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The School Under the Trees

A letter from Leisa Wagstaff, serving in South Sudan

December 2017

Write to Leisa Wagstaff

IndividualsGive online to E200501 for Leisa Wagstaff’s sending and support

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Churches are asked to send donations through your congregation’s normal receiving site (this is usually your presbytery).


Dear Colleagues in Mission,

After travelling by air and road, we arrived long after dark at one of the Ugandan refugee camps for South Sudanese citizens. People were still moving along the myriad of dirt paths using torches or the moonlight when the clouds did not cover it. As we stopped for directions at the market where vendors were hoping to sell at least one more item by candlelight, I became a little anxious that our training space may well be outside or in a cramped room with no space for movement. Within a few short hours of non-sleep due to the excitement, worry, mosquitoes and heat, and the loud music blasting from a generator-powered radio at a nearby club, we were meeting our participants, mostly untrained teachers and head teachers alongside exiled Presbyterian Church of South Sudan leaders who are a few of the 2 million who have fled their home country since 2013. A few we were to work with over the week-long teacher-training event had arrived as recently as the day prior.

As soon as it was possible, I began setting up the small enclosure in which the 45 of us were to spend our time sharing ideas and knowledge, analyzing problems, searching for solutions, and uplifting one another. Whether our together space is under a tree, in a classroom or church, or in someone’s shed, part of my work is to make the learning space as comfortable as possible and conducive to our school personnel feeling free and safe to question, pour out their disappointments, and seek knowledge as well as healing. It must have been during my scurrying around to put up charts on resistant walls, set up exploratory corners, or converse with some of the other school personnel in attendance that he came in. Nonetheless, I did not see him enter.

However, as the morning progressed, his presence could not go unnoticed. Although he was one of the youngest head teachers or teachers present, his maturity, intelligence, energy, and experiences in education belied his youthfulness. The way his colleagues valued his opinions and held him in respect was testimony to the work he had dedicated himself to. He gave insight to all — myself included — through sharing about his work in an “under-the-tree” school. I encouraged him to help us work through some of the problems we were facing: no government or organizational assistance, classrooms, teaching aids, desks, chalkboards, chalk, marking pens, or paper, not to mention the lack of salaries or even incentives. Moreover, we have the astronomical pupil-to-qualified-teacher ratio of 146 to 1; hunger and poverty; traumatized staff, parents, and learners; and a “dramatic increase in the number of children who are aging out of primary school range” (UNESCO). And most enrollees cannot pay the very minimum school fee, sometimes less than one dollar.

During small group activities, participants rushed to work with him and moved to form a group where he sat. It was not until break that I noticed him leave the room — using his hands to propel himself.

In a sense, this young man named Stephen is not unique. All people in our school are traumatized, each has a traumatic story to tell, each has lost a piece of themselves, and each is challenged. But all are pushing forward, hoping, wanting, dreaming, and waiting for peace to one day come to their country. Their determination and goodwill — as well as their long, vivid remembrance of where they have come from, the missed and unavailable opportunities in life, and how they have struggled just to survive to see another day to get to where they are — keep them propelling themselves in one way or the other, often just for mere survival.

At 28 years old, Stephen has not always walked on his hands. During the turbulent and heart-rending years of internal conflict between the Republic of South Sudan government and the SSDM/A-Cobra faction led by rebel leader David Yau Yau and marginalization by those in power, a rapid onslaught of “paralysis without sickness” attacked Stephen’s body. With war and famine all around, there were no doctors or clinics or even medicines. Even if they were available, states Stephen matter-of-factly, “there was no money with which to buy. Sickness and doing without were part of life, and no one spent much time contemplating or thinking on it … no sorrow or regret or blame.”

By a miracle, he found his way to a refugee camp in Kenya and to education. His keen interest in learning enabled him to skip the first grade. He never allowed his physical “challenge” to stop him: he saw himself as “differently-abled but more than capable” and managed to complete secondary school while still a refugee, this time in Uganda.

In 2014, there was a great influx of South Sudanese evacuees into the Rhino Camp in Uganda who needed spiritual, emotional, and educational support. (The World Food Programme puts the number of South Sudanese refugees in Uganda at over 1 million, half of those who have left the country and a third of its former population.) With so many new arrivals and no schools to attend or money to pay school fees at existing schools, Stephen gathered those interested in learning under a tree. With a small chalkboard, a piece of chalk, a rag as a chalkboard eraser, and a few books he had used in his own schooling, the school today — still under the trees — serves several hundred pupils eager to attain a level of literacy. His staff consists of six teachers — all volunteers and learners from ages 10 to 40. The school under the trees has grown to include the secondary level.

Stephen often depends on the generosity of others to help him cover long distances, for his eighteen-year-old, hand-propelled tricycle is beyond repair. When there is no one, he doesn’t allow it to stop him. On those days, he may arrive a bit late to school, but he arrives ready to educate, inspire, and challenge others not to see “armed conflict as their only choice” (Nikki Haley, USA Ambassador to the UN), but to “find commonality because we are [to see] one another as Christ sees us” (Rev. Dr. Dave Dawson).

“If you lived, that was the miracle,” is another thing Stephen said to me. I see that, especially today. Life continues to be so hard for the South Sudanese, for the young and old, differently-abled and able-bodied, teachers and preachers, those who were well off and those who were not. They are very busy — just trying to survive. The “miracle,” however, can only come through our prayers, gifts of time, energy, and material support. It can only come through loving and forgiving one another, and through advocacy at all levels. Stephen and I thank you for helping us to help others.

(More information on how you are impacting the PC(USA) South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding Project (SSEPP) can be found in the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan/Sudan (PCOSS/S) Education Department News newsletters as well as the SSEPP Quarterly Summary Reports. You may access these on my Mission Connections webpage.

In Ministry Together,

Leisa TonieAnn Wagstaff

Leisa will be on Interpretation Assignment (IA) during July and August 2018 and would love to share the ministry of the PC(USA) in South Sudan.  Please contact Leisa or Destini Hodges at to schedule a visitation.

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