Some people have asked us, and indeed we have sometimes asked ourselves, if we felt that we had achieved anything during our time in Rumbek. The question is not as straightforward as it sounds.
We were sent to Rumbek to work with the Ministry of Education as Advisers. Our brief was not well defined and our placement was only sketchily prepared. VSO’s programme in South Sudan was set up in a great rush in the euphoria of post-independence and under pressure from the British Department for International Development and too little work went into the negotiation and preparation of some of the placements, including ours.
With a few exceptions, staff in the Ministry where Linda worked and at the County Office where I was based, were friendly and welcoming, but, owing to their backgrounds and the effects of the decades of civil war, they were very inexperienced and in many cases, completely under-qualified to do the jobs that they held. As a result, they had little idea about how to use our services and it was left to us to decide how we could best make a contribution to the work of the Ministry. So we did.
Did we save the world? No, we didn’t. There is an awful lot of world still left and it is still in need of some serious saving.
Did we transform the education and the lives of thousands of children in Lakes State? No, we didn’t. The challenges facing the education system in South Sudan are going to take decades of ‘small steps and little pushes’ forward and there will need to be some fundamental changes in attitude and practice before it will change substantially.
So what did we do? Another good question! Well, these are a few examples.
At the request of the Minister of Education, who was shortly afterwards replaced, Linda spent a couple of months guiding and shepherding the various departmental Directors at the Ministry through a protracted exercise to draw up a policy framework governing all of the work of the Ministry in Lakes State.
I tried to explain and introduce a school inspection framework that was aimed at giving education managers the necessary tools to carry out school inspections against an agreed set of quality standards.
Linda acted as the link person between the Director of Alternative Education and Save the Children in trying to improve the way SCFs funds were being used to support the education of thousands of over-aged ‘learners’ who, because of the civil war had missed out on their education when they were children.
I visited numerous schools with the County School Inspectors, discussing questions of school management, in particular trying to convince teachers that being observed during their teaching in the classroom could be a developmental tool and not a career threatening imposition.
Together we critiqued and corrected all sorts of government and NGO training materials and, working with Ministry exam-setters, corrected and redrafted examination papers. We contributed to the training of a large number of un-trained teachers in primary Science, (Linda) and English, (me) and we ran seminars for headteachers and education managers on gender issues and school management.
But probably our biggest contribution was in just being there. South Sudan has been isolated and insulated from the rest of the world for the last hundred years. Many of our colleagues had no experience of life outside of Rumbek, let alone outside the country.
Our day-to-day working practice was often a revelation to those with whom we worked. Being in the office first thing in the morning and still there in the afternoon was quite unusual in itself. The fact that we were a married couple working together was just mind-boggling. In particular the fact that, before running training sessions or seminars we could be seen doing the initial planning together and then sharing the facilitation of the workshops was an insight into how women and men can work together that was difficult for some colleagues to fathom.
Often, Linda was the only woman taking part in any of the training courses and the fact that she led many of the sessions was a revelation. She was particularly impressed when one of the senior men in the Ministry, with whom she had been working for a couple of hours correcting exam papers, sat back, looked at her and said “You may be an old woman, but you are as intelligent as me!” She didn’t know whether to be flattered or to thump him. She didn’t thump him.
Our marital situation was a constant source of comment and enquiry with colleagues and trainees during coffee breaks at seminars. “What? Only one wife? And married for over 31 years? And why do you only have two children?” What kind of a man are you? And you didn’t have to pay any cows for Linda? What kind of a woman is she?
In so many ways, we were a window on an outside world about which colleagues knew little or nothing. Our job was to show that there were schools and ministries beyond the borders of South Sudan where people had different ideas and had found different solutions to familiar problems; that other counties thought differently about how society should be organised and about how men and women, boys and girls should behave and be treated.
Did it make any difference? Who knows? It could be that the waters will have closed over as soon as we left and if that is the case, so be it. But there is just a chance that we have started a few trains of thought chuffing through the minds of a few people, that we have challenged a few stereotypes. We hope that we encouraged some people to explore some different ways of thinking about things, and if that’s all there is, maybe it’s as much as we could expect in sixteen months.
Are we glad we went? You bet we are! We wouldn’t have missed it for the world! Living in Rumbek was not easy, and in the hot season, the climate was vicious. It introduced us to a whole new dimension of sweat. There were no supermarkets, no tarmac and nothing to do in the evenings most of the time. There were cows, dust, ‘tukuls’ and AK47s all over the place. But for us it was an absolute privilege to have been able to see a part of Africa that is at a stage of develop that much of the rest of the continent passed fifty years ago.
What is going on in South Sudan is just tragic. After all of the hope and optimism of Independence three years ago, it is really sad to see the country tearing itself apart, but even with all of the trouble going on at the moment, South Sudan will develop. It has everything that it needs to become a prosperous country. It has land, it has water and sunshine and plenty of manpower. Once the fighting stops and peace is achieved, foreign investment will follow, oil will continue to be exported and development will happen. At that point, people’s living standards will start to improve and before long Starbucks and McDonalds will be there.
We were lucky to see a snapshot of a fascinating society. It will soon disappear.
We are very sad to have had to leave South Sudan in the state it is in. For the next few years, the work of the aid agencies will have to be re-geared towards humanitarian relief and disaster aid rather than development, so there won’t be a role for VSO until the security situation settles down.
We just consider ourselves very lucky to have been given the chance to live in South Sudan and, for the sake of all of the people we met and got to know, we just hope that peace will come soon.