Amid conflict and poverty, this school in South Sudan is an unlikely success.

Amid conflict and poverty, this school in South Sudan is an unlikely success.

Like many of the systems set up in the rush to independence, education throughout South Sudan is a mishmash of ideals and the possible. Lessons often take place under trees if buildings are not available or in a good state. Retaining teachers is difficult, because salaries are low. Sometimes the pay packet comes late, too, the commissioner of Yei River County, Bidali Cosmas, admits, and often teachers “quit for more lucrative jobs in [foreign] NGOs”. Some schools sit the Ugandan Certificate of Education, others the Kenyan equivalent, although the plan is for every school to move over to the South Sudanese version. In 2013, its final year in the Ugandan system, the Excel Academy produced four of the top 10 students in the area.

The private school is run by Wani Kenneth Evans, a South Sudanese engineer who started as a bricklayer at another school project, and progressed up the ranks. The academy was founded in 2011, with ambitious goals. “We need to produce future leaders, people who can create and do something for this nation,” Kenneth says. Unusually, the 700 students come from all of South Sudan’s 10 states, and some even from neighbouring Sudan.

There is a particular emphasis on female students. Only one in six women in South Sudan can read or write, and many are not allowed to attend school. As one Excel Academy pupil wrote in an essay: “Owing to the lack of financial support, some of my parents [tried to] force me to marry but I refused because I want to continue with my education.”

Amid conflict and poverty, this school in South Sudan is an unlikely success.

An American NGO, Africa Education and Leadership Initiative (Africa ELI), sponsors outstanding students of both sexes, female students as long as they have reasonable grades, and refugees from the Nuba mountains in Sudan. Africa ELI’s Anita Henderlight says one reason her organisation chose to support students at Excel is simple: “The teachers come, they attend classes and they teach. I have found that in some schools it is difficult because they don’t receive salaries on time, and when that does not happen teachers are not motivated to show up. The administration here has made the teachers a priority.”

Science is considered vital at the school, and there is a basic laboratory. There is also a computer room, the only one in the county, even if the bulky desktops have clearly seen better days. The students are encouraged to take part in extracurricular activities, including voluntary cleaning of markets and hospitals, debate clubs and sports teams. At the journalism club, enthusiastic students practise interviewing each other. One segment, a detailed analysis of Arsenal’s recent loss to Chelsea, attracts rapt attention, and cheers at the conclusion.

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