Our U.S. Director Yvonne Chen visited South Sudan for the first time in June. Here is her report:
The plane dips suddenly and Valentino points to the left. I look down over a sprawling town of one story buildings, corrugated iron roofs of reds, blues and greens. There are few tarmac roads. Sliced across the center of this sprawl is a mountain that shoots from the horizon. We arrive in Juba, the capital.
As I step off the plane, I am fearful in this country in the midst of famine and "on the brink of genocide." Last July, hundreds of troops from Riek Machar's armed opposition descended that mountain with the intention of overthrowing the five-year-old government. Over 300 young men died. It was one more battle in the unending war here.
Inflation is so astronomical that one has to carry around stacks of bills in order to buty the necessities. The exchange rate is about 130 pounds: 1 USD whereas 10 years ago it was just 3:1. The devaluation of the currency has led to large-scale economic hardship across the country, so that even places where there is not conflict you see people fleeing to refugee camps to ensure they can get food. In the former Northern Bahr el Ghazal, some villages see half their population decimated because poorer families flee to Sudan.
After meeting with Africa Education Trust (AET), I learned that there is a monthly coordinating meeting among all of the education NGOs. These "education cluster" meetings are held each month at the Ministry of Education. Together these NGOs implement education programs that reach thousands of students across South Sudan. One of the programs that was discussed today was a new 3-year European Union project (IMPACT) that will supplement teachers' incomes conditional upon their attendance. Teacher absenteeism is one of the biggest problems contributing to the low quality of education and learning outcomes in South Sudan. It has been made worse with the currency inflation affecting teacher salaries and delayed salary payments from the government.
The Bureau for Cultural and Educational Affairs in the State Department had introduced us to the EducationUSA officer in Juba last October. So Valentino and I visited the American Corner located in the University of Juba's library. The Corner, like EductionUSA offices across America's embassies around the world, serves as a resource center for students who wish to study in America and is run by the US Embassy's Cultural Affairs Officer, Joseph Mike. Students come here to study for their SATs and TOEFL and get advice on applying to universities. Everyday there is a cue of at least 20 college students, most waiting to use the computers to access the internet. There are even professors that use the computer here. Internet, let alone free internet, is such a scarce resource in South Sudan.
At our hotel in Juba, we hosted a small gathering of MBSS alumni living in Juba. I had the opportunity to meet them, hear their stories and make some short videos.
Not everyone was a graduate of MBSS but they were all able to finish their high school education, some of them in Juba. In Aweil, I met some alumni who were studying to be nurses, midwives and clinicians at Aweil Health Sciences Institute. Everyone is doing very well; many are in diploma programs or in university. A running theme: our alumni would not be where they are today if it were not for their education at MBSS. Having Kenyan and Ugandan teachers who only spoke English as well as a library and a science lab were game changers many of our alumni.
In Nyamlel, on our way back from Marial Bai, I caught up with two of our female alumni: Monica Adeng and Mary Abuk Kur. Both are now 21 years old, married, and Abuk is also a new mother. Monica and Abuk were close friends at school and are now colleagues at Concern Worldwide, an NGO in Aweil West County. They make about $500 per month, meaning they are the primary breadwinners in their households.
The two women have been working as field officers on farmer and nutrition issues since 2015. Abuk and Monica support their families with the money they earn at their NGO jobs. They are considered to be role models in their communities. Girls aspire to finish school and get a well-paying job. I learned that many of our alumni work at NGOs that include Norwegian Refugee Council, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), USAID VISTAS project, Samaritan Purse and Premier. The NGOs view MBSS as a school that produces well-educated people fluent in English.
In Aweil, we were also able to meet with USAID VISTAS, which we have asked for an in-kind grant for renovations of our vocational training center to be located at the Marial Bai Secondary School. Part of the school grounds will be converted to workshops for up to 200 out-of-school youth to learn business, vocational and life skills. We hope to get the construction materials in October, and train and renovate the first group of carpentry and masonry students between November and February.
Norwegian Refugee Council's (NRC) Youth Program Officer and I discussed how to partner on our proposed vocational training center, which we call the South Sudan Employment Initiative. Norwegian Refugee Council will share their YEP (Youth Economic Package) model that has been successful in IDP (internally displaced people), returnee and refugee communities in Kenya and South Sudan. In addition, NRC will provide scholastic materials for theoretical learning as well as ongoing monitoring and evaluation, and financial and administrative support for donor reporting. The VAD Foundation will contribute the numeracy and literacy training, vocational training equipment and buildings for the project. We continue to seek grant funding for the vocational training center, which has an ambitious fundraising goal of $350,000. We have already raised $70,000 of the total required to launch, but plans had stalled because of the exorbitant price of materials.
On my way back to Juba, I met with US Embassy staff, including USAID officers who manage the conflict mitigation project called USAID VISTAS. They share our belief that vocational training and girl's education are critical, but they were also honest about donors' wariness when it comes to investing in South Sudan's long term development.
Back in Nairobi, Valentino and I visited Andela, a social enterprise that provides prestigious software development training. Valentino also spoke to the young people about the Foundation's work and responded to their questions. We will be posting some of these videos on our social media. Stay tuned for his inspirational words to Africa's brightest software programmers.
I also visited Xavier Project's education hub, a non-formal education center in a refugee neighborhood outside of Nairobi and its Tamuka adult learning center. Xavier Project, along with American Center, is referring talented South Sudanese high school graduates to our pool of nominees for the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program. To learn more about this new scholarship opportunity for our MBSS alumni and other South Sudanese refugees, visit our new scholarships page.
The Hilde Back Educational Fund is a Nairobi-based organization that is remarkably similar to ours. While they do not directly manage a school, they have a huge impact on the lives of poor people through a scholarship fund targeted at talented low-income high school students in Kenya. This year sponsors from around the world funded 56 Form 1 students (high school freshmen). Many sponsors learned about them through the HBO documentary "A Small Act" which tells the story of a life changed by sponsorship.
Students' scores are sent to their sponsors at the end of every semester (three times a year), and sponsors also receive a personalized letter from their sponsored students. Students also meet with their advisers in-person during school breaks and take part in special enrichment activities.
Many of our MBSS students have not had the opportunity to go on to college, in particular girls, who culturally and historically have been denied educational opportunities. In response we are now starting a sponsorship program for our talented alumni to attend either a four-year program at the University of Juba or a three-year health sciences diploma program.
Supporters will have two options: to donate the full $6,000 required to put a student through a degree program or to contribute to our interest bearing Public Service Endowment Fund. To read more about our new scholarships for MBSS graduates, please visit www.vadfoundation.org/scholarships. We envision that, like Hilde Back sponsors, our sponsors will have the opportunity to develop a sponsor relationship with their university student, receiving tangible evidence of their student's progress.
In Nairobi, I also met with FilmAid International, Windle Trust Kenya, Zawadi Africa Educational Fund and Akili Dada.We hope to collaborate with these organizations. I look forward to developing those relationships when I return to Africa in October.