FIGS Chair of Trustees David Lewis writes:
Following my first visit to South Sudan, together with FIGS trustee Jean Hartley, I have been asked to pen some initial thoughts. I have to confess that I am still processing everything that I have seen and heard, tasted, smelt and felt, but here goes…
Firstly, I was struck by the juxtaposition of the warmth of the welcome shown to me by the charming and big-hearted people I met, and how little they had, particularly by way of development and infrastructure. It was remarkable to think that these generous, smiling people had been involved in debilitating and bitter civil war for so much of the last six decades.
But it all made sense when one saw how little there was by way of daily security (in the sense of public safety as opposed to military presence), roads, public transport, health and education facilities. This was accompanied by the most striking gathering of aid agencies and NGOs that I had ever seen. It was quickly apparent that South Sudan is a nation effectively building itself from scratch.
Meanwhile, I had to adjust to some lifestyle changes. Some things that particularly struck me: I have never washed in cold water so often (I think I managed one hot shower, but was grateful when I even had a shower – bucket and flannel washes became familiar routines). I got used to a diet of goat (a luxury at the school), casava leaves (as gardia, not unlike chopped spinach), and makinde, a form of thick maize porridge eaten with your fingers. South Sudanese honey was a revelation – rich, dark and smoky – it was taken with almost anything! I appreciated the fact that because we were close to the Equator and near the end of the rainy season the heat never became too oppressive before we were refreshed by a biblical downpour (along with the reassurance that “this isn’t heavy rain – you should see it when it’s heavy!”). The weather helped me understand why, with the rich iron-red soil, it was possible to get two crops per year in the south. (Though that is sometimes disrupted by climate change, which has caused unpredictability in the seasons and rains, resulting in lower yields and crop failures.)
One remarkable thing was the number of people who had heard of Ibba Girls’ Boarding School. I was surprised that everywhere I went people recognised the name of the school and held it in high regard. On visiting the school, I came to understand why. The school is located in a solidly built compound in a relatively safe part of the country, albeit hard to access via the pitted and uneven red marram road that runs across the south of the nation. Here we found a welcome as generous as any that one might receive in this hospitable country, and I was immediately struck by the sense of calm and purpose that pervades the school. It was a joy to meet so many confident, articulate and intelligent girls who were grateful for the opportunity to have a good education. I was impressed with the quality and care of the Headteacher, the teaching staff, and the many support staff, who have made the School a safe and encouraging learning environment.
In turn this helped me to contextualise what IGBS is trying to achieve. Yes, basic literacy and numeracy skills are important in a country where such things are not easily attained, and the government struggles to invest in education. But as Professor John Akech (Vice-Chancellor of Juba University) explained, it is so important to develop leaders for the future of the nation. Teachers, doctors, engineers, scientists, and even politicians, are all needed if South Sudanese society is going to advance and strengthen. And when you talk to the girls at IGBS you hear that aspiration coming through loud and clear. The miraculous thing that donors to FIGS have achieved is to make that transformation possible. Here are girls being equipped, through quality education, to transcend their circumstances and instead have an opportunity to make a difference to South Sudan – a country which sorely needs them. These girls give me hope and optimism with their vision for a better future.
[Read Part 2, Jean's report on their many fruitful meetings over the course of the visit, here.]