While I was engaged in the recent discussion on this blog about political action and political commitments, I received a circular email from an old friend and comrade, Judith Baker, about her recent experiences in South Sudan. Judith and I have been friends for twenty-five years, going back to our time together in Harvard/Radcliffe Alumni/ae Against Apartheid. Judith should have graduated from Radcliffe in 1970, but she took part in the Viet Name War protests at Harvard that year, and was bounced. She returned to finish up a year later, and then pursued a career as a teacher in the Boston schools. For as long as I can remember, Judith has been working in Africa [initially in South Africa] to help teachers to learn to teach more effectively. Unlike me, she goes to Africa for weeks or months at a time, not just for quick trips there and back. If I were the pope of a secular church, she would be my first nominee for the rank of secular saint.
Here is the circular letter I received. It is fascinating as a picture of what is happening in South Sudan, but it is also an object lesson in how to be political, which was the subject of my posts and the discussion they engendered. Since she has given me permission to post this letter, I think it would be perfectly all right for you to circulate it in whatever way you wish.
In the past, when I've been in Africa, I've written some sort of letter home to my friends and family. This time I've had a very hard time summoning words for my letter. It's been almost a month since I returned from South Sudan and I have wondered why it's been so hard to say anything when people ask 'how was your trip?'
Finally, though, I think I am beginning to understand why the words have come so slowly. In short, South Sudan made me intensely angry and intensely uncomfortable. Usually I am in Africa working with local teachers and parents who, though they may not have a lot of material resources, may not even have enough to eat or access to health care, have invited me in because they are building something, and while I am there, they are sharing their culture with me, teaching me about themselves and what they believe and care about, singing perhaps, joking, telling stories. But Sudan is a genocidal dictatorship, and the government of Sudan has been bombing and starving its own more marginalized peoples for 30 years, creating vast UN refugee camps and IDP camps [internally displaced people] out of the survivors, destroying the very cultures of those survivors, in order to replace them with favored groups. And because I don't usually write about politics in my Africa letters, I guess it's been hard to write about anything else. My original involvement with Sudan was to work with the MA Coalition for Darfur which was founded to try to stop the ongoing genocide in that part of Sudan, and this was my first actual visit to any part of Sudan. But despite all the survivors I'd met and worked with, all the video footage and news I'd seen, I guess I was not emotionally or spiritually prepared to be part of the reconstruction. I felt totally inadequate, could see very little way to contribute, and it left me with a blankness that I'm determined to overcome, but have not yet conquered. The world's collective inability to protect the Sudanese and the activist community's failure to mobilize adequate response to war and genocide must have created in me a fear of failure greater than I could face in South Sudan. Now that I'm finding the words, perhaps I'll also find some of what I will need.
People in South Sudan [almost the poorest country in the world, although when its oil is developed that will change] became independent last July and the signs of progress are everywhere - buildings going up, hotels being built for the flood of aid workers and business people, even a few tourists, schools and hospitals being sponsored by international allies, regular international flights into the capital of Juba. There is certainly a resilience among the people and palpable dedication to a new way of life. Huge trucks carry food from Uganda and Kenya and business people from Ethiopia and Kenya are opening small hotels and restaurants and shops with credit unavailable as of yet to most Sudanese, who in any case are not as experienced in business. I expected to be inspired and was hoping to be useful in some way to the educators I would be working with, who I had already worked with before and liked.
But what I found was people who have known war all or most of their lives, have had their traditions seriously disrupted, have been forced to depend upon dedicated but underfunded aid agencies and sometimes fickle donors, and have not yet found their balance in a very unbalanced and precarious globalized world in which they are far behind and know it. Traditionally a proud, almost aloof, people, wholly self-reliant and somewhat isolated, now the Dinka [I worked in a Dinka village, but they are one of many South Sudanese cultures] must catch up to the 'modern' and educated world while still at risk of murderous air attacks by the Sudanese army. The contradictions are intense, and I could not negotiate them. I was in awe of the Sudanese women who have been trying to build a network for peace, of My Sister's Keeper for sticking with them and with the Kinyuk School project and trying to widen its reach, and I don't want to write anything which diminishes that hopefulness. But I have to say that I personally am still reaching for the spiritual resources and courage to face the South Sudanese educators and say honestly that I think this or that will work.
This was a short trip - 2 weeks in South Sudan to visit the Kinyuk School for girls, a project of My Sister's Keeper at Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain. Pastor Gloria White-Hammond and Director of MSK Sarah Cleto Rial had gone to Kinyuk recently to administer a test to the students to see if they could get a sense of the educational progress the girls were making. The results were very troubling, with few students below Primary 6 able to write anything from dictation, or to read much more than a few words [in English, the language of school instruction from primary 4 on, and introduced in primary 1]. In response to the assessment results, MSK invited a team of 3 teacher educators from Central Washington University to do an 8 day training for teachers and me to observe and help figure out how to move forward.
This is a primary school, but girls are welcome to enter quite late, so they tend to be older than elementary students in the US. The community is uniformly Dinka, Christian, and cattle herders and the school is located close enough to the Sudan border for people to fear a new outbreak of war which seems in fact to be happening. The area is flat, dry, prairie-like, green in rainy season as long as the rains come, very very hot, and plagued by air that is full of dust in dry season, insects in rainy season. The people are expert at getting the most from their land and their animals. They live in large thatched mud homes in family compounds surrounded by reed fences. There is a bore hole for water and a market, government schools and also Kinyuk, but no hospital or doctor, government offices, obvious police or court, paved roads or public buildings. There is a large Catholic church under construction, and the market has some very small drinking places with tv's. Fewer than half the children go to school as their families can't afford the fees or uniforms, and there is very little employment other than subsistence agriculture, trading, and perhaps, since the country was at war from 1975-2005 and may return to war, the army.
Teachers in South Sudan have had few opportunities for advanced education so one needs only to have successfully completed Primary 4 to teach at the primary level. The district supervisor, a strong and dedicated educational leader, was studying for his secondary school certificate exams when I was there. Until independence, the government of Sudan operated very few colleges or high schools in the South, with most teaching in Arabic, and this lack of services was a primary reason that people in the South rebelled against it. The new government has decreed English as the language of instruction, leaving some experienced teachers at a great disadvantage, although many are trying to complete their secondary education and improve their English skills so they can keep their jobs or perform them well. Salaries are about $100 a month, and some teachers are volunteers since budgets are too low to pay them.
There are virtually no books or newspapers here, and even the schools have few books and very little secure space to store them. No sewers of course, no place for garbage, and no electric power other than from generators. The World Food Program used to supply food to the school, but had to move on to even needier people than students, and when it did, half the students stopped attending. A camp for South Sudanese recently expelled from Sudan and also camps for people fleeing genocidal attacks on areas of Sudan by its own government [the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions] are close by. Were it not for international agencies, UN in particular, people would starve. Transport is tough. Very few people have access to vehicles, and it cost us $200 to get a ride from Akon to the nearest town with an airstrip [only an hour away by truck over a dirt road], so if you get malaria or some other deadly disease, it is normal to just die. The hospital is an hour away but that may as well be on another planet if you don't have cash.
Women are very highly valued here in some ways - bride price here is much higher than I've ever seen it in other African countries and can easily run to more than 100 cows - but many men have more than one wife, and women are very quiet. I was told that traditionally, when a woman cooks a chicken, she cuts it into 8 designated pieces so that her husband can easily count to make sure she hasn't taken any for herself or the children. These women can be very tough, and the girl students eager to become educated, so I know this is changing, but gender differences are deep and obvious.
The new South Sudan constitution guarantees equal rights and education for women, and this is well known, but will take at least a generation to enter most people's consciousness. For example, the training was to be half women, and included teachers chosen from 4 schools, but only 3 of the 26 participants were women, and none took a vocal role. Yet it seems clear to me that women will be the key to the sort of society that emerges from these ashes. If this becomes a corrupt, criminal-driven economy or if justice and a sense of community prevail – the outcome seems unlikely to be good without full participation of women. The hardened hatreds and calls for revenge, justified but I think counter-productive, are more likely to come from the men who have fought and may soon fight again, than from the women who have borne the domestic burdens for so long.
In the end, if I learned anything at all, it is that protracted war and international failure to protect people victimized by it can do much more than kill and maim - it can damage or destroy whole cultures, wipe out local knowledge and tradition leaving people so far behind as to make equity and justice nearly unimaginable. I know the Dinka people will survive and will rebuild, but the cost is stunning, and it has forced me to rethink much of my own work in Africa.
I hope you will pay attention to what happens in Sudan and to what the US role turns out to be. Thanks for reading this far,
Judith April 2012
Judith K. Baker
Literacy Activist and Consultant
Boston Public Schools, Retired
50 Melville Avenue, Dorchester, MA 02124