DANIEL MAJOK GAI, IMAGE BY TAMARA BANKS
The origins of Project Education South Sudan
Chapter 1 – Lost Boy Reunification
“Lost Boys” was the 1990s name given refugee children in the southern portion of what was then the largest country in Africa – Sudan. These children were driven from their villages during attacks by the dominant Arabic north against the civilian southern population – primarily black Africans.
The children walked thousands of miles to refugee camps in Ethiopia, enduring starvation, lion attacks, bombing and disease; they were soon driven out of Ethiopia and forced to again trek hundreds of miles to Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya. These young fugitives grew up in Kakuma; some were eventually fortunate enough to obtain asylum, primarily in the United States, but also in Australia and other Western countries.
In 2001, Carol and Richard Rinehart became mentors to over a dozen refugee “Lost Boys” in Denver, Colorado. One of these boys, Isaac Khor Bher, received news that his mother was still alive in Isaac’s native village. In May 2005, after a shaky peace with the north had been reached, Carol Rinehart traveled with Isaac to southern Sudan to find what was left of his family. In that war-torn region, there were only intermittently passable roads, little clean water or electricity, few latrines and virtually no healthcare.
Yet, the plea of Isaac’s villagers was not help for these fundamental needs. Instead, they asked for the education denied them by centuries of outside exploitation and colonialism, during which southern Sudan was viewed primarily as a source for the slave trade. Isaac and Carol returned to Denver with a mission: to help communities build schools in South Sudan. In October 2005 Project Education Sudan (now Project Education South Sudan or “PESS”) was formed.
Following Isaac’s reunion with his mother in the village of Konbeck, PESS reunited six other Lost Boys with their families, including our current Executive Director, Daniel Majok Gai.
Chapter 2 – School Buildings
These reunifications began a unique relationship between PESS and the remote communities in Jonglei state where these young men had been born. PESS partnered with these villages to build schoolhouses. These projects started in Isaac’s village of Konbek in 2005, but quickly expanded to Maar, Pagook and Gopmeth – a remarkable achievement given the lack of resources or infrastructure in these areas.
Beyond school buildings, and with a view to promoting school attendance, especially by girls, PESS donated water wells, commercial grinding mills, cinderblock-making equipment, sewing machines and annual school supply money to the villages where the schools are located.
In 2011, over 99% of the southern Sudanese population voted to secede from Sudan, as permitted under the 2004 peace agreement between the warring parties to the civil war; the election created world’s newest democracy – South Sudan. The 2004 peace agreement, the election and the new South Sudanese government was heavily supported by the United States, which has poured billions of dollars into development of the new nation.
While PESS was building schools in South Sudan, Lost Boy Daniel Majok Gai graduated from the University of Colorado in Denver and became a United States citizen. Daniel joined the PESS team as a volunteer and advocate, and in 2011, he returned to Jonglei state to become the PESS South Sudan Director, working locally to implement and oversee PESS’s educational projects. When Carol Rinehart took her well deserved retirement in 2015, Daniel was chosen by the Board as the new Executive Director of PESS; he now leads PESS from his home in Jonglei.
Chapter 3 – Community Leadership and Empowerment
Tragically, sparked by a rift between South Sudan’s top leaders, inter-tribal conflict broke out in December 2013 and remains unresolved. By the end of 2016, according to the United Nations, the brutal fighting had displaced one quarter of the population. As many as 4 million people (half of them children) have fled to neighboring countries or been internally displaced. The death toll includes tens of thousands of civilians. Ethnic killings and torture have been common, along with rampant gender-based violence.
The UNICEF Education Cluster has reported that the conflict has reduced the number of open South Sudanese schools by 25%, due to insecurity and non-payment of teacher salaries. South Sudan now has the highest rate of out-of-school-children in the world, with close to 72% of children missing out on education.
While the violence and destruction is profoundly discouraging, South Sudan simply cannot wait for the war to end to educate its children. Each child’s lost educational opportunity reduces South Sudan’s capacity to recover from this war. Thus, despite the obstacles the conflict presents – PESS is adapting, not giving up.
PESS is well-positioned to deliver solutions in the current environment. Most importantly, PESS has first hand knowledge. Daniel Gai, its Executive Director, has lived in Jonglei since 2011. Board member, native South Sudanese and now US citizen Ngor Abiar has spent several months in South Sudan during the last two years assisting PESS. Board member Ken Scott, in his work as one of three appointed members of the United Nations Human Rights Commission on South Sudan, as well as for other human rights organizations, has traveled throughout South Sudan to report on conditions there (Report of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan).
As a small, independent NGO with on-the-ground representation, PESS has direct connection and credibility with the local South Sudanese communities we serve. Having already worked in the harsh conditions of South Sudan for over a decade, PESS has proved its ability to flexibly meet the changing educational needs of the population.
Given the current insecurity and huge inflation, PESS has concluded that it must transition from building bricks and mortar school buildings. Where it can make the greatest impact now is by direct student funding. Since the public school system lacks teachers (who are not being paid) and other resources, we are sending our students to existing, operational private schools, which are much more effective than the unsupported public schools.
And we are directing our focus to girls in secondary schools: we believe, based on our own experience and data collection, as well as worldwide studies and reports, that girl education is the most effective path to producing the new leaders that South Sudan needs to guide its societal well being and economic development.
PESS supports its girl scholars with after school tutoring, global awareness education and peer-to-peer bonding. Its work is so popular that over 100 families are on a waiting list in hopes that their girls can join the program. We are only limited by our funding in providing education for girls who are hungry – not only make a better life for themselves – but to create a better country for their fellow South Sudanese.