Changing attitudes about female education

The drilling team in South Sudan was starting to make progress, and once we were sure they had reached a place where they could be left to continue, we headed back to Uganda to check on some of our projects there.

First stop was Alela Modern Primary School, near Lira, where we had perviously constructed one of our sanitation systems.

Joseph Kony and the LRA had terrorized this school and community back in 2006; and when we first visited there in 2009, the villages were still recovering from the trauma of having had children abducted.

But these days, I see a much different picture. According to the school records, enrollment has steadily increased since we began working with the school two years ago, from 823 pupils in 2010 to the current enrollment of 1018. The teachers even proudly showed off the student national performance scores, which had also improved each year.

The administration very vocally credits these increases partially to the availability of nearby water and good sanitation facilities, saying it makes it easier for the pupils to come to school and stay there.

Although the benefits of clean water are obvious, access to decent sanitation has also had an enormous impact. A visit to most any school pit latrine is an eye-opening experience. The children do not like to use them. They smell terrible and are often littered with feces, as the small children usually relieve themselves on the floor, for fear of falling into those big dark pits. Although we are still collecting data to prove this theory, it is my strong belief that school pit latrines make young children sick.

Aside from being clean and free of bad odors, our sanitation system also has the added benefit of providing water and much needed privacy for adolescent girls, which is key to keeping the girls in school once they reach puberty.

Christopher Elem, the head teacher of Alela Modern Primary School, is very serious about keeping the girls in his school.  In fact, the school’s administration was recently prepared to launch a court case against the parents of 16 year-old Charity Atem whey they tried to make her drop out of school.

Charity Atem, Alela Modern Primary School, Uganda.

Elem admits that changing attitudes about female education is a real challenge for the school, as the overall culture is not supportive of its girls. Families keep them at home to perform domestic duties as soon as they are old enough. And many parents marry their daughters off as soon as they reach puberty. Although both of these practices are technically illegal, the laws are rarely enforced.

In Charity’s case, although her test scores were excellent, her parents wanted to get her married, in order to focus their meager financial resources on educating her brother.

The bright 16 year-old seemed extremely frustrated by the whole situation saying that her community thinks it is wasteful to spend money on girls.

Her friend Nancy Amule is repeating 7th grade after missing too many days of school last year and falling behind.

Nancy Amule, Alela Modern Primary School, Uganda

Nancy also gets no support from her community. She says the villagers not only tease her because she’s still attending school, when she’s old enough to be married, but her father’s friends also pressure him to stop wasting money on her education, saying she is of no benefit to the family.

In this culture, girls tend to move in with their husband’s families after marrying. So when faced with the issue of limited resources, parents often focus more on educating and nurturing the boys, which they feel will eventually be an asset to the family. Meanwhile, girls are primed for marriage at an early age, and encouraged to master domestic duties over learning math or English (Note: English is the national language of both Uganda and South Sudan and most jobs require that you speak it. But a multitude of tribal vernacular is spoken in villages across the region.)

Right now Nancy does most of the work around her house, especially the cooking. She spends three hours after school fetching water, grinding millet and preparing dinner. An injury left her mother with a weak leg, so although she spends her days working in the garden and fetching the firewood for cooking, by evening she is exhausted and Nancy takes over.

Both girls feel it is extremely unfair that their brothers get preferential treatment. When I mentioned the concept of gender inequality they both got very animated, saying that society tells girls they are useless and as soon as they have breasts and are only fit for marrying. Meanwhile, the boys get to go to school and often do nothing with the education they get.

Class at Alela Modern begins at 6:30AM and ends at 5PM. This means that both Nancy and Charity leave their homes in the dark to trek across fields and down dirt roads to get to school on time. But neither girl seems to mind. They are happy to be in class, even though the pupils and teachers must use flashlights to illuminate their lessons until the sun comes up.

For Charity things are going well. Because of the school intervention, her parents allowed her to return to class and she recently passed the national exams. She’s headed to high school next term.

But Nancy is not so lucky. Despite all of her efforts, she just learned that her father enrolled her in technical school. Although she had hoped to one day become a nurse, she will soon be leaving her studies behind. She says she will most likely learn to sew or paint furniture at her new school.

Clearly there is a huge need for parents to support learning. Providing water and sanitation to these institutions often helps give that extra bit credibility to motivate the parents to get involved.

So there is a ripple effect. In the beginning, having these facilities encourages more students to enroll in the school. This provides additional financial support to the institution. This extra funding then becomes an incentive for the teachers. And a motivated administration is key to encouraging the parents and keeping children, especially girls, in school. In the end, they come to school, they stay there and perform better.

“Women must be full partners in development, so they can lift themselves and their communities out of poverty.”  United Nation Secretary General -Ban Ki-Moon


Northern Bahr el Ghazal – the poorest area in South Sudan

Northern Bahr el Ghazal (NBeG) is reported to be the poorest area of South Sudan… and I believe it.

The state has a severe lack of infrastructure. Because of the war, and environmental conditions such as regular flooding and droughts, there has been little progress in terms of development.

We work closely with many partners to implement our program, including Water and Education offices at both state and local levels. Although there is a major dependence on international assistance for the most basic of services, these government agencies are doing their best to alleviate the suffering of their people, who are emerging from decades of trauma.

This week, we stopped by the State Ministry of Education to give them a report on our activities. The Senior Inspector of Schools and the Director of Planning and Budgets warmly greeted us. They wanted very much to discuss the water crisis at the schools. They explained that they were very concerned that schools were scheduled to start back in session in a few weeks and the entire area was still extremely dry. Without available water at the schools, clean or not, they were not sure how the children would be able to endure the average heat of 105°F (which can escalate to 118°F), at their outdoor classes.

The children in most of these schools are studying under trees and in huts, rather than in classrooms, so they are easily distracted. It’s a problem if it’s too dry; it’s a problem if it’s too wet. From our early assessments, I knew that teaching under these extreme conditions is a real challenge.

With conditions like this at the schools, there is little incentive for families to even send their children to school, usually if just some of the children are allowed to attend school it is the boys who are favored. Most schools do not have water or toilets. There is also a cultural tendency to keep children at home, once they reach a certain age, to tend the animals, dig the gardens, fetch water and perform domestic duties.

It is hard to over exaggerate the desperate water situation in this area. And although the need for this crucial resource is very high on everybody’s priority list, the unfortunate reality is, education is not as high, especially in the villages. From our past experiences, we are hopeful this water will serve as an incentive to encourage these families to send their children to school, especially the girls.

Our field team spent the past three months diligently assessing schools, mobilizing the communities and getting MOUs signed to define everyone’s responsibility in relation the construction and management of the wells. The drillers were busy in the field, progressing at about one well a week.

I was eager to get into the field myself and see how things were moving along. I wanted to find out which of our strategies were working and get input from the field crews on where we might want to make adjustments.

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When we arrived at the first school, water was flowing! The hand pump was not yet installed, but the drillers were pump testing to determine the hourly yield of the well. Yet, that was no deterrent to the many children who could not stay away from the excitement of fresh water. It was hot and they were very happy. The local women were already filling their containers with water as the head teacher and community members were monitoring everything and assisting with any needs of the drillers. It was a happy day for all and a beautiful sight to behold.

Although dozens of families had left their homes and migrated to the swamps for relief during the December through April dry season, school was scheduled to start soon and they would be returning.

In December, before the villagers left the area, we mobilized each of the communities to explain the project and sign the MOUs. Now, we were just waiting for the families to return so we could form the Water User Committees which consist of men and women from the village; draft By Laws for how the water point would be managed to ensure sustainability; elect a caretaker, and conduct hygiene training.

Engaging the villagers in their ownership, and the decision-making processes surrounding the wells, is essential to enhancing their capacity to help themselves and facilitate change.

We have a big job ahead of us as we try to convince these communities of the importance of education. Thankfully, we are gaining their trust with our first step, providing this much-needed water. There is no denying that safe water and good hygiene practice keep children healthy. And healthy children have healthy minds. This region needs those healthy minds as it strives to pull itself up and move forward.

Sometimes this work seems tough and thankless, the days are long, the weather is oppressively hot and the task seems immense. But just when you are feeling like everything is a struggle, you have a day like this and see just how much of an enormous impact clean water is going to have on the day-to-day lives of this community and school, and it equally inspires us to move forward.

When you educate a girl you educate the nation

While having lunch in the South Sudan town of Aweil recently, we had the pleasure of meeting the director for a German NGO, GIZ.  He struck up a conversation and when he learned we were helping to provide water in the region, asked if we’d be able to meet with him about something after lunch.

Apparently, their organization, in conjunction with USAID, has a big project of constructing 100 homes for the elderly returnees near one of the settlements.  But, the problem is, there is no water in the area.

Along with the community needing water for drinking and all of their daily needs, they also need water to make their bricks for building, which the communities make and GIZ then buys from them.  They asked if there was any way we could consider working in this area.   I put our field crew in touch with their field guys and we’re now trying to see if we can help.  It’s all about partnerships around here.  It’s the best way of getting anything done.  The task is enormous and you really have to work together.

Many of the people coming back were living in the Northern camps and don’t have jobs or money.  It’s tricky because this is their homeland and they love their people.  But in some ways their lives in the North were easier. There are a lot of challenges in the South.

We met one lady who was running a little tea stand.  It was her first time to ever have a small business.   She had two children who were helping her, a 14-year-old named Deng and an 8-year-old called Mathen Koul.  When we asked her how the kids were adjusting, she said, “not well,” but that she keeps telling them things will get better.   Her biggest concern is getting enough money each day to buy a small amount of food for them to eat.

The children in the villages surrounding Aweil only speak their tribal language, Dinka.   Deng and Koul do not speak Dinka but instead a different version of Arabic than what is spoken in South Sudan.   English is the new national language, but people mostly speak Juba-Arabic (a combination of Arabic and Swahili) and their tribal languages.  It is great that Deng and Koul speak very good English, but I worry about how these children of the returnees are going to adjust to these Southern schools.   The schools in town are much better than the ones in the villages.  In these remote villages there is little motivation for children to attend; studying is conducted under the trees with no chairs or desks and two classes often simultaneously take turns sharing one chalkboard.

But education is definitely the key, and that’s what we’re here to do. There is no way this country will progress if these children are not educated.  We are dedicated to providing the incentives needed to get these kids to school, and keep them there!

This starts with providing water and sanitation.  I know that having water at these schools is going to make a huge difference, not only in terms of healthy bodies and healthy minds.  We’ve seen what it’s done in Uganda and other areas of South Sudan in terms of keeping girls in class.  So far, I’m seeing very few girls in these Aweil schools.   But that just has to change.

As I watch the women struggle to work each day, with babies on their backs, I know there is a need, and desire, for family planning strategies.   I spend a lot of time in the villages and have learned that not all women want 15 children.  They don’t think they have options.  This is another area where education would be invaluable.

We just have to provide some motivation to keep them in school and we’re developing some fantastic initiatives for doing just that.  Building on what we’ve learned from our past projects, we have a five-year plan that we know will make a difference.   Our crews are in the field.  School starts April 1st and we’re ready to go!

We need to put a dollar amount on what it will cost to get girls in school and make it possible for them to stay in school. Whatever the cost, it will be far more cost effective than allowing the situation to continue the way it is.

The former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had this to say on the matter- “Study after study has taught us that there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, or to reduce infant and maternal mortality. No other policy is as sure to improve nutrition and promote health—including the prevention of HIV/AIDS. No other policy is as powerful in increasing the chances of education for the next generation. And I would also venture that no policy is more important in preventing conflict, or in achieving reconciliation after a conflict has ended. But whatever the very real benefits of investing in women, the most important fact remains: Women themselves have the right to live in dignity, in freedom from want and from fear.”

There is no way to say it better.

Back to the field with travel upgrades

Drop in the Bucket started off the New Year on a great note.  We received a wonderful Christmas present this year from UNICEF in South Sudan.  They donated two Land Cruisers to assist our field teams in our work.  This is a tremendous upgrade for us from old beat down vehicles we’ve been getting around in.

Over the holidays, our always-reliable logistical director, George and one of our South Sudan consultants, Majodit, were in Juba dealing with everything related to the new trucks.  They finalized our NGO registrations with the new government, got the trucks registered, insured and ready for action.  I felt bad that they were spending time doing this when they should have been celebrating with their families, but they were insisting.  We are all so grateful to now have safe, reliable transportation to navigate the treacherous, unpaved terrain.

George and Majodit’s dedication to our projects is incredible.    These guys have fought their entire lives for the freedom of their country and they are extremely devoted to continuing to help with the struggle. They love being in a position to really help their people, many of whom are desperate for the most basic of services.  Water, food and education are at the top of that list.

When I returned to the US for the holidays, the humanitarian community was preparing for the major influx of returnees that were coming back from the North into South Sudan. Driving through the streets of Aweil this time, it was clear that they had come…. and were still coming.

The UN estimates that since July around 328,000 people have returned to South Sudan. The final destination for 100,000 of them was Northern Bahr el Ghazal State (Aweil) and its two neighboring states.

The streets of Aweil were flooded with people. There were donkeys pulling carts loaded with USAID bags of sorghum, a local grain staple. The street kids were out in droves searching for a piece of bread or small change.

It is clear that the additional people are definitely taking a toll on the region and there is a food shortage that’s reached crisis level. Even the donkeys and horses around Aweil Town looked weak and hungry, with their bones protruding, as they struggled to haul their carts.

People are really guarded so I don’t take many photos. I don’t want to offend them or have them in any way think we are going to exploit the suffering.
We are careful to let people know that we want to hear from them, work WITH them to address their crisis.

Although there was a real sense of desperation in town, I knew things were even much worse in the villages. There are many areas that we can only access during the dry season (December – May). I learned that in August 2011 , at the same time we were doing our preliminary assessments in Aweil, 350 people had died of starvation in a remote returnee camp in the next state over, Warrap.

It’s so hard for me to accept that people are dying of starvation and from drinking contaminated water, when I see people around the world who have so much… and waste so much. But here there is no waste around here.

Food prices have gone through the roof, increasing by almost 50% since last August. Over the summer you could buy a 50-kilo bag of sorghum for 130 South Sudanese pounds. Now it’s 180 SSP. People cannot afford to feed their families.

Looking around at the dry barren landscape, you see a lot of potential farmland. And underground water is easily accessed, with the right equipment. The largest aquifer in all of Africa sits underneath this particular region. It’s rare to drill and not reach water. This is water that could also be used as irrigation for the vast stretches of farmland. It’s hard to believe that this area is so rich with untapped resources and, at the same time, the people are dying of hunger and from drinking contaminated water. But on a positive note, I’m meeting good, smart people out here every single day who are all collaborating to make a difference.

Veteran’s Day 11/11/11

Most of the suffering in this region is the result of decades of war and it’s going to take some time, and international assistance, for these communities to get back on track now that the country has their independence.  The biggest issues are access to water, no roads, poor education and lack of healthcare.  People die from everyday things that should not be fatal.   The maternal mortality rate is outrageous and children under the age of five easily succumb to illnesses and die.

One day when we were in the field we saw this man and wife walking down the road, in the blazing mid-day sun, carrying their lifeless daughter (about 7 years old).   The little girl was delirious with malaria and they were walking several hours away to a clinic, so she could receive treatment.  I’ve never seen anybody with that condition.  She was imagining things that were not happening and crying out.  Her eyes were bulging out.  We gave them a ride.  When we got to the clinic, it was a thatched shack with an intravenous drip and a bed.  There was already somebody being treated, so her family had to wait.   So many kids around here die everyday of malaria and I really hope we were able to get her there in time.

It’s hard not to get discouraged when you see such suffering everywhere.  At times it feels like we are just a “drop in the ocean.”   But water is a major issue and we ARE helping with that.   We can physically see our impact and although it may seem small by comparison, it’s not small at all to the people who need it.  To them, it’s huge.

Each of the boreholes we’re going to install at the schools in Northern Bahr el Ghazal will provide water to 1500 people, but this number represents the population now. This amount will dramatically increase when the returnees come.  It’s also good that we’re focusing on schools and existing communities since pretty much everybody else is dealing with the returnee emergency.

We met so many wonderful people from the international NGOs up here working so hard to help out.  They all collaborate and work well together, sharing information, resources and ideas.  

Materials costs are 200% higher than in other areas we work, so we needed to convert our budget to reflect the prices in the region.  Then we began hearing stories about people waiting three weeks for basic materials such as cement.  It was clear there would be some logistical challenges ahead.

In the evenings I began to realize how many homeless street children there were in Aweil Town.  I had seen several of them sleeping on shop verandas during the day but thought they were the exception.  They were not.   As we sat there each night, we met the most charming, witty, smart, dirty, young homeless street kids. They were mostly boys, but there were a few girls.  They seemed to really look out for each other. They were trying to make the best of things and were just being kids. We ended up buying dinner for some of them most nights.  We’d start with two or three and then word would get around and others would start coming.

One day when we were having lunch this crazy older man came into the restaurant ranting.   He was speaking Arabic and I couldn’t tell exactly what he was saying but he seemed like an insane homeless man.  I was surprised when several other men in the restaurant not only showed him a lot of admiration, but at one point they all started engaging him in songs, which they all seemed to know. The spectacle was so interesting and it worked in calming him down.   I later learned that he was a very well respected general who had led one of the original battalions of the South Sudan revolution, in the early 1980s.   Most of the people in the café seemed to overlook him as they checked their Facebook pages and enjoyed their lunch.   Although the years of war had taken their toll on his mind, those former soldiers of the SPLA had definitely not forgotten him.   He told the men that every month when he receives his military salary he buys soda, water and beer that he pours on the grave of the late Dr. John Garang, the leader of their revolution.   It’s clear that he wishes his old friend could be here today to see how people are enjoying the freedom and liberty for which they had fought and sacrificed their entire lives.

So where are all of the girls?

Week one in Aweil really involved a lot of logistical meetings and strategic planning.  But week two we needed to travel deep into the villages, talk to the women and really assess the water situation for ourselves.

Tea lady from Aweil East

The Aweil East Education Office was happy to see us and had collected a ton of applications from schools.  Although we had to verify the data ourselves, from the information they provided the need is extreme.  One lady who runs a small business preparing tea outside the education office talked to us about the daily struggle for water.  She said women in the villages are really suffering.   In many areas there is absolutely no water at all in the dry season.  She said it is common for one jerrycan to serve an entire family for the whole day.

Although this lady is from Aweil East, she suggested we really consider working in Aweil North, also.  That area borders Darfur and most of the aid organizations have been avoiding working there due to past security concerns.  Even though it’s a very isolated area, the security situation has definitely improved so we decided to make it a priority to investigate Aweil North first.

Although these are very populated areas, they are extremely remote with no roads to the villages and no phone network.   The world has no idea what is going on there.  Any statistics we get are just estimates so we will share the data we collect with the other NGOs in order to help gather some accurate figures.

Woman collecting water for drinking in Aweil East

I spend half the year in this region and I’ve seen a lot of places but the living conditions in these villages are the worst I’ve seen yet.   The people have NO WATER.   We heard stories about monkeys attacking women in the deep villages for their water.  It’s the end of the rainy season and the rivers and swamps are all drying up.  So soon it will all be gone until April.   After that people travel around looking for water during those months.  They move their houses, kids and everything.  School lets out in mid-December and doesn’t start back until April, so people can travel with their families looking for water.   They are not even thinking about clean water, this is about finding any water at all.   Right now they are drinking from swamps and dirty puddles but soon those will be gone.

Our entire team is extremely troubled by the situation. The women are affected the most, as the burden of collecting water falls solely on them and the girls. More than ever our entire team is dedicated to helping the women and girls in this country.   One of our team members is from this region and remembers his mom walking 6 hours a day for water, and honestly, not much has changed.

These conditions are due to the decades of war but things are peaceful now and people are hopeful for the future. For South Sudan to have a real shot at a future, its children need to be able to go to school. Only by getting children educated can countries move out of poverty and break the cycle of dependence.

The children are really suffering.  Education for girls is not even an option right now because they are being forced to help their mothers search for water.  The kids who are enrolled in school only go half-day because it’s so hot and without access to water children regularly pass out in class due to heat and extreme dehydration.

When I asked one head teacher about latrines, the children started nervously giggling at his answer that they just go into the bush.  Open defecation is the norm, rather than the exception, in these villages and at the schools.

We also noticed that two classes share one blackboard.  One side will have the lesson for 5th grade and the other for 6th.  They pass the chalkboard back and forth between the classes.  One class literally sits under the tree and waits patiently until the other teacher finishes his point and passes the board back. These classes are outdoors, as there are no actual buildings or rooms at their school.

I wonder how these children are ever going to be able to compete with the rest of the world.  No matter how bright, naturally talented or motivated they are, with these limitations their future seems bleak.

The Returnees

We spent much of the first week in relief coordination meetings with the other International NGOs discussing a pending humanitarian emergency.

This is what the water crisis looks like in South Sudan

Within the next two weeks 12,000 people are expected to be returning to the region from North Sudan.  Some unexpected trains have already begun arriving. These are mostly people who have been living in the northern refugee camps because of the war.  They are now being loaded onto trains and shipped back to the South, whether they like it or not.  They arrive with no food or money, just a few meager possessions, and there are not enough local resources to sustain them.  We were involved in so many coordination meetings with everybody trying to have their emergency plans in place.

The discussions in these meetings included topics such as setting up mobile clinics, food distribution, providing anti-malarial drugs, distributing mosquito nets, dealing with gender based violence and protective services for the vulnerable, handing out hygiene kits with bars of soap, as well as concerns about lack of sanitation facilities, which cross over into malnutrition issues.

The World Food Program has enough food to last just one month but after that there is going to be a major problem.  The people already living in this area struggle during the dry months for food as it is, which begins now and lasts till April or May. With the strain of these additional people,  the impending famine is not a threat, it is inevitable and unavoidable.

The reports are stating that there is an emergency situation in the camps they are leaving from and that many people have already died.  5000 children were reported to have died last month alone of malaria.  The experts are trying to figure out what to do.  It’s a two-week train ride and they fear there will be dead bodies arriving on the trains.

Many people have been living in terrible conditions in the northern camps, but some have been living normal lives there.  All southerners are being forced to come back to the South and there is concern that many of them have no idea what they’re coming back to.  In the North, there are basic services and infrastructure such as roads, power and water.  Many will expect the living conditions to be similar and are going to be in for a huge shock when they step off those trains.

Without this assistance from the NGOs, I hate to think how frightening the situation would be.    I met very interesting aid workers in the meetings.  Despite the extreme living conditions around here, we met doctors, psychologists and other highly trained specialists who have given up their lives of comfort to bring their expertise to these people in extreme need.

We are one of the few organizations who are able to focus on assistance for existing communities, since everybody else is dealing with the pending crisis.  Everyone seems happy we are here and able to help.  But it’s going to be tough work.  That’s for sure.