Tension was under the surface as we negotiated with the contractor, trying to chip away another $10,000 from his bid. The price to build a school in South Sudan, I have learned, is exorbitantly high.
South Sudan came out of decades of devastating civil war only five years ago. Infrastructure was nearly non-existent when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in 2005, and now, five years later, its improvement has been creeping at best.
Students in front of the collapsing tukul that had served as the office of the former Ariang school, which met under trees. Photo: Gabriel Bol Deng
Nearly all the raw materials needed for construction is either imported from Uganda or brought in from Khartoum in the North. The price of the materials reflects the distance it had to travel to reach South Sudan. Located in Warrap state, Ariang's isolation increases the cost as well.
Transportation to get all the building materials on site will cost almost $70,000. Cutting corners to get the price down is not recommended.
Three years ago, the NGO World Vision built four schools in Warrap State. The iron-sheeting roofs of all four blew off during last year's rainy season. The climate is harsh and unforgiving in South Sudan.
Perhaps this explains why, as Lino Anyak Kuec, the director general of the Ministry of Education for Warrap state pointed out in our meeting last week, 90 percent of the 344 primary schools are still functioning under trees.
It is difficult to ascertain the exact population of Warrap state that these 344 primary schools serve. According to the 2008 census, there are close to 1 million people. Southerners, however, contest the census results and in fact, Kuec told us, the numbers of people who registered to vote in the 2010 elections surpassed the census results.
Warrap is a "new" state, born out of the signing of the CPA. Kuajok, the capital of Warrap state, was created in 2006. The problems faced by all states in South Sudan are intensified in Warrap, which had no previous experience or even minimal infrastructure to draw on.
The lack of constructed schools is one indicator of the challenges that the state faces. In Kuajok, the state capital, there are 5,220 students divided among only three primary schools, averaging 217.5 students in each classroom.
There are only eight secondary schools in all of Warrap State, which is about 220 miles in length, and only two of them have their own facility. The others use rooms in six of thirty-odd constructed primary schools. This arrangement will end soon; the primary schools are desperate for all their classroom space.
They are asking the secondary school classes to vacate their premises. There are only 2,000 secondary students in all of Warrap state—an indication of the drop-out rate, especially high for girls, as well as a commentary on the lack of education during the war and the subsequent need for Southern Sudanese to catch up. Many of the students studying in primary school are teenagers or adults.
Clearing straw from future Ariang School site. Photo: Gabriel Bol Deng
A school building, of course, is only one step towards a functioning school. Every school needs basic supplies, which schools in South Sudan are sorely lacking, whether they are housed in a building or under trees. Currently, only one-third of the classes in Warrap state have chalkboards.
Last year, UNICEF provided 1 chalkboard for each school. Each school had to decide—which class would be the lucky one to receive the chalkboard?
The quality of teaching in Warrap state is also a grave concern. During the war, there were a handful of scattered "bush schools", so-called because they operated "in the bush." The teachers were primarily untrained rebel fighters who gathered children during lulls in the violence to teach them whatever they knew from their own schooling. When fighting resumed, the bush schools stopped.
Many of these former rebel/bush teachers are now teaching in the primary schools. "We cannot ask them to stop teaching," Kuec said. He suggested two reasons why. One is connected to the Government of South Sudan's loyalty to those who fought and served with the Sudan People's Liberation Army during the war. And, Kuec pointed out, there are not teachers with more adequate training to replace them.
The lack of trained teachers is perhaps the greatest challenge to providing an adequate education to children in South Sudan. Teachers lack not only methodology, but basic, general knowledge. Often, those with a sixth grade education level are teaching grade 4.
There are many qualified teachers among Southerners, but a large percentage of them received their schooling in Khartoum, following an Arabic language curriculum. The Government of South Sudan (GoSS) has determined that the language of instruction is English.
Educated Southerners fluent in Arabic cannot teach an English language curriculum. GoSS, strapped with budget deficits all around, pays teachers approximately $100/month. Subsequently, teachers often take second jobs to supplement this income. It is not uncommon for a teacher to send a friend to take over his class a few days a week while he is busy working as a driver.
Despite the constant uphill struggle, improvement has been made. 150 out of Warrap's 3,000 teachers are currently in a training course and in February, 240 more will begin a three-month course.
Gabriel Bol teaches children in the Ariang school, which continues to meet under trees until he constructs their school building. Photo courtesy of Rebuilding Hope
In 2007, teachers complained that their salaries arrived months late if they came at all, and teachers had to travel to Kuajok to receive them, sometimes closing school for a week each month or two in order to make the journey on foot and return.
The salaries in 2010, though inadequate, are at least paid regularly. Teachers receive payment in their own district rather than having to travel to Kuajok. The system is computerized, enabling much better record keeping. Baby steps, but important ones.
Gabriel Bol continued to negotiate with the contractor, trying to convince him to reduce the cost of building the school without reducing the quality.
Even after the contractor agreed to shave off the $10,000, Gabriel Bol will have to raise an additional $50,000 when he returns to the U.S. in order for the construction to be completed. And he is well-aware, even as he negotiates the transport for gravel, cement, and iron sheeting, that building this school is only the first step. Gabriel Bol's goal is not only that the children of his village have a school building, it's that they have an education.
There is much work to be done.