“We’ve been waiting for you a long, long time”
As our MAF Cessna plane crested the red earth runway at Ibba, I could make out three rows of little maroon specks in the distance, gradually coming into focus. Forty ten-year-old girls, all wearing their after-school dresses and bobbing in rhythm. When the propeller’s whirr stopped, I realised that they were singing.
“Welcome, visitors, welcome! We’ve been waiting for you a long, long time…”
That, back in 2014, was my first encounter with Ibba Girls Boarding School, in Western Equatoria State, South Sudan. At the time, the school had only been open for four months, enrolling and educating its first cohort of 40 girls at Primary Level 4. The school aims to provide a safe, conducive learning environment right from age ten, when most South Sudanese girls currently drop out of school, up to age eighteen, when a young woman can graduate with a School Certificate – the passport to further education, or fulfilling work that she has been well equipped for. In a country ravaged by 50 years of civil war, where a 15-year-old female still has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than of completing secondary education, South Sudanese girls have been waiting for their chance at education for a long, long time indeed.
So I was partly in South Sudan to celebrate that the school was open at all – along with about 500 other singing, dancing, feasting, speech-making, praying, goat-and-duck-donating South Sudanese at the school’s opening ceremony one Saturday that June. But I was also there, at the behest of UK charity Friends of Ibba Girls School (FIGS), to help with the making of a short film telling the story of the school. And I was there to listen to the girls, most of whom spoke English, and to document their stories.
Jacinta, from Ezo County, was one girl whose story I heard. Even at age ten she had something of the CEO about her, marshalling her classmates into position when something needed doing, and shushing them when teachers were giving instructions. What she said may explain why she is so fiercely ambitious for herself, as well as for her school and her classmates – and it reflects many of the obstacles that South Sudanese girls face in trying to get an education:
“At this school I have learnt things like the sounds of letters, the number line, factors, and addition. It’s different from my previous school because they do not beat people here, and the teachers in my previous school did not teach well. Also, my previous school was not residential, and at home in the morning, I would have to sweep the compound and fetch water, and that would make me late for school. So I like staying in Ibba Girls School.
“The things I like about Ibba Girls School are the good teachers, the matrons, the classrooms, the food, security, learning, toilets, lights, water, and reading.
“Social Studies is my favourite subject. After I finish school I want to become a Governor, so that I can help my people. I will build houses for them and give money to them, and help them with other things.”
“We set our sights high, like stars in the sky!”
In view of the manifold obstacles that South Sudanese girls face in receiving a good-quality education from age ten, it is the vision of Ibba Girls Boarding School to create an overall step-change in the quality of girls’ education nationally. By providing a well-equipped, sanitary, safe environment free from the pressures of heavy domestic chores, early marriage and childbirth, food shortages, and long and sometimes dangerous walks to school, girls are enabled to concentrate on receiving an excellent education covering all subjects in the national curriculum. In this manner, the school is not only educating girl students – the plan is to enrol another cohort of 40 every year until 2022, in a country where there are at present only 2,000 girls in the final grade of secondary education – but is serving as a parable to the nation of how education should and could be.
The vision for the school came from a dream of founder Bridget Nagomoro, one of the few South Sudanese women from Ibba County to have any education at all beyond age ten. Bridget gave up a career in the nation’s capital, Juba, to return to Ibba as the County Commissioner – and marshalled state government officials, parents, local Bishops, clergy and the Paramount Chief, as well as donating land which she had personally inherited, to get the school going. She also roped in a number of supporters in the UK and elsewhere who have gotten firmly behind the school, providing finance, advice and capacity-building training through regular trips to Ibba.
Two years on in South Sudan, things are both looking both worse, and better, than in 2014. Skirmishes have turned into ongoing civil war in some parts of the country, crippling a fledgling infrastructure and paralysing much economic development. Food shortages are widespread and inflation has skyrocketed. On the other hand, Ibba County has, mercifully, remained at peace. The school has just enrolled its third cohort of 40 girls, and now teaches three classes, spanning Primary Levels 4 to 6. In a country that is in some senses falling apart, Ibba Girls Boarding School is a continuing sign and wonder: a wonder because it remains open at all, and a provocative sign of the good that could result if feuding factions in the country were to instead seek peace.
So far, it is holding true to the words of its school song:
Ibba Girls of South Sudan,
We share the light of education.
Working with the pen and hoe,
Creating leaders for tomorrow.
We love our school, and its people
We’re proud of our achievements
Our school transforms and empowers
We set our sights high, like stars in the sky!
Chernise is a fundraiser for Friends of Ibba Girls School (UK Charity no. 1146220). To find out more about the work of the school, visit www.ibbagirlsschool.org, or read about our Chair of Trustees John Benington’s recent visit here. To ask a question or to get involved, email email@example.com.