By Shelley Marsden
AS reports of violence and suffering stream out of South Sudan, one story offers hope; of ordinary people’s determination to invest in the long term future when their short term future is at risk.
Recently, 77 teachers from around South Sudan attended an in-service teacher training course in Yambio supported by Solidarity with South Sudan, a collaborative effort by religious congregations of priests and nuns to respond to the urgent needs of South Sudan. One of their initiatives is the Solidarity Teachers’ Training College in Yambio.
Sister Margaret Sheehan, from Limerick, has been based in the college since 2008. Previously, her missionary work had brought her to The Philippines, to help street kids living in abject poverty.
She told the Irish World from her classroom in Yambio: “The people we live with have nothing. We’re charging them the equivalent of two Euros a week to be here. If they live out, we’re charging them about £1 sterling. It’s minimal, but it makes them feel like they’re making a contribution to their own education.”
The training course is funded by Misean Cara, an organisation that allocates funding from Irish Aid to development work by Irish missionaries in developing countries. It funds a number of Solidarity with South Sudan’s initiatives as well as projects by other Irish missionary congregations in South Sudan.
The money the school receives from them provides books, pens and enough food to keep going. The charity also helped Sr Sheehan get a house built to accommodate some of the street children she was helping in the Philippines. “Without them we’d be in a very bad way here, make no mistake. They are one of our chief funders”, she said.
Daily life is not easy in South Sudan, and those problems spills over into the work the school is trying to do. Sometimes, pupils that come to train and become teachers have only a few phrases in English and have never been to secondary school.
Sr Sheehan believes it’s little wonder, given the scant education system in existence: “Schools are really, really horrible. You could have 195 children cramped into one small room. How can you teach in that environment? They have no copy books, no desks, no chairs, many of them are sitting under a tree.
“Then because the teachers get paid so badly, they’re not always so enthusiastic about turning up to teach. I’ve known teachers to not bother coming in at all throughout January and February and then turn up in March.”
The sisters who run the College have been innovative in finding ways to continue their education work. Principal, Sr. Margaret Scott, mobilised the teachers for training by using radio.
Announcements about the training were broadcast a week before so students could prepare for the sometimes dangerous journey to attend class. It may seem unorthodox to run training during such a wave of violence but the prospect of training gave teachers so much hope it was deemed necessary.
In politically unstable situations missionaries have a reputation for staying in solidarity with local people after most other international personnel have left. This is certainly the case in Yambio.
Sr Sheehan has more than once found herself in close proximity to the violence that has been raging in the region. Yambio is relatively peaceful but where she lived before, in Malakal (where the other training college is based) lives were at risk almost every day.
She explained: “I had bullet holes in my bedroom wall, grenades thrown into the primary school next door. Violence was everywhere. We had four very bad attacks during our time there, and the last one was the worst.
“The house we lived in has since been looted, so it’s full of glass, and our car has been stolen. We had extremely frightening days and nights – shooting at all hours of the night. We had no electricity so hearing shots in the pitch dark was terrifying.”
It is because courageous teachers are so desperate to learn in the midst of all this violence that people like Sr Sheehan do what they do. Some have lost everything, and the support offered at the aptly-named Solidarity Teachers’ Training College is their only lifeline.
For the full article, see this week’s Irish World newspaper (issue 1 Feb 2014).
Check out www.miseancara.ie for more.