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How Catholic Nuns, Priests are Keeping over 10,000 South Sudanese Children in School

Members of the Society of Daughters of Mary Immaculate (DMI) and the Missionaries of Mary Immaculate (MMI) serving in South Sudan.

It has taken the effort of two Religious Orders ministering in South Sudan to build 26 primary schools, which have kept thousands of children in school in the aftermath of the struggle for independence that left many children orphaned in the nine-year-old East-Central African country.

With close to 300 trained teaching and non-teaching staff in South Sudan’s Wau Diocese, Rumbek Diocese, and the Archdiocese of Juba, members of the Society of Daughters of Mary Immaculate (DMI) and the Missionaries of Mary Immaculate (MMI) have been responding to the various needs of community members, providing education and rehabilitation for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

In an interview with ACI Africa, DMI’s South Sudan Country Director, Sr. Jeny Maila said the missionaries currently support over 10,000 children all the way from pre-school through primary school in the country.

Out of the 26 schools, 10 schools are under the members of MMI who serve 3,700 children including those studying under trees in some of their missions centres.

“We have a desire to continue education up to senior level. And we won’t stop there because our founder, Fr. Jesuadimai Emmanuel Arul Raj has the vision of starting a university to ensure that the children study up to tertiary level,” Sr. Maila said in the interview on the sidelines of a COVID-19 workshop that took place at Mary Queen of the Apostles Parish in the Archdiocese of Juba on Saturday, August 22.

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Presently, members of DMI are managing 16 schools in the country, according to the Indian-born nun, and the Congregation anticipates handing over administration to the local communities at the appropriate time.

“Until we see that they are able in their capacities, we will continue to run the schools with our networks such as UNICEF, ministry of education in South Sudan and our local Church,” she said.

She added, “We are now on the process of preparing the communities to be handed over schools and it might take up to three years for the people to be ready to own schools and manage them.”

Sr. Maila further said that after handing over the schools, the missionaries will continue monitoring the schools regularly and offering managerial assistance.

The DMI Sisters in South Sudan started the educational program with Temporary Learning Spaces (TLS) program seven years ago.

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“We saw a number of children becoming orphans with no hope of going to school in 2013 and a lot of children were moving around the communities and in the market places, engaging in anti-social behaviours,” Sr. Maila recalled.

At the beginning of the project, she said, the education program was not based on a syllabus but a formation of the children’s social behavior through games, songs and working together in groups.

“The foundation of our schools was to create an education interest in the children and we worked really hard to motivate parents to bring their children to us,” she further recalled, adding, “The children didn’t begin to read or write considering the very fact that most children didn’t get access to schools before in some areas.”

Once the TLS program was deeply rooted in the culture of South Sudan, the missionaries faced challenges helping the children transition to schools, particularly the lack of resources and the difficulty in finding qualified teachers.

To mitigate shortage of qualified teachers, those overseeing the TLS introduced eight-month residential crush courses for interested candidates after which the teachers are certified on fulfilling the requirements of the country’s ministry of education and allowed to teach in the schools.

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Speaking to ACI Africa at the August 22 event, the Parish Priest of Akon in Wau Diocese and Principal of two MMI schools, Fr. Lio Arochkia Raj said their schools stand out in South Sudan in the area of discipline and service that extends to provision of means to keep learners in school.

The food, donated by World Vision and other agencies, the Cleric said, is used solely for its intended purpose.

In his message to the government of the world’s youngest nation, the Indian-born MMI Cleric criticized some contents of the South Sudanese syllabus.

“My only request for the education to become better in South Sudan is that children be made to learn their own history and what they have in South Sudan,” Fr. Raj said, and added, “Most of the teachers we see in schools come from Uganda because they say if you come from Uganda you are better and up to the mark but most of them don’t know about South Sudan’s affairs.”

Fr. Raj explained, “In areas of politics, history and different disciplines, you see most of it refer to other countries and many South Sudanese may not know how they fought for freedom. It is important that learners learn about their history and their struggles to be able to contribute to a stronger South Sudan.”