Christmas Appeal: Helping the schools which bring hope to Sudan's displaced people

Cahal Milmo reports from Khartoum on the work of Education Action International, one of our charities for 2005
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One day every December a restive queue forms in the baking heat outside Salaama Self-Help School. Some 300 parents wait in the hope of a place for their child for the next academic year. By sunset at least half of them will have been turned away disappointed from a school that, even by the standards of Sudan, the world's 138th least-developed country, has limited facilities.

The average class size is over 100, half of the 750 pupils are taught in a large shack with walls of straw and the temperature in the remaining mud-brick classrooms reaches 80F. But Salaama is popular. Very popular. And all too often on enrolment day things turn nasty. Gabriel Taba, the headteacher, said: "Last year several parents who did not get places attacked me with their fists. I understand their frustration - we are the only hope for their child's education."

The reason for such pressure on such meagre resources is that Salaama is a school built on the fault lines of the strains and ills in Sudanese society. It sits at the heart of the world's largest refugee population, a series of semi-permanent camps on the edge of Khartoum that house some two million people who have fled three decades of war and famine in Sudan's provinces.

The school is a creation of its community, built and funded by parents and charities - including Education Action International, which is one of the three charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal - to provide basic education to children who would otherwise go without. Education Action has supported 17 self-help groups for the past 10 years, reaching 10,000 children each year.

The students at Salaama, aged from three to 18, are drawn largely from the families of black African Sudanese who fled from a 20-year civil war in the south of the country that claimed more than two million lives. These families come from areas where English was the language of choice and Christianity or forms of traditional worship dominate. But they live in northern Sudan, where the government and the population are Muslim and the official language is Arabic.

"We are the guardians of the culture of our parents and grandparents," said Mr Taba. "The government insists that we teach in Arabic and that the basis of the schooling is Islamic. But we also have other influences. Not only do we have to provide our students with a basic education but we have to pass on our traditions and our language. Otherwise they will be lost. "

There is little or no government support to alleviate the poverty that stalks the refugee camps. In the absenceof the state, the people of Salaama have decided to help themselves and they point to their school as their proudest achievement In a place defined by drift, instability and exclusion, the community school is a rare object of permanence.

Set up eight years ago, it is reliant on the annual fee paid by parents of 11,000 Sudanese Dinars (about £30) and donations it receives from charities like Education Action International. Each day, the 750 pupils cram into the school's seven classrooms. Three of them are little more than wooden lean-tos covered with a thin layer of straw. "They are not really adequate," said Mr Taba. "During the rainy season we have to abandon them - they leak on to the children's books."

Inside, there is a frenzy of learning. Voices of children reciting the rules of basic hygiene compete with others chanting algebraic formulae or English and Arabic grammar. "There is a thirst for education among the people of the camps," said Peter Yugu, founder of the Sudanese Association for Humanitarian Aid (SAHA), the organisation which set up the school in 1996. "They have lost so much through war and poverty and they recognise that education is the only way to improve their situation. Our pupils are the sons and daughters of labourers, domestic servants, market-sellers. Their parents probably cannot read or write - adult literacy among refugees is just 25 per cent. By the time the children leave here they have the foundations of a basic education in reading, writing and arithmetic. We are helping ourselves where the government will not."

Beneath the happy cries of the pupils splashing each other with water from the school's recently drilled well, the strains are clear. The school says some 80 per cent of the parents and pupils want to return to the south and so persists in teaching in English, translating the cumbersome text books of Koranic verses for subjects as diverse as maths and food preparation.

In January, a peace agreement between the Khartoum government and the former rebel army of the south, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), heralded a fragile peace. But so far just five families have actually made the trip by river steamer down the Nile from the deserts of the north to the lush tropical zones of the south. Doubt over the stability of the peace agreement, which will result in a vote on secession for the south in 2011 - which most southerners insist will result in independence - as well as a lack of infrastructure mean that there is almost nothing for those in the camps to return to.

In the meantime, however, Salaama school must struggle with day-to-day survival, juggling its meagre resources in what one teacher called the " silent war" of official disapproval and forced clearances.

As Boniface Mono, the deputy headteacher of Kimu Charitable School, just half a mile away from Salaama and also supported by Education Action, put it: "People who come to the camps have suffered trauma. They have anger in their hearts and sadness.

"Perhaps people like me from the south will be gone in 10 years. But in Sudan, others will always come to take our places. They will need the schools. They are something of which we can be very proud."

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