Sr Jacinta Prunty, a Holy Faith Sister and lecturer in the History Department in the State University, Maynooth, shared her experience of a visit to the Solidarity South Sudan Teacher Training College, Yambio, South Sudan, where Sr Margaret Sheehan fcJ gives truly heroic service. Jacinta worked there for one semester (January to April 2019), with Margaret and the other members of this international team.
Jacinta writes “I know for certain that Sr Margaret Sheehan FCJ would not want anything at all said about her own role in the college but Margaret is a gift to one of the poorest countries in Africa, and the love she has for the students (and staff) is manifest each and every day.”
Jacinta wrote the following:
EDUCATION FOR TRANSFORMATION IN POST-CONFLICT CONTEXTS, A FOCUS ON SOUTH SUDAN
Public seminar hosted by the Maynooth University Departments of Education, History and International Development
On the Wednesday before Holy Week (11 April 2019) after speaking heartfelt words to the political leaders of South Sudan, Pope Francis pushed past his secretary and interpreter, and crossed the room. He knelt and kissed the feet of President Salva Kiir Mayardit, then struggled up and down again to kiss the feet of Kiir’s mortal enemy Riek Machar (two men who carry responsibility for many wicked things). He then did the same again with three other political leaders. It was evening time in Solidarity Teacher Training College, Yambio (STTC), when I heard the BBC World Service interrupt its schedule to report live as the meeting unfolded.
For the 13 million people of South Sudan who have suffered so much (x4 million are still in camps, driven out of their homes), the Pope’s gesture brings immense hope. This truly memorable meeting came just as I was preparing to leave Yambio after one term of teaching mainly English (the national language) to young women and men training to be primary school teachers. There was (and is) nothing fairy-tale about this project in South Sudan. Each of the student teachers, without exception, has witnessed the most awful crimes against their own family members and neighbours.
Their own education has been limited, as schools were destroyed during decades of war, and the illiteracy rate of 78% is the highest in Africa. The country lacks the most basic things: roads, sewage system, piped water, waste disposal, the list is endless. And yet, the student teachers, local South Sudanese staff and missionaries (several from Ireland, you would be hugely proud of them), are bursting with hope and ambition for this wonderful country. The students are put forward for the privilege of teacher training by their local parishes and ‘on the ground’ organisations of all sorts (including the UN refugee camps); after an intense programme of 16 months (residential) they return home to all parts of the country to serve their local communities (and they do, a recent audit shows that this is true).
The schools themselves have nothing – not even benches let alone books or pencils – and the huge youth population leads to class sizes of 120+. While outsiders want to fund desks (and rightly so), the training, and proper payment, of teachers is what will make the long-term difference. I had the joy and privilege of being part of this venture for 16 weeks. The students are hugely appreciative of the ‘outside’ help to get things moving. School ideas we take for granted – alphabet on the wall, pictures, puppets, clock, flashcards – are taken up with zest, and the creativity of the students in transforming ‘no cost’ items (recycling) into teaching aids just amazed (and humbled) me. What they could do with a needle, blade, and empty rice bag is the match of anything Eugene Lambert (of puppet fame) could do. They reworked some girl-guide songs, adding wonderful actions, for classroom use. Every cardboard box and empty tin can saw further use. The commitment to their faith must also be noted. The majority of South Sudanese are Catholic and STTC is a Catholic college that welcomes all faiths and none. I saw for myself something of ‘the joy of the Gospel’ in practice there. The young people are enthusiastic church members who find great joy and solace in their faith; the Legion of Mary in the college (27 zealous members) is one of several lay groups that give real witness.
When they heard I was from the parish in which Frank Duff first started the Legion, they were truly delighted, and I felt obliged to respond with a short history talk each week (on the Legion), learning much myself in the process! During my time with the people of South Sudan I was struck by their great courtesy, collaborative spirit, and resilience, and knew much kindness and warmth. I appreciate very much, the weekly remembrance at the 11.30am Sunday mass, to keep me safe; thanks to Fr Martin and all who kept that intention alive. I ask that you continue to pray for peace in South Sudan, a country very dear now I think to all of us in this parish (as it is to Pope Francis).
Sr.Jacinta Prunty (Holy Faith Sisters, Dublin)
The good news is that both leaders in South Sudan are finally agreeing to form a government together. Hopefully this will bring much of the violence to an end and open the way for prosperity and growth in the country.