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Creating safe spaces for learning

South Sudan, August 7, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Zenaib, who wants to be a doctor when she grows up, is eager to attend school uninterrupted. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Students in Bentiu attend class under the trees and are often sent running for cover when storms bring rain — or threats of violence erupt in the border town. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps is employing people to build temporary learning spaces, many using local materials. The classrooms are outfitted with benches, blackboards, books, pencils and recreational equipment. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

After decades of war, residents of Unity state dreamed of brighter futures last July when they became citizens of the new nation of South Sudan. One year later, however, their optimism has yielded again to fear, as ongoing communal conflicts and violent disputes with Sudan make life in this border region — and throughout the country — unstable.

Last year, Unity alone experienced 18 separate incidents of conflict, including aerial bombings that targeted growing markets and other gathering places in the capital of Bentiu that forced 74,000 to flee their homes. The most recent episodes of violence also disrupted school attendance for more than 18,000 students, like ten-year-old Zenaib.

Outdoor classes don't last long

I met Zenaib one morning in an outdoor classroom with about 30 students. A teacher was lecturing at a blackboard under a tree. There were no desks, no lab equipment, no bathrooms — only cows, and lots of them.

Zenaib was writing studiously, her attention alternately focused on her schoolbook and the teacher writing on the blackboard under the tree. But as dark storm clouds approached and thunder rumbled loudly, she started to look apprehensive.

“Soon we will have to run from class to escape the rain,” she said. “This happens almost every day, right in the middle of class time, so we are always missing class. I want to be a doctor when I grow up, but I don’t know how I can ever have a future without an education.“

Sure enough, the clouds rolled in and the rain started to fall in buckets. Within seconds, class was dismissed, and the students fled for shelter. There would be no more class for today — or tomorrow, since the field would be too muddy to accommodate it.

Unfortunately, Zenaib was all too used to disruptions like this. She spent most of her life during the country’s civil war in refugee camps, returning with her family to their homeland of Bentiu only after the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Sudan and South Sudan was signed. But they found virtually no schools, no medical clinics, little clean water and next to no food.

“We were so excited to be able to go back to our village,” Zenaib told me. “But when we got here we didn’t know how we were going to survive. There was nothing here but landmines and unexploded bombs.”

Building up the basics

Today the basics are still missing. Mothers told me how they struggled to find food each day to feed their families, and how they had to walk long distances to fetch water from filthy swamps because that is the only water available. Ongoing violence complicates efforts to build a new society.

In the midst of this turmoil, girls have suffered most. Only one in three students in Unity state is female, and a third of those drop out before they graduate. Lack of adequate classroom space, overcrowding, and lack of separate and hygienic toilet facilities for girls have all led to dangerously low retention rates.

As part of Mercy Corps’ emergency education program, we are constructing 125 protective temporary learning spaces as well as toilet facilities at the schools, so 17,000 children who have been affected by conflict will be able to attend class in a safe and proper learning environment. Most of these spaces will be built with locally sourced materials such as bamboo and sheets of iron. Others will be tents provided by UNICEF.

Mercy Corps is also providing school supplies like books and blackboards, sport equipment for recreational activities, and training teachers to specifically help children cope with the trauma they have experienced.

The future here remains uncertain. But the hope is that these temporary learning spaces develop into more permanent structures and form an important foundation for progress. "If it wasn’t for the work of Mercy Corps," Zenaib's father told me, "I don’t know how we would manage here."