Ken Thesings work in Sudan

Building New Sudan

by Sean Sprague; From the pages of Maryknoll Magazine Dec 05, 2008
Catholic aid agency gives war-ravaged South Sudanese new hope through education

Nine-year-old Josephine carries not only her books and pens to school, but also balances on her head a small wooden stool to sit on when she gets there. Her classroom has no furniture. After walking four miles along a dusty road past tiny farms, she joins 140 other enthusiastic students crowded into one schoolroom. A few, like Josephine, sit on their stools, while most sit on the concrete floor, but they don’t mind. The amenities in this typical South Sudan school might be frugal, but the children want to learn.

This community in the city of Yei is finally enjoying peace following a 21-year civil war in which 2.5 million people died and another 4.6 million were displaced. After hiding for years in the forests or fleeing over the border to refugee camps in neighboring Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Congo, or north to displaced persons’ camps within their own country, the people of South Sudan have now returned to piece their lives back together. Since 2005, when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement made South Sudan autonomous, foreign aid agencies such as Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) have been assisting the fledgling government of the region in building what is known optimistically as New Sudan.

JRS, an international Catholic relief agency that provided schooling for Sudanese in refugee camps, continues to make education its main priority for returned refugees in four districts of South Sudan. “JRS has no schools but supports efforts of the local community to provide education in the area,” says Maryknoll Father Kenneth Thesing, director of the JRS project in Sudan. “We keep telling the local government, ‘JRS is here to accompany, serve and advocate for your people.’ ”

Reflecting on the suffering these people have endured, the missioner from Lewiston, Minnesota, explains that the conflict between the Arab Muslim North and black Christian and animist South was not a war over religion. “The problem in recent decades,” says Thesing, “is that the Khartoum government has been trying to impose Arabic culture and an extreme form of Islam upon the whole country, a concept alien to the largely non-Muslim South, and indeed to most Muslim parts of the country, which traditionally practice a moderate form of Islam. From the South’s point of view, it has been a fight for a multiethnic and multireligious New Sudan, based on real democracy and respect for human rights.”

John Garang, a freedom fighter in the South who died in a plane crash soon after the signing of the peace treaty in 2005, was the main proponent of the New Sudan concept. A referendum is to be held in 2011 when the Southerners can vote to either remain an autonomous region within Sudan or secede from the country. “We hope they will vote for unity,” says Thesing.

While South Sudan holds some hope for continued peace, the country as a whole is often considered one of the more dysfunctional in Africa. The largest in area on the continent, and with an estimated population of 40 million, it is beset by uprisings in all directions, South, East and, notoriously, Darfur in the West, where genocide continues.

Yei with its lush vegetation and rainy tropical climate is a world away from Darfur and Khartoum and is quietly getting on with things. Children like Josephine are going to school, their parents growing maize and beans and keeping a few goats, selling some of their produce and trying to keep up with school fees. But life is a constant struggle.

Agencies like JRS offer hope. JRS, which opened its first South Sudan mission in 1997, today employs some 90 staff members, 90 percent of whom are South Sudanese. The 40 to 50 schools JRS assists still use the curricula used in the refugee camps in Uganda and Kenya, but JRS and other NGOs are helping them develop a new Sudanese curriculum.

Teacher training, says Thesing, is an important part of JRS’ work in South Sudan, as well as running adult literacy courses, which often incorporate income-generation training. “We help integrate returned fighters into society by offering them new skills,” says Thesing, a former Maryknoll Superior General who served previously in Tanzania and Mozambique.

JRS , he adds, pays particular attention to educating girls, who are more prone to fall behind in developing countries. “In our service we have a bias toward girls, to try to redress the cultural imbalance,” says the missioner. “It is very important to educate girls, who will form families and keep the culture alive.”

Besta Nyoka is a good example. The bright, 18-year-old, who attends Yei High School, says, “We lived in a refugee camp in Uganda, where I finished seventh grade. We returned to Yei 16 months ago. Now I am finishing my studies in this new school in Yei. My dream is to be a lawyer.” Helping such students, says Thesing, gives him great satisfaction as does helping their country get on its feet.

JRS, he explains, is intent on building peace. “We have developed a peace education curriculum and materials to be taught in primary schools, which have been accepted by the South Sudan government,” Thesing says. “We train and pay the salaries of peace advisers, who in turn train voluntary peace facilitators to work in the villages and deal with issues such as domestic violence, ethnic conflicts and land disputes.” JRS, he adds, is also working to prepare the people to vote responsibly in 2011.

Thesing is well aware of the challenges facing New Sudan. Pointing to warning signs in the region that tell drivers to stay on the track because of land mines buried on the edge and U.N. advisories urging motorists to travel with armed escorts because of roving bandits, he says he prays daily that peace will prevail. Meanwhile local farmers of Yei get on with planting their fields, building their houses and putting the past behind them. Eager girls like Josephine carry a stool on their heads to school to get a good education and make the most of their lives.The Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers assumed responsibility for this area in January, 1998. We came to begin this new mission project at the request of the Bishop, Dom Luis Gonzaga Ferreira da Silva, S.J. He lacked the personnel to name a resident pastor/priests to this parish which area is the same as the Lake District.