As I write, high-pitched chanting from the girls of the Agok primary school fills the air. They are cheering on their male classmates in the school's soccer match. It's a still evening. The sunset has just reached that special moment when it transforms the color of the whole sky. The rain that has made the Agok-Abyei road impassable in recent days is nowhere to be seen and there's a vibrant community spirit as adults join the students crowding round the patch of flattened dirt that serves as the village soccer ground. A police officer who was chasing children with a baton to clear the view for the NGO workers watching the game was soon causing great hilarity with his acceptance of the invitation to join in the middle of the girls who were putting on a half-time dance show.
It's a contest between primary schools, but both the boys playing and the girls cheering them on look to be somewhere between 18 and 25 years old. This is the norm in most of southern Sudan for two reasons. For those who stayed here during the war years, regular school attendance was impossible. To the extent they managed to get an education at all, it was mostly taught by volunteers who often had not completed their own education, usually under trees, and without textbooks. And then there is another group of students – those whose families fled north during the war and who grew up in Khartoum. Their education was more regular than their kin in the south, but it was taught solely in Arabic. Since the peace agreement was signed in 2005 and their families returned to the south, they have had to restart their primary education all over again – this time in English.
Contrary to my expectations, the students I've spoken with who have returned from Khartoum in recent years don't begrudge the need to go through primary school twice. In fact, most of them seem to view their second primary school experience with a sense of pride. "It is teaching me to be a citizen of my country" was the way 18-year old Lual Kuol Lual, now completing fifth grade, explained it to me today.