prescribed medicines was possible, if the continuing conflict in certain areas and rumors of a countrywide escalation would become a reality, if at least one meal that day would be consumed, if the sacrifices made by the family for this educational opportunity would be in vain, and if they could withstand the overabundance of other concerns that primary school-age children normally would not have to haul around on a daily basis.

But here these pupils were, lined up respectfully to listen intently to the procedural aspects of the exam, rules of conduct for examinees and invigilators, words of encouragement and prayer, and everyone’s expectations of best efforts. They are only a few of the country’s 38 percent of primary school enrollees and a handful of the even smaller percentage who managed to get to this level of studies.

As would be expected, they all seemed quite nervous and a bit fearful, probably from the weight of this all-important exam. A pass or a fail would impact so many futures, for they were not writing only for themselves, but for their family, school, community, ethnic group, church and entire country. They represented a multitude of people, places, beliefs, hopes and dreams.

I could also sense excitement intermingled with the determination to succeed. Just getting to the point of being able to “sit” for this hard-earned exam was an accomplishment and motivator. It symbolized a forecasting of what could be accomplished and an ushering in of greater opportunities and, perhaps, something better. The hardship, nervousness, fear, excitement and determination all resonated with me, and I found myself holding my breath — on their behalf — willing them to succeed and silently praying without ceasing that all would go well.

The prayer also included the soldier in our midst with his AK-47 “locked and loaded” that I noticed immediately upon my arrival. I prayed that he and others like him would remain calm even as they tried to assure calm and protection for the ones writing exams. Due to conflict over the years, it is now standard for all exam spaces to provide this service. I made sure, however, that there were no questionable or quick movements on my part, as I always do whether in the country’s remote areas where these weapons are propped casually and seemingly abandoned against trees and lean-tos or in the town as I walk down the street.

I also noticed the difference in the number of male and female candidates. Statistically, South Sudan has the highest educational gender disparity in sub-Saharan Africa (Global Partnership for Education), and a girl child is more likely to die in childbirth than to finish primary school (UNICEF). The ratio of boys to girls standing before me seemed to bear out BOTH statistics — until I looked closer. Over half of the female candidates scheduled to write their end-of-school exam were above the age of 17, more like 23, 24 and 26! And, one was nearing the completion of her pregnancy!

Yayienen, like several of the other older female candidates, is a mother several times over. She, like some of them, is also married. Like each of them, she sees the importance of education and is taking advantage of the schooling that started “under the trees” several years ago as part of one church’s desire to meet the needs of displaced persons searching for safety and security.

I was informed that Yayienen is scheduled to deliver during the final day of the weeklong exam period. We are hoping that her health will remain good and that she will be able to write all the exams. Missing one will probably mean a fail mark. We are also hoping that the birthing process goes well for both mother and baby.

As I discussed various administrative and pedagogic issues in the office with the officials present, my eyes kept drifting towards the classroom in which Yayienen was writing. Periodically, I would quietly stroll near all the testing rooms to ensure that appropriate examination practices were being adhered to. I found myself lingering unobtrusively at the window of the room she sat in and really pulling for her success as well as the success of all candidates in each school throughout the country. Hopefully, they were also in a safe setting and feeling excited and determined.

Once or twice, I saw the expectant mother frown and shift, either in concentration or discomfort. I could not imagine how it must be for her to sit at a desk built for a smaller and younger person but knew that she would persevere. As she endeavors to withstand the heat and hard seat and tries to recall the information, I am sure that she is buttressing herself with the hope that her soon-to-be-born child will have a better chance and, thus, a brighter future. Numerous studies show that even one to three years of maternal schooling greatly increase a child’s potential (HEART), empower minds, and decrease the “intergenerational transmissions of poverty and exclusion” (UNESCO).

While it is a big step for Yayienen and all others to complete their primary schooling, the eight years spent in study must be of quality, making it easier for them to cross the threshold into secondary school — if and when the opportunity is available.

Your commitment to the South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding Project (SSEPP) ministry is providing many opportunities for quality education for the children of this country and the generations that have missed out on schooling due to war. It is taking away some of the “ifs,” championing the continuous climb to higher heights, and urging: “Don’t you turn back. Don’t you set down on the steps ‘cause you finds it’s kinder hard. Don’t you fall now — ” (Langston Hughes).

Thank you for your spiritual and financial support, advocacy, and interest in learning more about the South Sudanese.

In Ministry Together,
Leisa TonieAnn Wagstaff

Please read this important message from José Luis Casal, Director, Presbyterian World Mission

Dear partners in God’s mission,

We near the close of 2018 inspired by the hope of Christ. God is transforming the world, and you are helping to make it happen.

Thank you very much for your support of our mission co-workers. The prayers and financial gifts of people like you enable them to work alongside global partners to address poverty, hopelessness, violence and other pressing problems in the name of Jesus Christ.

Every day, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-workers are blessed to be able to walk alongside their brothers and sisters across the globe. Listening to each other in faith and in friendship, they learn from each other how to work towards a world in which everyone flourishes. Acting upon what they discover together, PC(USA) mission co-workers and our global partners strengthen the body of Christ.

Because you are an integral part of God’s mission, I invite you to become more deeply committed to Presbyterian World Mission. First, would you make a year-end gift for the sending and support of our mission co-workers? The needs in the world are great, and World Mission is poised to answer God’s call to serve others.

I also invite you to ask your session to add our mission co-workers to your congregation’s prayer list and mission budget for 2019 and beyond. Your multi-year commitment will make a great difference in our involvement with our partners. The majority of our mission co-workers’ funding comes from the special gifts of individuals and congregations like yours, for God’s mission is a responsibility of the whole church, not a particular area of the church. Now more than ever, we need your financial support!

In faith, our mission co-workers accept a call to mission service. In faith, World Mission, representing the whole church and you, sends them to work with our global partners. In faith, will you also commit to support this work with your prayers and financial gifts? With hope and faith, I await your positive response!

At God’s service and at your service!

José Luis Casal

P.S. Your gift will help meet critical needs of our global partners. Thank you!

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