By Lorenzo Alvaro (vita.it)
A few days after the attacks of Paris brought extremist violence to Europe, eleven students embodied a sign of hope and peace in South Sudan, a country torn apart by four years of tribal clashes. These eleven students graduated from St. Mary’s University with degrees in education.
"These degrees, obtained despite the civil war and the worst food crisis of the planet, represent an example of how education can be a real antidote against violence. From now on, a very important job awaits them; they will become teachers in a country where 60% of the population is less than 15 years old and where only 24% can read and write. They will help build a brighter future for South Sudan,” said Mauro Giacomazzi of the Luigi Giussani Institute of Higher Education (LGIHE) in Kampala. In the last four years he has been following closely AVSI’s project at St. Mary’s.
The St. Mary’s University was created in 2009 in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, by the Archbishop HE Paulino L. Loro to respond to the critical gap in South Sudan of native professionals in necessary functions like nurses and school teachers. St. Mary’s University enjoys full recognition by government bodies in South Sudan.
In this interview, Mauro Giacomazzi explains how difficult it is to work in education in South Sudan:
In difficult moments like the ones we experience today, marked by terrorist attacks and masses of people forced to flee their homes because of war and persecution, what do these eleven degrees represent?
These eleven students represent a sign of hope. With this graduation, not only will their future change, but also that of their pupils. By this achievement, they demonstrate that even those who need a great deal of assistance to achieve their goal have no choice but to share the message of hope they learn when they finally finish, even if they do so merely by existing..
Who are these eleven students and what kind of challenges have they faced in these four years of study?
Teenagers, women, men. Each has their own unique story. But more than anything, they were all incredibly strong. When this program started four years ago, we had 51 students, however 40 of them were not able to graduate. Some of our students were already working as elementary school teachers during the day, and had to study in the afternoon. Many had to prepare for the tests while simultaneous taking care of their families. I still remember that one of our students never stopped coming to her classes even while she was pregnant. She even came to school the same day she gave birth and 15 days later she resumed her studies bringing the baby with her.
During these four years, a myriad of things happened, some very dramatic, what were the main challenges in the midst of them?
St. Mary’s is a very young university and we’ve had to deal with a recently established Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. We’ve had to change our curriculum at least five times, because every time a new secretary was appointed (and we had many in the last four years) he had new ideas and wanted to change the strategy. Just to give you an idea, initially it was a three-year degree, then it became two years, and finally, again was reestablished as a three-year degree. The higher education admission requirements have been defined by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology only a year ago, and our students were officially accepted only two months ago. I’m talking about this because it was something that really affected all of us. Obviously, we cannot forget that we were also going through a civil war, which is still a reality in this country, and in many occasions we had to close our college for a few months. Each time, our students were able to carry on while college helped them to dream about a better and more ’normal’ life, even in the most difficult moments.
How important is this graduation for South Sudan?
I believe that one of the most beautiful things in life is the opportunity to give somebody a glimmer of hope, but we are only able to communicate this hope when we really experience the life of the other person. In a nation so young but so battered, I believe we are blessed to have a place like this, born from the idea that even the most excruciating circumstances are worth living; and to live means to think about the future.
The UN has recently declared that at least 30,000 people in South Sudan are facing starvation and nearly 4 million - particularly young children - face severe hunger because of the civil war. Why has AVSI, in addition to a few ongoing nutritional projects, decided to support education and this college in particular?
Education and nutrition are not unrelated. A person needs to eat, but without hope in the future everything dies anyway. Let’s think for a minute about what is causing the starvation in South Sudan. Is it only because of natural causes? Has fighting disrupted harvests? How can we stop the violence and the war? How can we help the population now, tomorrow and next year? Altruism and the pursuit of the common good must be discovered by each individual. That’s why, while supporting nutritional projects, AVSI is also always investing on a factor that might generate a new humanity: education. We believe that if a humanitarian intervention is not accompanied by an educational process it only creates dependency in the communities.
What is the future of this project?
We have never thought of St. Mary’s as a project. For us, it’s an action. We will support it up to the moment that our presence is no longer necessary. Since our goal is to help the college grow, we are seeking approval from the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology for two new degrees: a Graduate Diploma in Teaching (primary school) for those students who can come regularly to class while they teach at local elementary schools and a Certificate in Teaching (primary school) for those who haven’t yet graduated from high school but are already teaching. We are talking about two very flexible and quick ways to get a degree.
South Sudan faces an educational emergency so we need to have teachers even if they are minimally qualified. Currently, many teachers begin to work without a real degree or without a degree that is specifically related to their job. The country needs them and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology cannot afford to lose teachers simply because they don’t have a degree. We thought that the smartest way to address the Ministry of Education’s demand was to propose degree paths that could better meet the needs of those who are already in the system, even if only as a volunteer.
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