Letter from Jamie Sgherza in Ibba


Some Moments Matter

There’s something special about Saturday mornings at IGBS.  Something’s remind me of my own childhood and other experiences are truly unique to this place. The sun is out, a sunny summer-like morning full of promise and hope.

No Grizzles or Eye Rolling

The girls are up before the sun and straight to work. Nama the matron has already initiated the day’s work tasks and the students tackle them with vigour. There is an air of fun and excitement and not the sense of “doing the daily chores” that you might expect.

Some students are sweeping and clearing the compound. Despite the plumbing problems, the washroom is full of wet clothes, coloured basins and “bluebar” laundry soap. Outside girls hang their washing on a bamboo washing line, when that is full others dry their sheets local style, laying them across the tall grass like picnic blankets that have remained too long.


Today matron has decided that the dorm floor needs a wash so students carry their mattresses, sheets and all outside and stack them ten high. Inside buckets and squeegees make quick work of any dirt and the dorm is left, doors and windows ajar to dry. 

Meanwhile the wall washing team are making their way around the walls inside and out with small colourful cloths. These children are clearly happy for the opportunity to be at IGBS and they approach all tasks with a surprising sense of relish. There is some singing and even a little dancing as they go about their tasks. We have seen these girls wash, sweep, dig, scrub, plant, and more but I am yet to hear one grizzle.


Yesterday just before dinner, Mary and Jennifer were beckoned from the football game to come and assist with serving supper. There was no drop of the head, no roll of the eyes or any of the “teenager” expressions that we all know. They seamlessly slipped from the game as though they were subbed of as part of a planned player rotation and moved to the kitchen to start work.

A Special Atmosphere

It is times like these when you really know that something special is happening here. That “something special” has nothing to do with us; these girls have arrived with an amazing spirit that continues to surprise and astound us. Many have left their home and family for the full year. Yet they approach their situation with a steely resolve of someone much older and wiser, working for something better. As the tasks are completed the students move into self organised activities of skipping, football, elastics and more as they wait for washing to dry.


Eat While We Can

Later the group moves to a mango tree and collect a feast of ripe sunshine. These girls could try out as pitchers for the NewYork Yankees. They throw with strength and accuracy you would not believe to knock the best mangoes from high on the tree. They leave, elbows dripping with a couple of buckets of mangoes to share later.

After the feed of mangoes, they replace the mattresses, collect their dry washing. One girl take it upon herself to use a charcoal iron and iron the uniforms of younger students. Others help prepare food by cutting onions or greens, sorting beans or stirring porsho. (Porsho is a porridge like food made from maize flour. A bit like mashed potato in the end  but much more work to prepare.)

Grace is sung and students enjoy a hearty meal of adult proportions. Nothing goes to waste. There is a sense of “eat while we can”.

The workers day starts early, with a staff pick up run at 7:30am. The usual South Sudanese ritual of greeting every person as though it is the first time you have ever seen them is discharged. It’s April, planting season.

Simon and the Pineapples

The school groundsman Simon is working in the school market garden with ten local workers. Cultivating (hoeing), heaping and planting. This is our first crop so there is much work to do. Simon’s attention to detail is amazing.

Rows of pineapple stand strictly eighty centimetres apart. Dirt piled in heaps form a military guard of honour ready for planting of tomato and eggplant.

Workers stand bare-feet and bare-chested ten across, hoes swinging with the regular machine pattern of the oil wells of Texas. There is a happy chatter of men standing at a cafe, or enjoying their first beer at a bar. It seems a little out of place with the hard labour going on.

They too are on the constant look out for snakes. There has been over ten snakes sighted on the school grounds including one in the storeroom (Classroom 3) highlighting the need to keep areas clear and the grass low. The men work through the morning and stop at 1pm for a rest in the shade and a bite to eat. Then they are back at it until Simon calls at 5pm, “On-e-ai, on-e-ai”, come, come. 

In the car on the way home, there is an air of fun and energy, despite all the hard labour of the day. Today is payday and the men have money in their pockets. For them, this is a rare opportunity to earn some money to buy soap, seeds, clothes and other basic necessities for their families. And maybe a cold drink for themselves too. 

Planting and Growing Before Your Eyes

At the teacher’s accommodation, Yoane and Simon are up early washing their clothes, by hand. Before long the lines are full and Simon picks up a slasher and starts cutting the high grass that has grown with within the week around their side of the staff house.

Things grow incredibly fast here. with regular rain, plentiful sunshine and rich soil, weeds and crops just spring from the ground before your eyes. I drove the 3kms to town the other day and when I can back the matrons’s maize was taller.  Conditions are so good that there are two seasons to grow and harvest the staple crops each year.

Yoane moves to collect sticks and prepare his patch for planting. Apart from the school garden, almost all staff have requested and been allocated a small patch to plant a crop. We are surrounded by thick forest that is constantly edging in on us. All suitable land within the school will be planted with a food crop.

A simple share farming approach has been agreed with school staff preparing and seeding their own patch. At harvest time each staff member will share a set proportion of their crop with the school. This arrangement has benefits for both the school and the staff. By planting crops, these patches will be tended and the issue and dangers of high grasses within the school will become self managing.

For staff, this opportunity of entrepreneurship will allow them some extra cash to buy necessities for their family. Soap, clothes and a bike is on the wish list for one staff member. Overall this program has provided staff with a sense of “making the most of what we have”, and they feel that we are best utilising the resources we have. 

The Risks of Hunger

For the school, together with the agriculture program, this program works to ensure food security for our students, a very real issue here in South Sudan. As I write, over 4 million people are going hungry in this country. Fortunately, Western Equatoria is free from conflict and currently most people here are well fed by subsistence farming. But with continued conflict to the North, supplies of bulk food stocks are not guaranteed and there is a steady stream of IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) moving into this state.

As I write, we have most of our crops planted and we are ready for the remaining to go in. We have seen germination of ground nuts, maize and many of our vegetable crops. Although the grounds do look a little bare at the moment, over the next weeks IGBS will flourish with the rapid growth of these food crops. 

Snakes and Slashers and Being Watched

Back at the teacher’s accommodation, we have some music playing but Paula and I are busy just like everyone else. Paula is cleaning our room and preparing school things. I am slashing our part of the compound, already waist high after two weeks.

Keeping a close eye out for snakes, I try to emulate the locals use of the slasher. This tool is like a metal hockey stick, with a blade much like a rotary lawn mower. With one hand resting behind their back, the locals can swing away all day and cut large areas. For me it doesn’t look or feel as easy. At times I lose my grip altogether and have to retrieve the tool from the long grass. After about 2 hours of sweat I am finished, knowing that I will be back soon.

Later, I prepare two beds for seedlings of tomato, eggplant, pumpkin and peas. I also plant a little screen of maize for two reasons. The first reason is just because is grows so big so fast, very satisfying to an amateur gardener like me.

The second reason is to create just a little privacy from the locals who walk past the fence and stop off to watch our amazing feats. Things like sitting drinking a cup of tea or reading a book seem so interesting to them. They will just stop, children and adults alike and watch.. and watch and watch.

These are usually rare restful moments so we try not to engage our observers, but they still watch. There is no harm meant but for us any sense of “own time” or privacy remain a distant memory only available prior to a journey across a vast sea and land.

Home Cooking

Late in the afternoon as a storm brews, I prepare the dough for “Ooocook”, a simple southern Italian style foccacia from the area around my father’s home village of Molfetta in Italy. As it is rising, I struggle to light local charcoal for the Weber oven. You could even suggest that this kettle style BBQ has been the focal point of this new school in South Sudan. Every visitor, from the biggest of the “Big Men” down are surprised to see such a device and are fascinated by it. In fact for us the kettle BBQ has become somewhat of a link to the outside world. It has allowed us to cook and enjoy some “Western” style foods including breads, muffins and cakes too. As Paula would exclaim, “There is only so many meals you can prepare with onions, tomato, tuna and pasta”. I dare not utter the words “What’s for dinner tonight?” 

The Health Crisis

Just as the dough is now ready to prepare for the oven we get a call from the matron that a child is very sick. Paula goes to investigate and comes back quickly to say a hospital run is in order. As the key driver at the moment I have spent many hours each day at the hospital and to be honest I was not thrilled at this news. Today was the only day this week that I had not been to the hospital.


The hospital consists of a series of simple brick buildings, tin roof supported by bush poles. Much like an Australian bush hut without a fireplace. Our usual visits starts at the clinic building, where Emmanuel the Clinical Officer assesses each child. Emmanuel and all the staff are just fantastic. They work tirelessly with few resources and they have been a great support to the school. It is not unusual for the hospital to run out of many items that would be considered essential in hospitals around the world.

We now arrive at the hospital with syringes and we stock paracetamol and many “prescription” drugs at school. Health records, diagnosis and prescriptions are recorded to a piece of re-purposed paper that we bring, then we stop at the “pharmacy” on the way home to purchase the required drugs. It is very surprising what drugs you can buy over the counter and how cheap they are. Malaria is our main illness so we have anti-malarials and quinine tablets on hand for when the hospital runs out. 

Thunder and Lightening – But Not The Right Medicine

So we guide Jacinta into the car and the Matron and I head off while Paula takes over preparing the meals for the 40 girls. The storm moves in, thunder and lightning abound. There is just a little light left in the day as we arrive.


Being outside hours, this consultation takes place in the general ward. There is a stench about this room, a row of 6 rusty beds with vinyl mattresses sit on each side of the room. (BYO sheets and more) Each bed is full and there are many visitors but little talk. In the half light a woman moans in pain. It’s raining outside and I think I can hear water dripping on the floor, but this turns out to be visitors shelling peanuts, a productive way to pass time.

As the assessment take place, the lightning is frequent enough to provide the light necessary for me to read the prescription. Serious malaria is the diagnosis, injection required, but none left. After a discussion of what drugs we have at the school a plan of treatment is set.

We return back to the school where the girls is given the medicine and off to bed with close supervision. The girls have been fed by Paula and we are able to return to our meal. Jacinta made a full recovery over the next few days. Ohhh and the Ooocook turns out great in the Weber!

The girls are incredibly resilient when it comes to illness, they soldier on without complaining. We have to strongly encourage them before they will rest. And they bounce back very quickly after sickness. It’s like they don’t want to miss a minute.

Many girls have been sick with Malaria and we are working hard to repair the plumbing to ensure that no water is lying around for mosquitos to breed in.

Poo and Plumbing

It turns out that plumbing standards and building supervision in South Sudan don’t quite match out western expectations.

In short, apart from shower floors where the water flows away from the drain and into the room we appear to have narrowly averted a smelly disaster. It seems that our septic system was minus some essential elements and we were just a few days from a poo poo river running through the place. Remediation work has commenced and already water is flowing down the drains in the showers.

Fresh and safe drinking water is a key concern in these parts and our solar bore has proved to be very successful (although not fail proof) It provides clean cool water for us and we have had to direct locals who were using this water before the school opened to a nearby well. This solar powered bore hole was also installed by FIGS for the local chief Severio and his little “boma” (small village community) following his donation of half the land for the school.

Wives and Water

We had heard that there was some repairs required so together with Malcolm the architect we went to visit. We were invited to sit in his hut where he introduced us to his wives and offered us a feed of peanuts. Although the chief spoke no English and we spoke no Zande, we were able to make our point and we headed off together to the solar powered water bore-hole. Via some simple sign language the repairs were discussed and we walked the chief home. Over the next days we made these repairs and the chief came over to express his thanks. This bore means a great deal for the chief, for him it is a legacy of safe drinking water for his people.

Singing Hymns and Telling Gospel Stories

The sun has set and supper has been eaten. Girls have washed and are sitting together on the dorm veranda. “Mama” Nama is telling a Gospel story and the girls respond by singing a traditional hymn. One student sings the lead and the whole group echoes the response. I listen jealously, my body exhausted from the days labours, but at the dorm there is still an high level of energy about, despite the enormous amount of work that has been done. Soon the girls retire, lights out. No fanfare, no resistance, before long all are asleep. Not long before me!

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