South Sudan: Pythagoras in the trenches

Date 20.09.2017

Photo reports by By Michele Bertelli and Javier Sauras

Peter Taban is, paradoxically, privileged. The 14 year old lives with his mother and five younger siblings in a mud and straw tukul near the border with Uganda. Peter’s father was a soldier. He died in the war of independence. His mother, Teresa, spends her days gathering wood, wild fruits, going to the well for water and doing everything she can to make their limited grain reserves go further. This year, the drought has left them with no harvest. With roads cut off by the war, very little food reaches their village, Chahari, in the province of Eastern Equatoria, in the south of the country. Peter and his family eat once a day, if they are lucky.

His yellow polo shirt, the only one he has, is well worn, coming apart at the seams, the collar is misshapen, and it is too big for him. He has no shoes on his feet, but he has a pen and a number of exercise books. Monday is his favourite day of the week, as it is when he goes back to school. Despite the war, two cement huts divided into classrooms are still left standing in Chahari. Peter is privileged in comparison with 70 per cent of the children in South Sudan: he is able to go to school.

Peter, who has experienced very few years of peace, likes school. If he did not go to school, he would have to help his mother in the corn and sorghum fields, or take care of scaring the birds away, to stop them from ruining the harvest, or hunt for muskrats with a bow and arrow. “I know that if I finish my studies I could become an important person one day,” he says, with a thin voice. The eldest of the Taban children is a willowy boy who walks with a slight stoop, as if to trying to shy away from attention. His timidity contrasts with his ambition. “Perhaps I’ll make it into parliament one day, or be a governor,” he dreams.

South Sudan is the country with the highest percentage of out-of-school children in the world. UNICEF describes the situation as “a catastrophe”, without exception. Very few children are still able to enjoy their childhood in South Sudan. At least two million have had to flee their homes, hounded by war and hunger. A million of them are already living in refugee camps in Uganda and Kenya. In addition, UN agencies estimate that over 17,000 minors have been turned into child soldiers. The civil war, now entering its fourth year, is showing no signs of reaching an end.

The first thing Peter does on reaching home in the afternoon is to sit down with his mother, under the shade of a tree, next to their tukul, to go over a lesson with her. Peter’s mother was not able to go to school. “Because of the war,” she explains, almost apologetically. “We were constantly fleeing the bombing. Everyone felt persecuted and under threat.” Her life is not any easier now. A widow with five children, without any reliable source of income or supply of food, Teresa is working hard to learn to read and write. “Educated people are better equipped to deal with a crisis like this. They can look after their families better and take care of their children’s health,” she says with conviction.

Teresa attends special classes for adults on many evenings. She is eager to learn to note down things she is told and, perhaps, in the future, to work in an office. “There has to be more to life than working the land and having children.”

Peter’s favourite lesson is mathematics. His teacher is called Job Peter Ohisa. He teaches calculus and some trigonometry. The Pythagorean theorem often features in the maths exams in Chahari.

In addition to his role as a maths teacher, Ohisa is also the community mobiliser. He takes care of announcing news about the school to the villagers and finding the pupils who stop attending classes.

There are families who are not always able to pay the school enrolment fee – although it is very low – or who need their children’s help with the animals or the harvest. In such cases, Ohisa turns to AVSI, the only remaining NGO in the area. AVSI is an Italian organisation that has been working in Chahari and its surroundings for decades. The studies of hundreds of youngsters, like Peter Taban, are sponsored by its remote support programme. AVSI is also in charge of distributing schools with the food that the World Food Programme and the US development agency USAID manages to transport to the region.

“The number of pupils at our school has risen during the war. It’s because of the famine,” explains Ohisa. Every day, when the classes are over, the pupils queue for a bowl of cornmeal and vegetable oil. In recent months, however, many children have left with their families, to head for the border. The fighting intensified in 2016 and it became impossible even for UN trucks to cross the frontline. Neither could anyone be sent from Chahari. “The drivers were afraid,” says the teacher. In South Sudan, death lies in wait in the trenches and the empty larders.

The latest figures published in the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) warn that 25 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance due to food crises in South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. Over half of the 12 million people in South Sudan are at risk, and over a million children are already suffering from acute malnutrition.

In Ikotos County, which Chahari is part of, the hunger map corresponds to the orography. The county is intersected by mountains. To the south of them, near Uganda, the children are less likely to be malnourished. This slight advantage is not related to trade with the neighbouring country, which is almost non existent, but to the quality of the soil. In the southern villages, such as Isohe, the soil is more fertile and more wild fruits grow. Chahari is to the north, it is more arid, and this impacts the physiognomy of the children. When social workers from the AVSI or doctors from the Isohe clinic visit the north of the county, they invariably come across youngsters at risk.

Twenty-five year old Rosina Imotong is one of the women who conducts these visits. She travels to the villages by bicycle, with a weighing scale, a measuring tape, vaccines and a MUAC bracelet. The MUAC is used to measure child malnutrition. The results of her trips to the north of Ikotos are bittersweet: the satisfaction of being able to reach the most depressed regions with help is countered by the painful knowledge that it will never be enough. “When we find malnourished children, we make sure we give the mother food to treat them. But, because the whole family goes hungry, the mothers often share the food out between all their children, which means it is very hard for the smaller ones to recover,” she explains.

The civil war in South Sudan is the latest in a series of conflicts that have shaped this part of Sub-Saharan Africa. There is not one person in the county of Ikotos who is unfamiliar with the sound of bullets. War has plagued the memories of its inhabitants for almost a century, with virtually no interruption. There was the independence struggle of the whole of Sudan against Egypt, then against the British. Once the country had freed itself from colonialism, the predominantly Christian and black African southern provinces took up arms against Arab-influenced Khartoum. The first war of independence began in 1955. The school’s director, Paskwina Iromo, one of the four nuns living in Isohe, remembers it well.

Sister Paskwina, as she is known among her neighbours, has not enjoyed even a decade of peace during her 68 years on this earth. The two wars of independence, which ended in 2005, were followed by the years of terror waged by the militias of Joseph Kony, known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. The last four years have been plagued by the civil war between the supporters of the president, Salva Kiir, and his former vice president, Riek Machar. No one is able to explain how it began or why it is still being fought. The conflict is now taking on an ethnic slant, with the country’s two largest groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, separated into troops fighting for Kiir or Machar. “Many people lose their parents. Parents lose their children. The children grow up without going to school, and everyone is giving up hope,” she says.

Teresa, Peter’s mother, is caught between hope and fear. “I hope my children will have a brilliant future. At least they have a school here in Chahari. If we pack up and try to reach the refugee camp, anything could happen to us.”