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Fifteen reasons to celebrate in troubled Juba, South Sudan

Monday ceremony honors 15 graduates of Nile Theological College

by Bob and Kristi Rice | Mission co-workers in South Sudan

Graduates of Nile Theological College are exuberantly celebrated by family members and friends with wreaths and flowers. (Photo by Kristi Rice)

LOUISVILLE — “Today the playground is transformed, adorned with flowers and the presence of many dignitaries.”

Those were the words of the Honorable Rebecca Joshua, government minister of Roads and Bridges in South Sudan’s capital city, Juba, during Monday’s ceremony celebrating 15 graduates of Nile Theological College. Presbyterian mission co-worker the Rev. Bob Rice is an instructor there; his wife, Kristi, also a mission co-worker, is an economic and development adviser for the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church. This report is taken from a Wednesday post on their blog, “Embracing Hope.”

Joshua’s pronouncement was true, according to the Rice blog — the outdoor basketball stadium in Juba did not look like the same place where they’d watched basketball practice the night before. On graduation day, the bold colors of the women’s dresses that were reflected in the bright sun highlighted an atmosphere of celebration.

Families of the graduates brought buckets of home-made sweets that they distributed to everyone around them. Government ministers arrived with their security detail, and television crews were poised to broadcast the event. “But it was clear throughout the program,” said the Rices, “that the ‘stars’ of the show were the 15 graduates of NTC proudly receiving their diplomas.”

According to information provided by the school’s principal, NTC started in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1991. It opened a branch in South Sudan in 2011 in the country’s second-largest city, Malakal, but devastating conflict in 2013 took the lives of four students and caused the temporary closure of the school.

The school reopened in Juba the next year with only five students. Gradually, students who had interrupted their studies and fled the conflict resumed their studies. A graduate named Gideon, having for security reasons moved his family to Ethiopia, where his wife is currently in school, made the long journey to Juba just for graduation.

Several graduates hadn’t seen their families in a year or longer, “sacrificing and persevering to finish their studies,” the Rice blog states.

“With the low rates of education in South Sudan and the struggle that it takes to complete school, graduation is truly something to celebrate at any level,” the bloggers say. “Relatives, church members and friends all came to join in acknowledging the rare distinction of completing a bachelors-level program.”

The culture of graduation in Juba is to adorn graduates with a wreath of tinsel when they receive their diploma. Other traditions include spraying graduates with powder, wrapping a traditional embroidered sheet around them to wear or giving them flowers. The emcee for Monday’s ceremony, the Rev. Philip Obang, “was careful to instruct the families where to stand to receive their graduates” to “minimize the confusion of people coming from all directions,” the Rices said.

Each graduate was photographed alongside Gen. Taban Deng Gai, First Vice President of South Sudan. Some graduates were decked out in so much tinsel that they couldn’t see. “Cheers and ululations broke out” during the celebration, the Rices said, “along with jostling for hugs and selfies with the graduate.”

Prominent church leaders, including the moderators of both the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan and the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, exhorted graduates to continue the ministry God is calling them into. Gen. Gai said he appreciated the long history of the Presbyterian churches in Sudan and South Sudan, with an emphasis on providing education that will promote peace and stability in South Sudan.

Bishop Isaiah, General Overseer of the Pentecostal Church of Sudan, offered graduates a challenge and a charge based on Matthew 28:18-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”


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