When I joined The Banaa Student Group over a year ago, I knew education was beneficial, but I was naïve as to how much. I have been amazed at how knowledgeable the Banaa Scholars are and at how seriously they take their education. Sudan and South Sudan need well-rounded people that are committed to a peaceful future for the countries. South Sudan is in dire need of committed people for education development, as it has one of the worst education systems in the world. The positive externalities associated with education are bountiful; the least of which are health development and peacebuilding.
South Sudan’s desire to develop and provide for its people is in stark contrast with its reality. South Sudan is believed to have the world’s worst literacy rate.1 It’s such a shame because the people of South Sudan have shown a high resilience and commitment to education. Survey evidence shows that South Sudanese parents identify schooling, alongside food and water, as being a major priority.2 According to a review written by former Prime Minister of the UK, Gordon Brown, “education has the potential to deliver an early, large and highly visible peace dividend.”2
To give due diligence, there is an education system that was in place at the time of the 2005 CPA peace accords. The Government of South Sudan did lay out an education strategy. However, only the initial foundations are in place, heavily supported by donors and NGOs, which have found ways of delivering results while helping to build up government capacity. Yet progress made is constantly threatened because of an economic and institutional deficiency in the country. One of the biggest examples of this deficiency is the lack of quantity and quality of schools and teachers.
Many teachers do not know how to manage a classroom full of students with different abilities and needs. One reason for this lack of quantity is that a generation of South Sudanese adults have been deprived of basic education.3 Another reason is the country’s decision to switch from Arabic to English as the language of instruction while many of the better qualified adults are learnt in Arabic.
This dearth of quality is why South Sudan ranks second to last in secondary education out of 134 countries. 2 The system of higher education in South Sudan is even worse. Not only are new universities suffering, which were set up to become centers of excellence in specific subjects, but so are established universities, like the University of Juba, which is suffering through economic and institutional deficiencies as well.3 For example, the University of Rumbek was meant to serve as colleges of education, economics, medicine, and agriculture. The first two have opened, only to be closed abruptly last year.3 It also does not help that there are ongoing conflicts with Sudan over oil.
So how impactful can Banaa be on one of the worst education systems in the world? All we can do is produce drops in a very large bucket, but the ripples that emerge have the potential to be very large indeed. South Sudan needs well-rounded people, within its own borders, who are committed to a peaceful future for their country. This is a defining aspect of being a Banaa Scholar. A commitment to peace means a commitment to education. Banaa Scholars have a high regard for education because of their own experience. They are future leaders in improving their country’s education. Educating a Sudanese and South Sudanese is not just about helping one person; it is about giving the critical tools that will allow passionate people to effectively help their country develop in a sustainable manner. The Scholars also serve as a vital link between Sudanese diaspora in the United States and the Sudanese communities back home. With the first Banaa Scholar, Makwei Mabior Deng, back in South Sudan, the country and its education system can only become better from the efforts of Makwei and future South Sudanese Banaa graduates!
George Washington University Class of 2014
Most of us tend to take our education for granted; we expect to be taught and for our teachers to be qualified to do the job well. What if we were students in a school in South Sudan? Teachers there are often under qualified for high school lessons, because their own education has been poor. They come to the classroom with low literacy skills and are only able to teach to their level. On top of this, students recently sat new high school exams in the country, but some questions were missing and others asked about parts of the syllabus that had not been covered, leading to a frustrating situation, as entry to university in Sudan hinges on exam performance.
This is why Banaa is so important to the future of Sudan’s education. Students who have been marginalized and have suffered in their troubled country need to be supported and they need to receive the best education to make sure they can take the skills they learn in the U.S back to Sudan in the future. Students need empowering, not repressing.
Teachers Need Teaching
VOA News reported on the problem of under-qualified teachers in Sudan early in May this year. Less than 5 per cent of teachers in South Sudan have the skills to teach in schools, said education officials. Around 3 per cent of teachers in the region had been taught at college or university; most of the teachers had stopped learning after secondary school.
The government in South Sudan has introduced a training initiative for teachers to enable them to become better qualified for the job. This was organized by SSTEP, the South Sudan Teacher Education Program and teachers throughout the region took part because they understand how important a good education is.
Other factors come into play however, such as low pay and not enough textbooks, making the training an uphill struggle. Conditions need to improve, so that teachers and students have a better experience in schools. At Banaa, Sudanese students benefit from the scholarships that are offered to them. If these students can return to Sudan in the future, armed with the solid skills to promote economic development and improved education, the tide will surely turn. Students benefit from a quality education through the Banaa initiative, providing them with valuable skills in mathematics, literacy and life sciences that they would not learn in such depth in Sudan’s current education climate. The more specialized areas of molecular biology and biotechnology are growing in popularity as fields of study, and through Banaa scholarships, students can learn these subjects in depth and implement what they learn when they return to Sudan.
High School Exams Flawed
For students in Sudan to gain a place at university, they must sit an exam. The first national high school papers were set in March this year, to a level of excitement among teachers and students alike, but frustratingly, many questions were missing and there was a long wait for the actual papers to arrive from Juba, South Sudan. The Sudan Tribune reported that many of the students had to wait half a day for the papers to be delivered and when they finally came, questions were missing, the exams were confusing and contained many mistakes.
The new education system in South Sudan means that this year is the first year for students to sit exams. The initiative has been received well, but parents, students and teachers are now frustrated at the mistakes that have been made and the risk it puts youngsters in for not gaining a university place because of the exams.
A Lack of Books
Students in South Sudan have to share textbooks, and sometimes up to 9 students might be trying to read the same book, according to allafrica.com, the South Sudan News Agency. A shortage of books, along with overcrowding in classrooms, has led to many youngsters failing to complete their primary education. The parliamentary committee has recently been given new primary books in a drive to improve conditions in the region.
Banaa Promotes Quality Education
Banaa offers scholarships to inspiring applicants from Sudan, with a focus on equality for all. This gives students the best possible education and once their studies are over, they return to Sudan to help marginalized communities and to promote peace in their country. Banaa can change lives with its education initiative. This is vital for Sudan’s future peacekeepers, scientists, economists and teachers, as education is the best way of shaping the community and improving the undesirable conditions of many who live in the shadow of oppression.
A new fan of Banaa not to be mistaken with Eve Gray!
In my first semester at GW, I joined an organization called Banaa.org because I was impressed with its story and mission. Student activists influenced the university to leverage its educational resources to help bring peace to conflict-ridden Sudan by awarding a scholarship to a Sudanese student. Two years later, I realize that working with Banaa has helped me grow immensely as a young professional, but the greatest impact on my life comes from the friendship I developed with Makwei, the Banaa scholar.
Makwei, raised in a refugee camp since age seven, would certainly have much to teach someone like me who is interested in international affairs and conflict resolution. I remember briefly speaking with him once about the UN’s involvement in Sudan and the pastoral lifestyle of the Dinka in South Sudan. But after taking Modern Philosophy together in the spring of my freshman year, philosophy always became the center of our conversations. The first time I talked with him after class he explained how much his mind was opened by taking philosophy, a subject that he never had the chance of studying.
I remember meeting up with him for lunch one Saturday shortly thereafter; we sat in the restaurant debating about the existence of the universe for four hours! Sadly for the universe I was not able to provide him with a convincing argument. Even sadder to me is the fact that Makwei is graduating this spring. I will miss him and his skeptical nature after he flies back across the Atlantic, but I know he will keep touching the lives of those around him in his home nation.
I never would have met Makwei if it were not for Banaa, which is why I am so happy to be part of the organization. I am thrilled to say that GW will be welcoming its second Banaa scholar this upcoming semester. I look forward to meeting the newest scholar, whom I promise to convince, in Makwei’s honor, that the universe does exist.
—This piece was originally submitted to the George Washington University Philosophy Department Spring 2012 Newsletter—
George Washington University Class of 2014