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Education Conundrum

February 11, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

Miguel and I spent a good deal of time the last few days at three Kurmuk schools that scrape by with the support of local and international development agencies. All are grossly under-resourced, with environments that are hardly conducive to learning.

Students must crowd onto UNICEF-provided desks, use plastic chairs or sit on the floor. One school is literally crumbling, none has anything close to a library or a science lab, and there's hardly a textbook in sight. They only go up to grade eight, and there's nothing in the district for students who want to advance beyond that.

Many Sudanese are now returning to Kurmuk from refugee camps in Ethiopia, where their kids attended classes taught in English. Many would like their children to continue learning in English, but until now, government support has been limited to schools that teach in Arabic and follow the official curriculum. Sudan's interim constitution, written after the 2005 peace accord, prohibits "discrimination against the use of either Arabic or English at any level of government or stage of education." Disagreement remains, however, over what is to be taught in schools and how.

"Education presents a huge potential for conflict," says Marco Pfister, who manages Mercy Corps' program to strengthen civil-society organizations in Kurmuk County. "All the problems that led to civil war are here. Whose history do you teach? How do you deal with religion? What is the language of instruction? We're not taking sides on these issues; we're trying to facilitate a community dialogue around them."

So, for two days last week, Mercy Corps hosted a discussion among teachers, parents and community-group leaders. The objective: to identify the challenges the community faces when it comes to education, and to try to reach some consensus on how to proceed.

Hellene Samia Rajab, one of six teachers on the payroll (there are also four volunteers) of the 560-student Kurmuk Model School, organized the forum. In addition to being a teacher, she also manages the finances of a local nonprofit that teaches sewing and adult literacy classes.

"Mercy Corps is really helping us," she said. "In December we heard a presentation by the UN on Human Rights Day that focused a lot on education. Someone suggested we hold a separate dialogue on education. We submitted a proposal to Mercy Corps to help us."

That proposal led to last week's dialogue, which was held in Mercy Corps' Civil Society Resource Center, a popular compound in the middle of town that features meeting space and a computer lab. We also provided the group with materials, lunch and facilitation help. When Miguel and I stopped by near the end of the first day, dozens of flip-chart sheets listing objectives, problems and solutions showed proof of progress. "We are getting closer," Hellene said later. "But we still have several steps to go."

One of those steps is a dialogue that includes teachers from Kurmuk's Arabic-language school, who weren't able to attend this last one because of a conflicting event. Then there will be a workshop for parents. And finally, if a consensus can be reached, the group plans to approach state education officials — who have temporarily moved their offices to Kurmuk this month and next — to find common ground.

One student who attended last week's forum, 16-year-old Omeima, told me she hopes the government-community dialogue results in more support for her school, Comboni. When empty, the forlorn brick building looks like an Indiana Jones movie set — complete with a crumbling staircase, weeds sprouting from the roof gutter and the strong scent of abandonment.

Omeima's dream is to attend a well-built school with sufficient teachers, textbooks and furnishings. To her, it's a vision worth pursuing. "I participated in last week's dialogue because I want to encourage other girls to participate. And also because if there is a dialogue with government, I want to be there."