This past Sunday I attended a church service in Kuajok, South Sudan. About 500 church-goers gathered under large mango trees at the center of the capital of Warrap State. Remnants of a bombed out school building served as the backdrop for the service. It was a visible reminder of where the war-torn nation has been. But one of the guest speakers at the Sunday service, Nyandeng Malek, the first-elected female governor of East Africa, was an indicator of where the new nation is headed.
Malek told the crowd in their native Dinka language that when she was a young girl she was loved by many. It was when she became a governor in 2010 that she felt her new peers, some former generals, looked down on her because of her sex. She later explained to me during an interview at her home that while it can be lonely at the top as the only female in her position in East Africa, she knows she’s making a difference in the lives of young women.
“Sometimes when I see kids playing I’ll see a young girl with a group of boys around her,” said Malek. “I hear the girl say, ‘I’m Nyandeng Malek, the governor, and you’re my bodyguards,’” Malek said with a smile.
According to the Governor, being a role model for girls in Warrap State and throughout South Sudan is an opportunity to share the importance of getting an education. She explained the cultural tendency for South Sudanese girls to get married off by their families at a young age either temporarily halting or completely ending their educational pursuits. During the church service and her interview, Malek praised the United States and the UK among other nations for their support during the war and for assisting South Sudan in the educational sector. She said the Ajong School in Mayan-Abun, established through the Rochester-based non-profit, Building Minds in Sudan, is an example of the type of partnership her nation needs and depends on with the US.
During our interview Malek addressed the many challenges facing education right now in South Sudan. She said there aren’t enough schools accessible to the nation’s young people and far too many teachers lacking an adequate education. She said many educators in classrooms today have nothing more than a middle or high school education. Malek said teacher training is her priority right now and again pointed to the US as a role model to help with the mission. She added if teachers don’t get the training necessary to advance student curriculum, their young people won’t be able to compete in a global marketplace.
While Malek admitted South Sudan has a long road ahead as it works to build itself up since independence, she’s confident her country is up to the task. But Malek explained South Sudan’s future success is contingent upon one thing, more young women getting educated.
This is part of WXXI’s reporting and civic engagement initiative around Schools for South Sudan, which explores issues related to education, diversity and racism locally and around the world. Schools for South Sudan is supported in part by The Community Foundation. Follow Hélène's reporting trip on Twitter: @HeleneWXXI and #SouthSudanEd