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Ducking Antonovs an everyday reality in south Sudan classroom

In south Sudan, students constantly keep one ear on the teacher and the other on the distant whine of the Antonov, a Russian-made aircraft that the Sudan government uses to bomb villages and other places in the south. This article, reprinted from Catholic News Service, looks at the situation in Narus, where an American delegation toured at the beginning of May
Cathy Majtenyi

A children’s song and dance portrayed for Americans the reality of life in southern Sudan. "If the Antonov is coming, we run to the bush," the boys sang as they pointed to the sky, covered their heads, and made jogging motions as part of their dance. An Antonov is a Russian-made aircraft that the Sudanese government uses to drop bombs.

"We are suffering in southern Sudan," they sang.

All across southern Sudan, students such as those attending the Comboni Boys’ School in Narus continue to run from their classrooms to bomb shelters during the decades-old conflict, the latest round of which is entering its 19th year.

Of the many causes of the civil war, one thing is certain: The continued warfare in southern Sudan is having a profound impact on the way children learn.

"The ears have to be out to listen whether the plane is coming, because it has a different sound," said Sister Gilda Anzoa, headmistress of the secondary school section of St. Bakhita Girls’ School.

"The moment the children hear this, they can just jump out of the class and run; the lesson has to be interrupted," she said. "But after that, if it passes or if it is not the one, they come back and try to settle down."

However, the constant interruptions and terror that accompany these dashes take their toll, said Sister Anzoa, a member of the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church.

"When you come back, you cannot really concentrate as you could concentrate if there was no interruption," she said.

Father Paul Sebit, a diocesan priest who is chaplain at St. Bakhita Girls’ School and Comboni Boys’ School, said students often show high levels of anger and aggressiveness in and outside the classroom. The behaviour, he said, is often a reaction to extreme trauma, such as witnessing a parent being shot and killed.

Sometimes, students seek Father Sebit’s help. Others are brought to his office by school staff. He begins by asking them the cause of their anger.

The counselling sessions centre on one-on-one therapy and Bible study. Eventually, the student "will become a bit friendly," Father Sebit said.

As another stress reducer, students are encouraged to beat their chests Tarzan-style while chanting, "Trauma, run away. Trauma, run away," until the fear passes.

Unlike other areas in the South, Narus has been relatively quiet for the past year. In April 2001, the Sudanese government dropped two bombs near St. Bakhita School. One student was injured, and flying shrapnel damaged several of the school’s buildings; some of the walls remain gouged by holes.

After a bombing raid in December 1998, 26 girls were pulled out of St. Bakhita School by their parents.

The school has 600 primary school students from across southern Sudan. Last year, the school opened two lower grades of a secondary school, which now has an additional 33 students.

St. Bakhita’s, a Torit diocesan school run by the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church, is the only girls’ boarding school in southern Sudan.

The nearby Comboni Boys’ School, which opened in 1997 and now has 450 students, almost did not exist because of the possibility that the boys might provide the Sudan People’s Liberation Army with ready labour to fight the government.

"We were afraid that if we brought boys together, they would be taken for the army," said Bishop Paride Taban of Torit.

Bishop Taban said he told the rebel army that the church would not open any boys’ schools unless the rebels promised to not conscript them.

"In the end, they (rebels) committed themselves that they are not going to do that," Bishop Taban said. He then invited the Comboni Missionaries to set up the school, which the St. Martin Brothers now operate.

The trauma of the conflict is the tip of the iceberg for students in schools in southern Sudan. Students have to contend with an educational system that has virtually collapsed and, in some cases, with cultural beliefs that hold them back.

There is no money to build and run schools, purchase textbooks and supplies, pay teachers and meet other expenses. At St. Bakhita and Comboni Boys’, less than half of the families pay the $13 annual tuition; missionaries and nongovernmental organizations cover the rest.

Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ international relief and development agency, provides a feeding program for the two schools, as well as funds to build and maintain the schools. Support also comes from the World Food Program, UNICEF and others.

Nelly Maina, education and scholarships coordinator at the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Regional Conference based in Nairobi, said schools in southern Sudan do not follow a common curriculum or standards. As a result, schools follow the Ugandan or Kenyan curricula, or a combination of both, making it difficult for students to pursue higher education, she said.

Many of the teachers are untrained, and some have a minimum of education, she said. Seven percent of the estimated 7,000 teachers across southern Sudan are women. Since there is no money to pay teachers, most receive a small token of "payment in kind" such as food.

Twenty-five percent of southern Sudanese children of school-going age attend school, Maina said; 27 percent of those are female. More than half of the girls drop out in primary school because they are expected to marry or take care of the family.

"A whole generation as it is has missed education," said Maina. "So you can imagine trying to start from scratch again. A nation without skilled people, where is it going? Who will be the future leaders? Who will be able to take on development when peace comes through?"

Reprinted with permission from CNS.

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