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The View from Here: A wonderful headmistress and her young women

Mike Gangwer Published on 18 May 2012

Reporting to you from Yei, Central Equatoria state, South Sudan.…

Her name is Rita Harriet Brown. She is headmistress and lead teacher at the Yei Girls Boarding Secondary School. This is the story of the school, and the 300 young women living, learning and coming of age in Central Equatoria state.

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The school’s origin is based in war. During the nearly 25 years of war through the ’80s, ’90s and the years 2000 to 2004, young girls were especially at risk for kidnapping, rape and removal from their families.

Many girls hid in the bushland between Sudan and Congo, staying away from soldiers as much as they could. So great was the risk that in 2000, the Yei Woman’s Association (YWA) decided to build a rural boarding school with the primary goal of “education recovery for young women.”

What this meant in the practical sense was a fenced area where girls could live with a degree of safety that did not exist. The YWA resolved to provide a safe area for girls from the ravages of war, so they could live a life of education, growth, reverence and ethics (in other words, an authentic and productive life).

The YWA championed this school with the full support of the government of Western Equatoria state and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology in Juba.

One objective of the school administrators was the reduction of early pregnancy, early marriages and illiteracy. The core values of the school upon its founding were the development of the total person, including the education of the mind, the physical attributes of health and strong body, and the emotional stability of the heart and soul. Here is the schools’ two-part mission statement:

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“To educate and keep girls in boarding as the only way of paving way for studies to higher levels since when they are in day schools, they are exposed to many challenges which include rape, early marriage due to exposure to the public and other related factors leading to school dropouts.

“To help the disadvantaged, poor and financially unable girls and parents who may not be able to take their girls across for studies, i.e., in places like Uganda and Kenya due to their financial background.”

The original structures were built by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Much of the original supplies were provided by the Jesuits (Jesuit Refugee Service) of the Catholic Church. Two central ministries in Juba have provided support: the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology; and the Ministry of Health.

Over the last few years much of this startup resource base has been slowed or withdrawn entirely. As of 2012, the school lacks the support of any benefactor, including support from the central ministries in Juba or the state ministries in Yei. I spent three hours on the four-hectare campus ground, and the lack of support was obvious. Of the dozen or so buildings, nearly all are structurally sound.

They lack plumbing, a modern electrical network and a lighting system. Several buildings are dormitories. Two of them have no furniture – mattresses are placed on the floor in rows and two girls sleep on each one. Other dormitories have a triple bunk bed, making good use of space, and the girls have their “own space.” Rita said getting about 30 of these triple bunk beds is a top priority so that the girls are more comfortable and the school will have room for more girls.

The water source for the school is two boreholes, which are wells dug by a well driller and capped with a hand- operated pump handle that is pushed up and down. These are common sights everywhere in South Sudan.

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The parents and girls bear the cost of attendance. The cost of 250 South Sudanese pounds (about $80) is paid every term of 90 days. About two-thirds of this cost pays for food for the girls and the teachers living here. One of the innovative programs now implemented is cultivating some of the campus ground for vegetable production to help offset the cost of buying these foods at the town market.

Rita said the school was given a tract of land nearby, about 17 hectares (off campus) where the girls can cultivate and grow cereal crops like corn, peanuts and sorghum. They are looking for help from a non-government organization (NGO) to help with the most basic demand here ... cultivating hand tools and seed.

For the girls willing to cultivate these garden-size land plots, the tuition costs will be adjusted as an offset of the full-term cost. This incentive does more, of course, by teaching the work ethic to young women and the farming skills that are necessary in much of Africa.

There is no debate that women do the large bulk of farming – learning proper cultivation and land management techniques will prepare them for lifelong knowledge. In fact, Rita mentioned to me that even if some of the girls go on to careers other than farming (almost a certainty), they will have an appreciation for the importance of agriculture and food production ... one seed planted in the soil at a time.

Rita Harriet Brown, the headmistress, is an extremely warm and humble person. I was drawn to her story from the moment I met her. Here is a gifted woman capable of teaching at any urban school with greater resources and higher salary, yet she remains here in this rural school five miles out of town.

The campus is largely buildings with little in them, except a few bunk beds, wooden tables and chairs, and few cooking items in the kitchen.

Yet during my visit to a classroom, there were 60 young women who were all in white blouses, red ties and matching red skirts, sitting two-to-a-small-desk with a stack of maybe a dozen pieces of paper, pencil in hand, recording the lesson for the day. The classroom was hot, crowded and dimly lit.

But Rita beamed when she showed me the classroom and introduced me to the young women and their instructor. I greeted them on behalf of the U.S. government and they greeted me with smiles and a “good morning,” said in unison.

This is Rita’s life. Unlike many South Sudanese I meet here, she asked for nothing except that I tour the campus and meet the staff. She spoke of the future, as in wishing for help from the South Sudanese government. But it has not come.

She told me that while a benefactor would be appreciated, and is certainly needed, there was some resistance to being part of the entitlement programs so pervasive here. She admitted being caught between these two worlds: self-sufficiency and entitlements.

Rita claimed that setting a good example for the girls is important. The example of “by the sweat of our brow, work of our hands and thoughts of our minds, we will find a way.”

This is refreshing. In my opinion our first developmental dollar invested in any foreign government should be the investment in people. Here, in this school, Rita and her staff of teachers and administrators are doing just that … investing in people so that they may grow up and help build this brand-new country.

Certainly, anyone visiting a school like this, and there are many more, recognizes the need to help in the form of money so material can be bought. Just a few hundred dollars of bunk beds would get the girls’ mattresses off the floor. Just a dozen of our surplus computers that we consider out-of-date would be an enormous help so these girls can join the digital world.

Just a few new cooking stoves and refrigerators would upgrade the quality of their diet. And then the ever-so-important demand for electricity. Rita suggested the installation of solar panels could help illuminate the dormitories at night. Something the girls are asking for.

In the scheme of development, these few items are inexpensive compared to some of the larger multimillion-dollar projects. This is one reason why in my opinion church-based organizations (CBOs) are the ideal linkages between schools like this and the resources of a church somewhere, even in the U.S.

I have been in South Sudan now for five months with one month remaining. I have traveled extensively in the three Equatorias. Wherever I go, I see the scale of humanity that is at the other end of the spectrum than ours in the U.S.

Being part of an entitlement program is not healthy over the long course of many years or decades. Some NGOs have been here nearly three decades, and some United Nations programs, like the World Food Programme, have been here for half a century.

This model is not right. There is something to be said for investing in people a sense of self-determination, dignity and self-respect. From my view the tremendous dollars and resources here may even help feed the governance disease of corruption as government officials line up to get what they can. I suspect we would do the same if in their shoes.

But here, at a girls’ boarding school out in rural Central Equatoria near Wei, I found something different. And that something different is a group of dedicated teachers and administrators teaching these very traits of self- determination, dignity and self-respect to young women, truly the future of this nascent country.

Do they need help? Absolutely. But any help we give them is balanced with the help they give themselves. At a very early age, I was taught that it is best to help those who help themselves, and here is a clear case for that teaching.

I will not forget my visits to this school. Nor will I forget Rita Harriet Brown. One of the wonderful privileges of working in far-away lands is meeting special people like Rita and her young women who are all yearning for an education of the mind and the knowledge of composing an authentic and productive life. PD

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
  • Email Mike Gangwer

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