Friday, July 24, 2009

Schools, Malualkon, Juba, and the Goat

There are a few different things in this album, but the main element is a series of photos from a visit to a school construction project I visited near the town of Malualkon. You can read the complete story below the photo album.

I also have photos later in the album from air travel between Malualkon, Juba, and Yei, as well as the fate of a rather unfortunate goat...


"Pariak/Riang-Aketh, Northern Bahr-el-Ghazal state (Sudan) – Angelo Garang, the Deputy Headmaster of Pariak Primary School, picks up a small slate chalkboard, carefully draws a large capital ‘F’ on it, and holds it next to the trunk of an enormous palm tree.

“F!” He shouts. “Repeat!”

“Eff!” Shout the 40 students of class 1C at the Pariak Primary School. The lucky ones with a seat on the upward-sloping edge of a fallen log have a clear view, while the rest stand in a crowd around the tree and Garang, jostling for position. In their first year of school, and between about seven-and-nine-years-old, they haven’t graduated to using notebooks; each holds a similar slate, and some clutch bits of chalk in their small hands.

“Eff! Eff! Eff! Eff! Eff!” The children chant, as Garang smiles in approval. A small boy begins to draw a rightward-leaning ‘F’ on his slate.

This could be primary school in virtually any village in southern Sudan. Decades of civil war destroyed what little infrastructure existed previously, and for many students, the only place they can go to learn is in the shade of a large tree. When the rains come to Northern Bahr-el-Ghazal state in June, however, school is often put on hold, as students have no place to shelter.

“When it starts raining the students won’t come, and the teachers won’t teach,” says Angelo Garang Adjo, a teacher, and a cousin of the Deputy Headmaster.

With the help of Mercy Corps, however, this is changing. With funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the organization has partnered with communities such as Pariak to build needed infrastructure such as community centers, clinics, and in this case, primary schools. Mercy Corps typically contacts the leadership of each payam (an administrative division), and on their advice, approaches communities throughout the area to propose new construction projects in these selected villages. Mercy Corps typically provides expensive and difficult to procure items, such as cement and tin sheets, while the community is asked to contribute locally-made materials for the project, such as bricks, creating the sense of partnership and self-reliance that is a key step for sustainable development.

“Mercy Corps is promoting development where it hasn’t previously existed,” says Apollo Nelson Atiba, the organization’s Economic Recovery and Development (ERD) Project Manager at the field office in the nearby town of Malualkon. “This way they have ownership and can feel proud. They’ll feel like, ‘We struggled for this on our own.’ If you just give something to someone, they won’t take care of it.”

In Pariak, and in the nearby village of Riang-Aketh, Mercy Corps has funded the construction of two school buildings, each at a cost of approximately $25,000 USD. In Pariak, the new three-room school building is still a series of deep square trenches, surrounded by piles of tan-red bricks. A long rectangle of bricks, the beginnings of a foundation, sits in one of the trenches as laborers in torn t-shirts chip away at the brown soil with shovels, sweat dripping down their foreheads.

Teachers at the Pariak school expect that approximately 60 students will be able to use the classroom. And while this is a good start, it is only a first step- Pariak Primary School enrolls 404 students, just over 100 of whom are girls. While the new building cannot accommodate every student, the Deputy Headmaster still sees the construction as a good start on the way to positive change.

“It’ll be important because it’ll increase [the students’] morale, and when there is rain, they can be there. The textbooks and materials will be protected too,” he says.
 And while not everyone can fit, Garang has a strategy for making the best use of the new building.

“The small children will be inside because they can’t control themselves and pay attention,” he points out. He may be right- many of the children of Class 1C seem to focus on everything except the letter ‘F’, following birds with their eyes, shoving their classmates, and chewing the pumpkin-like peel off the orange deleb fruits that fall from the overhanging coconut trees.

In the past, schools have been built in the area using local materials to create mud-and-grass tukuls (huts) where the students could learn. The tukuls would often collapse in the rain, dust, and heat common to the area, making them a short-term solution at best. Additionally, responsibility for the construction typically fell to the parents of the students, a time-consuming task.

James Wiik Tem is a member of the Parent-Teacher Association in Pariak. An older man, he wears a white short-sleeved golf shirt with blue flip-flop sandals. His deeply callused hands are rough to the touch, the result of a lifetime of manual labor. He has three children, each of whom finished school in Pariak a few years ago.

“It is a positive change to move from local infrastructure to permanent buildings,” he says in the Dinka language, speaking through an interpreter. “It will be a pleasure for the children to do their exams inside.”

Mercy Corps and the community are in the early stages of a similar project in Riang-Aketh, approximately 25 kilometers from Pariak, on the way to Aweil, the state capital. Far off the main road, the village is little more than a collection of tukuls in the midst of a few sparse palm and acacia trees. Rounding a bend in the dirt track, several piles of sand and gravel are suddenly visible, bordered by stacks of bricks.

The new building will be a major improvement, not only for the school itself, but also a first on the road to development for the community. “This is the first time a concrete building has even been constructed in Riang-Aketh,” says Atiba, the Mercy Corps Project Manager.

As in Pariak, classes in Riang-Aketh operate under the trees. According to the Headmaster, Mr. Carbino, the school has six classes, with 250 students enrolled. In a worrisome trend, however, only 10 of the students are girls. The students cluster in the shade of a thorny acacia, against which a large improvised blackboard is perched. The lesson on the board is in Christian Religious Education (CRE), a mandatory course in school systems throughout East Africa. “Christians do not offer sacrifices” reads a line.

Both Carbino and James Geng Rel, the Deputy Headmaster, attended the school themselves, which has operated since 1996, the height of the civil war. They sit with a group of other teachers under the shade of another tree near the site of the new construction. A pile of English textbooks and a dictionary with the cover ripped off are stacked on the ground in front of Rel, next to a bar-coded box of UNICEF chalk.

As is the case in Pariak, the new school building in Riang-Aketh is in the beginning stages. Trenches have been carved, clearly marking the spaces for the school’s three new classrooms.

“We need to finish the construction soon, because when the rain comes, vehicles can’t come through,” says Carbino.

Despite this concern, Rel shares Mercy Corps’ belief that the new building will be a major improvement. “[It] will be an important improvement,” Rel says. “We’ll expect more output from the children.”

At the site, Atiba walks through the trenches, carefully inspecting the work and jotting figures in a small notebook. Mercy Corps expects each building to be completed in a maximum of 70 days, hopefully less, given the coming rains. As he walks through, he notes the progress, and reflects on its importance to the community and the motivation it provides for other similar villages hoping for future construction.

“They’ll have enough time to study, and won’t have to run home because of the rain,” he says, looking at the gathered students under the tree. “Other communities lay their bricks, and hope that [we can] come one day to help them too.

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