Sudan's eager learners

Twenty years of civil war have left many Sudanese people uneducated and illiterate. Grace McCann visits a nation where hope is, finally, overcoming fear

I get a shock when I enter Nuorein Dongrin's classroom. One of several small mud-brick buildings that make up an adult education centre in Rumbek, southern Sudan, it looks like it would hold about 20 students. As my eyes adjust to the dark, I find myself staring at nearly 50 faces.

I get a shock when I enter Nuorein Dongrin's classroom. One of several small mud-brick buildings that make up an adult education centre in Rumbek, southern Sudan, it looks like it would hold about 20 students. As my eyes adjust to the dark, I find myself staring at nearly 50 faces.

The students are squashed on to low wooden seats. Most of them are women and many erupt into fits of giggles at the sight of their khawaja (white person) visitor. My plan to sit in on the class unobtrusively, to learn about adult education southern Sudan-style, now seems a bit naive. There isn't a spare seat, and the students kindly fuss around me, insisting that I sit at the front, which displaces one of them to an already squashed row further back. "Pay attention; keep quiet; don't laugh!" bellows the teacher.

These adults are aged between 20 and 35. But they are being taught like children because the brutal civil war that has raged in Sudan during the past 20 years has denied them an education. Rumbek, one of the largest towns in the south, was occupied by government forces, with the local secondary school used as a barracks. The fighting, between the northern-based government's militias and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) from the impoverished south, and related famine, has killed two million people. Women now outnumber men in the south by more than two to one.

There has been a ceasefire since October 2002. Schools have reopened and adult education initiatives have sprung up. There will be no education budget until peace becomes official. Charities such as Unicef are helping to fund some of the projects, but the overwhelming driving force behind them is the desire of the people to learn.

The adult education centre was set up by an astonishing woman, who is illiterate. Monica Ayen runs the Panda hotel, one of various basic boarding compounds in Rumbek which have opened in response to the influx of non-governmental organisation workers into peaceful southern Sudan. Speaking in Dinka, the language of the local tribe of the same name, Monica tells me through an interpreter that Panda means "our home". She called it that because "we were chased away and so we were happy to come back".

Women like Monica are playing an unprecedented role in southern Sudan. Through education projects, they are helping to rebuild the region and gain influence for women. Men have traditionally held the power. Girls are kept away from school, babysitting for younger siblings and cooking for their brothers until they are married off in exchange for the biggest dowry (in the traditional currency of cattle) they can attract. "It's like an auction," says Dolly Anek, a Sudanese refugee based in Kenya. "A girl may be worth up to 500 cows."

Dolly works for Skills for Southern Sudan. The charity trains women in leadership skills, such as team-building and time management, then gives them small grants to set up centres like Panda, where they can become self-sufficient and train other women. Monica has been through the Skills training, and has an assistant on "work attachment" with her, who will soon be taking her new hotel management skills back to her home town.

Another women's training centre in Rumbek has a three-year plan but no funds. Unicef has recently donated a maize grinder to generate income. An English-language course is a priority for the centre, but there is no money to pay for a teacher, says the manager. She and her colleagues are trying to organise paralegal training for women. They are lobbying for equal rights for women under the laws to be drawn up under the anticipated administration. Women in the region have no legal rights. They can be thrown into prison for adultery if they have been raped.

The women are angry about being treated like property, lumbered with an unfair share of child-rearing and farming work, and denied educational opportunities. "Men have so many chances," says one of the women. She cannot help feeling resentful that a man who was a fellow student is now her boss. He is Philip Mapuor, who runs Africa Educational Trust's adult education centre in Rumbek. Some of the town's most educated people, almost all of them men, have been taking a distance-learning, public administration certificate via the centre, with a view to filling important jobs in the new administration. They have finished the course - provided by a South African university - but have walked to the centre, some from many miles away, to tell me that they are desperate for further opportunities.

One of them, Sunday Manyang, says he is feeling ill and will not be able to speak well, but wanted to say how much the course has helped him. In fact, he speaks eloquently. He says he has learnt that valuing people is the key to good management. "Without training, people do not manage well," he says. Another student, Marial Amuom, a primary school headteacher, agrees. "Most administration has to be done through common sense," he says. "I was seconded as a teacher when I had not even attended a course for one day." One of the female students, Natalina Chukudum, erupts in frustration. "We are fed up with this certificate," she says. The students want to be able to take diplomas and degrees.

But finishing the certificate has been hard enough. It is almost impossible for some students to finish the reading for the course because they have to trek to the centre to do it in the library. "Most of us do not have salaries, so we are working night and day to feed our kids," says student Marial Nuor. It is a measure of how keen people are to learn that some educated people are offering classes in their homes and many adults are attending schools. But many teachers in schools and adult education centres are untrained and progress can be painfully slow.

Some of the textbooks I look at contain mistakes. And it is hard to stay motivated when there is no clear goal in sight. There are 200 students in the first year of Rumbek Secondary School, where the students are aged between about 17 and 27, and only 20 in the last year. There are only four students in the most advanced class at the adult education centre run by Monica Ayen.

Education will be a top priority in the new administration, according to Kosti Manibe, the SPLM's commissioner for education, but he cannot say when a peace deal will be struck. Difficulties such as the crisis in Darfur are threatening to derail the process. In the meantime, students like Marial Amuom are getting increasingly desperate about their lack of opportunities. "We are fed up of war," he says. "We are born in the war, we live in the war - are we going to die in the war?"

Contact Africa Educational Trust ( www.africaed.org) and Skills for Southern Sudan ( www.windle.org.uk). Both charities are members of the Consortium for Education and Training for Southern Sudan ( www.sudan-education.org)

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