From Fire and War to Shelter and School

By: Adrie Kusserow
cross in hands

Colin and I pass through the school gate, bidding farewell to the nightguard, Taban, who, wielding a bow and arrow, locks up after us. As the sun sets, out in the dusty red clay road lined with shacks made of twigs and bamboo and bits of sheet metal, garbage fires start to burn. We hear an explosion from afar and then cheering. This is a good sound because down the road they are de- mining. Another bomb has been found and detonated.

Welcome to Yei in South Sudan, the newest country on Earth, where girls say they need to learn to be good diggers, so they can find and plant seeds when there is no food. Nuba refugees, having walked for 20 days from the bombed caves of the Nuba mountains, now sleep 17 to a room, eat leaves and pray for one more term of school fees paid.

Colin Nelsen '00, is the program director for Africa ELI, (Education and Leadership Initiative): Bridging Gender Gaps Through Education. Along the grungy frontier town, part Wild West, part African bush, he steers me toward the outside edge of the road so I don't get nailed by a bike or motorcycle, part of the sixth sense he has developed since working in South Sudan since 2007. There is no one else I would have escort me around here. Colin is tenacious, hilarious and tonight, almost feverish with determination. As we walk back to our guest house, we move from statistics (a girl has a greater chance of dying in childbirth than graduating from high school here), to theology (he got his master's from Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium) to strategizing about how to get the retired Sudan People's Liberation Army to promote girls education.

Mostly it's Colin talking. He lives and breathes Africa ELI, endlessly reviewing budget numbers over in his mind, trying to find the biggest leaks and possible ways to find more funding. He eats one meal a day to save money. I suggest he splurge and try two meals, but he's back to strategizing again. Sometimes I steer him off course and ask for some specifics on his encyclopedic knowledge of Sudanese history or geography. He's what every anthropologist longs for as they slog through the countless questions of field work.

South Sudan is inhabited mainly by Christian black Africans, and the north by Muslims of mixed African and Arab blood. Since 1989, the north has been waging a vicious fight against the southern rebel group, the SPLA rebels, and more recently in Darfur. The conflict has killed more than two million people. In 2005, South Sudan signed a comprehensive peace agreement with the north, and the south voted overwhelmingly to secede, but the north/south border is still brutally contested and tribalism, cattle thieving and aerial bombings from the north continue in the border provinces. The south contains two thirds of the oil fields, which the north wants. Combine this with whole generations growing up in the learned passivity of refugee camps, tribalism, slavery, bombings, scattered families and starvation, it is no wonder that the prized "freedom" of no infrastructure, no education, no jobs is almost like watching another brutal slaughter.

I first came here in 2008 to celebrate the opening of a secondary education school for girls conceptualized by my husband Robert Lair, lecturer in religious studies, resettled Sudanese in Winooski and Colin, which they then built after winning a World Bank grant.

The most recent wave of genocidal activity by the north has now moved from Darfur to the Nuba Mountains, where Sudan began its brutal counterinsurgency campaign just over a year ago. Terrorized by Antonov bombers and MIG warplanes, the people of the Nuba mountains now hide in caves, cut off from all food shipments and humanitarian aid. The Nuba live on leaves, beetles and wild roots. I went to Yei specifically to interview the hundreds of Nuba boys and the handful of girls who had survived the treacherous journey out of the Nuba Mountains and were hoping for a chance at an education in the very southern part of the country. Africa ELI was now sponsoring some of them in our very own schools. In the refugee camps of Juba and Yida, they heard there were schools that might take them, and that led them to Yei, home of Africa ELI and a growing population of young Nuba refugees desperate for food, shelter and school. Girls are not allowed to try the journey, but some fled when bombs dropped and their families scattered and they "just ran and ran."

A deeply Christian people, I was struck by their profound belief and commitment to God despite the atrocities they had experienced.

A deeply Christian people, I was struck by their profound belief and commitment to God despite the atrocities they had experienced.

Without money for food or shelter, some described eating grass and hating the "foreign diseases" they were now subject to, as their brothers lay listless from malaria. According to Colin, they are the hardest working students, despite studying on next-to-nothing to eat. With Colin's help, we set up an account at the Martha Health Clinic that would enable all of the Nuba boys and girls we sponsored to get some basic health care. We are setting up Nuba Mountain Education Scholarship Trust (NEST), a fund that will allow Nuba war orphans to have basic school fees paid while they try and survive. Needless to say, girls are the most precarious and vulnerable here, and the hope is that some of them can live at Yei Girls and Mukaya boarding schools instead of having to resort to begging and prostitution.

Africa ELI-educated girls and women will become empowered to serve as national, local and family leaders, engage in business enterprise, improve health practices and effectively counteract forces of conflict and oppression. Our Girls Rising Campaign is an initiative that focuses on increasing access, enrollment and retention of girls in secondary schools in South Sudan.

Girls and young women's access to education has been proven to be one of the most important social capital factors influencing economic empowerment for women in developing countries. A girl who goes and stays in school will be more likely able to avoid early marriage and death by early childbirth, have fewer and healthier children, make more money, avoid HIV, and suffer less domestic abuse.

Girls and young women's access to education has been proven to be one of the most important social capital factors influencing economic empowerment for women in developing countries.

Jackline is a Nuba girl I interviewed whose story began to sound all too familiar. After her home was bombed, her family scattered and she ran. Living on twigs, grass and bugs, she made it to the swamp of Yida refugee camp, swollen with disease, misery and hunger. She heard about schools in Yei where she might be able to get her fees paid for, so she hitched a ride with a military convoy. I left Jackline at the center for Nuba war orphans where she was teaching them to sing and dance. Her school fees are paid for the following semester, but I worry about finding money for the semester after that...

I am now home, still feeling culture shock. My head and heart are unable to digest how the world can hold such extremes as apocalyptic Yei and the bristling fall campus of Saint Michael's College. I haven't heard from Colin in a week. I think he's stranded at our Mukaya campus because the rains have eaten up the road back into Yei, and most likely the truck broke down, as trucks do in South Sudan, lurching in and out of the elephant sized potholes. I'll just have to wait.

Perhaps I'll never be able to understand such inequalities, but I tell my students that it's good to feel a bit of unease with the gaps between poverty and wealth on this planet. It keeps you working. It keeps you focused on what really truly matters.

And then I tell them about Colin. - Adrie Kusserow, professor of anthropology

Learn What Matters