A letter from Leisa Wagstaff currently in the U.S., serving in South Sudan
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Dear Partners in Mission,
I guess I was a bit too excited to be returning to Juba after a few days in Nairobi. I had bought the glue sticks, crayons, construction paper and a few other coveted items there that I could not get in South Sudan for some upcoming teacher training workshops. Months of discussing ideas, moving from door-to-door in the apartment complex, collecting discarded food and product containers (for classroom learning centers), and making teaching aids out of locally available materials would finally be put to use. I was glad to be Juba-bound. To this date, regrettably, I have not made it back. Just minutes before departing Nairobi, I fell! This began a totally new reality for me—from being an independent doer to an uncertain future and total dependence upon others for even the easiest of tasks. A bimalleolar ankle fracture has required two surgeries (the first one in Nairobi and a second in the U.S.A.), long days and nights of “toes above the nose” posture, and discovering that walking with crutches is NOT as easy as riding a bicycle. Your prayers and get-well wishes have really helped to pick me up during days when I did not think that I could bear one more moment of pain, confinement or uncertainty. Thank you for your care and concern.
This experience has, however, renewed my belief that the ministry the PC(USA) engages in with the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCOSS) is a relational one. The number of emails and international phone calls from my colleagues and friends in South Sudan has been phenomenal. They remind me constantly that they are thinking of me, praying for a full recovery, and looking forward to my return to South Sudan. My well-being seems to have been unselfishly put beyond their own needs which are great and numerous.
It has been a challenge finding creative ways to support the educational work there from the States. Sometimes this has meant discussing ideas and needs with Reverend Stephen, the PCOSS Education Director, over phone lines full of static at 3 in the morning (9 a.m. there!). I am happy, though, at the way he is growing in confidence and knowledge of what education within the PCOSS schools can look like in the future. Through the support of the South Sudan Education and Peacebuilding Project (SSEPP), he is increasing his qualifications for educational leadership in CORAT’s distance-learning school management program. He is at the stage of writing a proposal for his research work in managing an educational system in a war-torn country, which I believe will help educationists countrywide. I appreciate the way that other PC(USA) mission co-workers have rallied around Reverend Stephen in my absence to offer professional and personal support.
The Akatgol PCOSS Primary School came into being “to provide an essential and good education to children, particularly girl children, who have never received or experienced a stable educational environment.” Much of the funding for this school has come from the church community and Parents Council (P.T.A.). Through fund-raisers, use of local building materials (mud and sticks), and peoplepower, this school has lived up to its motto and included children who face major problems related to school fees and space within the current schools located in Juba County as well as children from the former Pibor County seeking protection in Juba, most of whom are internally displaced people (IDP) and children whose parents were killed as a result of war. This is a major reason that Akatgol was one of the first communities selected to receive assistance from the SSEPP project. Today a recently built classroom block is an endorsement of this homegrown initiative and U.S. Presbyterians’ commitment to education. As the rainy season comes to an end, construction will begin in other communities that have mobilized for greater educational involvement.
This construction is a small but impactful step toward accessible and quality education. Statistics still indicate that fewer than 50 percent of the schools in operation have semi-permanent structures. Now that a “complete, harmonized and recognized curriculum” has been introduced, South Sudanese schools will no longer have to choose between Kenyan, Sudanese, Ethiopian and Ugandan curricula. The country’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) promises that the curriculum is “competency-based and integrates life skills and peace education, gender, human rights and environmental awareness into school subjects,” all important for a happy and mature future generation. Now that our department has more definitive and acceptable guidelines, we will continue training our teachers to implement the curriculum in a way that engages the learners and motivates the school managers to oversee its success—an exciting time, indeed.
Our nine energetic and eager-to-learn SSEPP-sponsored teachers engaged in training at the Yei Teacher Training College (YTTC) are excellent models of the potential of the South Sudanese teacher. They are contributing greatly to the betterment of the school community and garnering experience for future development in their local communities. They are at the top of their classes academically and most have been chosen in an open election by their peers for various posts in the college’s Student Guild. The Student Guild is an organization “whereby YTTC student teachers can engage in community service projects, learn the principles of democracy, and develop leadership/management skills.
Many of these students emailed me to share their excitement at the possibility of serving their school community in this manner but were feeling down because of not having the finances to make fancy campaign materials. I prayed for their health and strength during this time, gave encouragement, and challenged them to let their sincerity, leadership qualities and trustworthiness be their calling card. They are now serving their constituents as Student Guild President, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Parliamentarian, Deputy Governor, and Class Coordinator. In his acceptance speech as Guild President, Omot Mam Ochalla specifically thanked the PC(USA) and SSEPP for the opportunity to become a better teacher and citizen. In addition he challenged classmates to “let bygones be bygones and begin a new chapter of working together to yield liberty and prosperity. The brighter future of this country is lying in our hands [as] professional teachers.”
It is our prayer that with the signing of the newest peace agreement and the partitioning of the country into 28 states, a semblance of peace will be long-term. Understandably, there is some doubt that this pact will last longer than the most recent peace accord. My South Sudanese colleagues and neighbors tell me that they are hopeful but have “little confidence that peace will hold just because of a piece of paper.” They say that it will take years of “heart-searching to find peace within and only then can we think of our homeland as a peaceful place.”
Peace and reconciliation will not come easily or soon, but with all hands on deck, we can work toward it. Thank you for your companionship through all of the highs and lows and your commitment to the day of rejoicing with a peaceful and prosperous South Sudan. Your prayers, financial support and advocacy do make a difference in the number of classrooms built, teachers trained, and pupils securing their future through quality education. Let us continue to minister together in the months and years ahead.
In Ministry Together,
Leisa TonieAnn Wagstaff
Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCOSS)
c/o Juba, Central Equatoria State, South Sudan
The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 139
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