New School

Learning Language in the World's Newest Nation

Text by Eleanor Loudin

Photography by Samantha Donkin

Over one million children in the new Republic of South Sudan are not enrolled in school. In 2006, the then semi-autonomous Government of South Sudan and UNICEF, rolled out a "Back to School" campaign, which succeeded in increasing enrolments fourfold, from 340,000 to 1.3 million. Yet, the number of children in school is pitiful. Those completing their four years of primary education remains horrendously few. The stark reality - a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than finish primary school. Myriad reasons exist as to why, even if students enrol, they may not be able to get far. Invisible levies, registration and examination fees, tutor backhanders (themselves paid minimally). In addition, as most teachers lack basic education themselves, the quality of schooling is poor. Against the advice of development experts who prioritise mother-tongue schooling, the new government has made English the official language. There are over 52 South Sudanese tribes, with an equivalent number of languages; English was last taught comprehensively in the colonial era. Teachers and students are consequently further obstructed. Save the Children reported that one-third of teachers "were unable to read, write or speak the intended language of instruction" - i.e. English - at the end of one recent training period. Furthermore, South Sudan's elite educate their children in Uganda or Kenya, thereby removing any incentive to improve the system. In pre-independence Juba, I met a group of students who had reached final year of secondary school despite such adversities. Speaking eloquently and passionately about their country's approaching independence, many agreed local languages to be vital. Collectively, they emphasised, "If you are not educated, you will not have the right to express yourself. If you are not educated, you will not have the opportunity to stand up for yourself."

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