Weapons-free zone enables reopening of community school outside Juba protection site
Ilya is 11. He wants to become an astronaut, but may begrudgingly settle for a career as a teacher. To fulfill either of his dreams, he will need a school, and now he and his high-aspiring mates in Queen’s village in Juba actually have one.
“It’s a very big day for us,” says Scopas Gwolo Modi, secretary of the village. He and the rest of the residents of the village all arrived in Juba from Yei, a few hours road travel away, during the years preceding the independence of South Sudan in 2011.
The smiles and twinkling eyes of the 40 or so children gathered for the opening of the school, dressed in their Sunday bests, revealed that they were as excited as Mr. Scopas, and rightfully so. After all, most of the grand total of 35 girls and 16 boys so far registered at the Queen’s Nursery and Primary School have not attended school since their old school packed up in the wake of the outbreak of violence in Juba in July 2016.
“The other school options for these children were either too expensive or too far away,”, explains Roger Hughes, a staff member of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan and one of those who helped set up the 200 metre-wide weapons-free zone outside the perimeter of the UN protection site for civilians in Juba.
The dream of reopening the school stayed alive in the community, and some six months ago, when Roger became aware of the community-led project to make it happen, Roger decided to do his own individual part to help out. He quickly teamed up with a few other UNMISS staff members willing to embark on a private mission to contribute to the wellbeing of the local community.
The buildings housing the total of six classrooms have been donated by Sadia Lona Antony, the former village chief, who is now Minister of Education in the Yei area. School uniforms, blackboards, office chairs, tables and wooden benches are also in place, donated by a total of twelve peacekeepers, but a lot of stationary and school material is still needed. Facilities and utensils necessary to provide the young students with nutritious, robust porridge are also lacking.
What seems to exist in abundance, however, is enthusiasm for returning to school in a country where, according to the UN Children’s Fund’s latest figures, 72 per cent children are out of the educational system.
Apart from space-bound Ilya, a mini survey among the hopeful students revealed others with ambitious goals.
“I would like to become a doctor and help sick people. I know that it means many years of studying, but I’m looking forward to it,” says 15-year-old Lona.
Ningilio, 7, and Wilson, 8, both want to take to the skies.
“I want to be a pilot,” says Ningilio.
“Yes, and fly like a bird!” adds Wilson, sporting a smile which would likely blind pilots of oncoming flights.
Teachers’ salaries for the first few months have been covered by a private donor, but the agreement between donors and the community is that Queen’s Nursery and Primary School shall be in a position to be self-sufficient by May this year. This self-funding will be achieved by means of school fees of less than 2 American dollars per school term.
The good news is that a safe environment now prevails among the neighbouring villages of Queen’s, Nakitun, Heilat Kakwa, 8 Houses and Checkpoint, which should enable teaching to resume smoothly.
This, according to Queen’s Village Chief Charles Tata, is thanks to the nimble and proactive creation of a weapons-free zone. Several villagers have worked in collaboration with the UN mission to maintain this zone by helping out with cutting the long grass where weapons were sometimes hidden.
“The security situation is okay now, we can all move around freely without a problem. The weapons-free zone is a great initiative, and peacekeepers patrolling the area day and night has also proved very important to maintain secure surroundings for everyone,” concludes Mr. Tata.