A Day in the Life

by Jen Nicholson

South Sudan is one of the most under-developed countries in the world  and the Northern Bahr el Ghazal State in which the school is located was one of the hardest hit during the previous decades of civil war. As such, there is no running water or electricity outside of a few expensive, fuel-powered generators in the main market of village centers such as Marial Bai.

Now in its fifth year, Marial Bai Secondary School (MBSS) is one of the only fully operational high schools in the Northern Bahr el Ghazal State (NBG) of South Sudan. It is the first major initiative of the non-profit organization, The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation (VAD) named after the South Sudanese “lost boy” who helped establish it. It currently has 210 grade 9 to 12 students (32 of these are girls) and 10 teachers. At least 80% of the staff and students are boarders at the school.

In my 5th and 6th years of teaching EAL students math at Daniel McIntyre Collegiate, I spent my summers with a group of volunteers at the school helping to train the local teachers who were just high school graduates themselves. We also helped to develop the school’s framework, policies and procedures. Then, inspired by the community’s commitment to education and development, I embarked on the adventure of a lifetime. In 2012 I was privileged to join the school as a volunteer teacher and support staff member for an entire school year. This venture coincided with South Sudan gaining its independence. It excited me to invest my energy into the future of hopeful youth in this newly birthed nation. 

Before heading to South Sudan, I shared stories of life in South Sudan and work at the school in Marial Bai with staff and students at DMCI. I then partnered with one of my colleagues, Rebecca Perlmutter, to collect stories from our EAL students that described a typical day in their lives as students in Winnipeg. I shared these stories with my students in South Sudan who were eager to exchange stories in return. The article that follows is a compilation of what they wrote with some of my own comments and observations to fill you in on some of the background information and statistics. Please feel free to use the students’ stories to illicit discussion with your own EAL students about their lives as students before coming to Canada versus their lives as students now in Canada.


Titiana (boarding student): We wake up at 7 am. We rush to fill our buckets with fresh water from the hand-pump which is near the teacher’s compound, two minutes from where we sleep. We are forced to start bathing early because we are using three bathrooms for thirty girls. After we take a cold shower, we put on our uniforms which are brown skirts, white shirts, black shoes, brown ties and white socks. We wear light, white shirts because the weather here is really hot. We brush our teeth using a stick and homemade paste made from charcoal and salt. This paste makes our teeth clean and white. In the morning, we feel happy. It is quite cool and we like that coolness. We feel hungry but are happy that we are well and not sick.

[South Sudan is one of the most under-developed countries in the world  and the Northern Bahr el Ghazal State in which the school is located was one of the hardest hit during the previous decades of civil war. As such, there is no running water or electricity outside of a few expensive, fuel-powered generators in the main market of village centers such as Marial Bai.]


Adhel (day scholar): We leave for school at 7 am. We do not feel okay because the school is very far from our home and we have to walk. It takes one hour to walk to school. The rainy season is the very worst because the rain falls every day and there is a lot of water on the muddy roads. 

[92% of the NBG lives in rural communities . Marial Bai currently only has one mud road that passes through the village. The path to the school is a 40-minute walk from this road. In the rainy season, the area surrounding the school becomes impassable, even by a Land Cruiser! Day scholars roll up their pants and make the journey barefoot or in flip flops, carrying their compulsory black, close-toed shoes in a sac with them].


Akoon (boarding student): I sometimes go for breakfast at 8 am at the small market next to the school. I mostly take tea. If I have enough money, I enjoy my tea with “mandazi” and even groundnuts. Mandazi is made out of yeast, sugar, oil and flour. It is rolled into balls and fried in oil.

[MBSS does not have a budget to provide students with breakfast and only those with cash can sometimes afford to buy a snack. Most villagers do not eat breakfast but will have tea and peanuts when they’re in season. The few who can will have a type of porridge made out of sorghum flour.]


Ahok (boarding student): Once we are ready, we go to the school for general cleaning. We don’t have garbage cans in our community so the wind blows trash around the school compound. Also due to the unfinished fence around our school, some neighborhood cows can pass through the school sometimes dropping dung which makes the environment untidy. These are the things that we have to clean using sticks and grass that we make into brooms. 
We also have designated plots around the school compound so that each and everybody has a space to clean on Fridays. To clean these plots we use a tool called an “ajaray” to uproot all the long grass and bushes. This is to help keep the compound safe from living things that hide in the grasses like snakes and scorpions. 
Every Monday morning we have an assembly. In the assembly, we stand in a line and begin by singing the National Anthem with our arms down at our sides. We are humble when singing the National Anthem because it is a word of prayer and shows that we love our country. This is followed by a word of prayer by one of the students and then if any teacher has an announcement to put forward, he or she will make it at this time. The teacher on duty and headmaster will make the final comments and then, before we go to class, we each have to bring the piece of firewood that we brought to school with us to the kitchen to be used to cook our food. 

[97% of the population of NBG uses firewood or charcoal as their primary fuel for cooking . Firewood is collected from nearby forests and bush by women and children who can often be seen carrying a large bundle over their heads on their way home or to the market.]


Nyanut (boarding student): Our classes start at 9 am. Before we enter class, the teacher on duty ensures that all students are in full uniform with their shirts tucked in. If not, we are punished to do some more general cleaning around the school. On Monday, our lessons start with Chemistry which is Regina’s favorite because she wants to be a doctor, followed by English, Magdalene’s favorite, and Biology, which I enjoy most. Each lesson lasts 35 minutes and we have four lessons before a 30-minute break. These are not the only subjects. We learn nine including Agriculture, Christian Religious Education (CRE), Geography, Math, Physics and Commerce. 
Adhel is the class prefect. Her job is to control the class, take the attendance, collect the students’ work for marking to bring to the teachers and set up a schedule for cleaning the classroom. If students are making noise during class time when no teacher is present, she will write down their names and report them to the teacher or prefect on duty. They will be punished by doing work like cleaning rubbish from the compound. Another rule is that bullying and fighting between students is prohibited. Students who fight will be expelled from school. The time of arrival and departure must also be respected. Students who are late are also punished. English is expected to be the main language of communication during school hours. We have to always stay in our classrooms during class time. If a teacher doesn’t come, we just read on our own preparing for the next lesson.
There are seven girls and thirty-eight boys in our Form 1 [grade 9] class. The reason we are few girls is because many girls marry before finishing school. We do not feel happy that there are not many girls.

[In South Sudan, “less than 10% of children complete primary school.”  Eighty-five percent of the South Sudanese population is illiterate.   Furthermore, “Nearly half of all civil servants in South Sudan have only a primary education.”  This includes primary school teachers many of which are also volunteers. This makes teacher-absenteeism a common problem. Currently half of the teachers at MBSS are trained professionals from Uganda and Kenya while the other half are South Sudanese who completed high school in either Kenya or Uganda.
Looking at gender disparity, less than 1% of females attend high school in South Sudan. “The maternal mortality rate is the highest in the world and gender based violence and rape devastates both individuals and communities. A 15 year old girl has a higher chance of dying in childbirth or pregnancy than finishing secondary school.”  MBSS prioritizes female education by offering full scholarships to all girls who are able and willing to attend.]


Adhel: We eat lunch at 1 pm. The kind of food we eat is sorghum flour and lentil soup. Other days we eat maize flour with the same broth. We don’t have another type of broth here in our school. 

{In South Sudan, “At least 80 percent of the population is income-poor, living on an equivalent of less than USD 1 per day. More than one third of the population is food insecure and even in a good year, 20 percent of households cannot support themselves.”  In order to make the school more self-sustaining and provide more nutritionally balanced meals to students, MBSS students and staff have cultivated a large piece of land next to the school and this year successfully collected a bountiful harvest of sorghum, maize, sesame, eggplants, watermelon, okra and pumpkin.]


Akoon: From Monday to Thursday our classes end at 3:20 pm. We do not have classes on Friday afternoon. I have to go to the dormitory prefect if I want to get permission to go home for the weekend. I first have to clean a small plot of land near the dormitory in order to get permission. Students who are day scholars don’t have to ask for permission but have to wait until departure time which is 3:20 pm. When I go home for the weekend, I use a bike to get home. I really feel happy because I usually visit my relatives on that day. The weather is hot and travelling is boring because my home is so very far away. It takes one hour and a half to reach my home by bicycle. I usually feel tired when I get there.

Nyanut I live too far from the school. I only went home two times this school year because of the cost and the distance. If I want to go home, I have to wait until Saturday morning. I walk 45 minutes to the market to wait for a bus. It costs 50 pounds  [$12 CAD] to get to Aweil and then 15 more pounds [$4 CAD] to get to Winjok. It takes 2 hours to get to Aweil and one more hour to get to Winjok. That means if I catch a bus at 9 am, I will arrive home by 1 pm. The road is not good. My body hurts. I have pain once I get home but I am happy to see my family.


Adhel: At home, our responsibilities include fetching water and firewood, cooking, washing clothes and utensils, taking care of our younger siblings, going to the market to buy food for supper and grinding the flour. To grind the flour we take it to the grinding mill. During the rainy season, we help our families by cultivating, weeding and harvesting maize and sorghum; during the dry season we re-thatch our houses. We use dry grass. It is easy work and I enjoy doing it. We feel happy because we are their daughters and we must work happily with them.

Bol and Dhieu (day scholars): When we get home, we help our parents by looking after our cattle and washing their clothes. We have to fetch enough water to wash our clothes. We use our hands to wash them and then hang them out in the sun to dry. We feel upset because we do it manually and a lot of energy is wasted. We don’t help them in cooking food because it is not acceptable in our culture for boys to cook food for the family. It is actually a task for the girls at home. We enjoy our leisure time by playing football with our friends in the evening time. While playing football we feel happy because we play with our friends and the girls are there watching as an audience.


Ahok: We take our dinner at 6:30 pm. Our dinner at the school is always lentils with sorghum. 

Adhel: We eat our supper at 8 pm. Depending on the season, we eat meat, dry fish, okra, pumpkin leaves, kale, tomatoes, potatoes and sorghum or maize flour.


Titiana: After dinner, we again fetch water to shower. At 8 pm we all go to evening prep up to 10 pm. I am the girls’ boarding prefect. Before night prep I go to the teachers’ compound to fetch the solar lamps. Since we don’t have electricity at the school, the solar lamps give us the light we need for studying and getting ready for bed afterwards. They help us to see the crawling animals like snakes and scorpions, which are so many in our new compound. I bring the lights back to the teachers’ compound the next morning for charging.
Night prep lasts from 8 pm until 10 pm. Failure to attend prep will lead to a punishment such as the cutting of huge poles to be used to build our school fence. Night preps are important because this is the only time we can go through the work we did during the day and get ready for our morning lessons. After prep, sometimes we listen to the news through the radio and sometimes we listen to music through our cell phones. We also like to tell funny stories. Sneaking out of school will lead to suspension. We go to sleep at 11 pm. If we can’t fall asleep, we can turn on the lamps or our flashlights to go through our notes some more. The day was very nice and we feel happy.

Akoon: On Friday and Saturday we go to sleep at 12:30 am because we usually go to the drum after supper. Young men and ladies will beat the drum at nighttime in an open place. Other youth will come to the drum to meet their girlfriends/boyfriends to talk with them. Some people will also dance near the drum. I spend most of the evening there which is why I go to bed late. Sometimes I talk to my friends the whole night, which will make me feel especially tired the next day.

Despite the daily struggles that students face at Marial Bai Secondary School, I am excited to conclude this article with the report that the school ranked third out of thirty-eight high schools nationwide on its grade 12 national exams. The sixteen students who sat the exams were the first group of students to pass through the school. This was a remarkable achievement and speaks volumes of the efforts of the teachers, the students and VAD and all of its donors.

Yvonne Chen