In South Sudan, school starts in early February after the Christmas and New Year Holiday. Thank God that I arrived Tonj before Christmas so that I could celebrate the feasts with the Salesian Sisters here over the school holiday, and managed to spend some quality time with God before the busy season kicked off.
My leisurely honeymoon period ended around mid Janurary when the sisters began to prepare for the new school year of St Bakhita Kindergarten, Primary and High School. We became very busy from the last week of January when both old and new students started to come for school registration and entrance examinations, which turned out to be a precious opportunity for me to meet with many students, to hear their life stories, and to know more about the local culture.
Among the many students we have met, a few left a strong impression on me.
M, a tall well built seventeen-year-old boy, did quite well in the written entrance exams. Only when he came into the office for oral interview, i noticed a few prominent, neat and tidy scars across his forehead. Sr Claudia said those scars are commonly found among the local Dinka, who would scarify their foreheads to display courage and loyalty to their tribe as part of their initiation into adulthood. The locals are able to identify each other by the shapes of their head scars, hence these scars do not only separate the men from the boys, they separate tribes from each other, they separate men from the love of Christ. During the oral interview, Sr Claudia asked M in front of other teachers, “What if one day you break a rule in school, one teacher without head scars is going to punish you, what would you do?” He said, “I confess that i have head scars, but they were scarified by my father against my will. I am a student, if i break any rule, I shall be punished by my teacher, regardless of head scars. In our culture, a man should take up the responsibility of guarding cows for his family. I am the fortunate one and shall definitely cherish the opportunity to go to school.” What M said touches my heart deeply. He is rough and big in appearance, yet he talks humbly. I hope that his presentation is reflecting his true self, and I pray that he can be the change agent in his family and his tribe, and become a channel of peace in His own land of turmoil.
Another boy, C, came for high school entrance interview at the age of 22. C said his family is very poor with many siblings. His parents could only support his big brother to study. Only until this year, his turn comes when his big brother graduated and can now support him and other young siblings to go to school. It is touching to see the strong determination and hard work of the underprivileged young people in Tonj to get an education, which is often taken for granted in other developed countries.
In Tonj most families are poor, C is not alone. Those students living in extreme poverty may receive financial assistance from the Salesian Sisters. Among the many sponsored students, one boy called L in primary one caught my attention. L has a blind mother, a sick father, an elder sister and a younger brother. Sister Claudia said L was once a cunning young beggar, but now his family is being helped by the Salesian Sisters after knowing his family background. I still remember vividly the day we visited his home with some food and a few pairs of shoes as gifts, he whispered to me asking to exchange the shoes for clothes as his brother has no clothes to put on. After spending 2 months in Tonj, i notice that many young boys are running around naked, not because they are wild in nature, they are simply too poor to afford any clothes.
While most families are poor in Tonj, the situation of girls is worse than boys. Many families do not allow their girls to go to school because they do not see the need, or they simply keep their girls at home to cook and do the house chores for them. For those who are fortunate enough to study, they are likely being forced to quit school and get married before completing high school, in exchange for cows as dowry income for the families. Before the school started in February, we already knew that five of our high school girls got married during the school holiday.
On one Sunday during the school registration weeks, Salesian Fr Chisomo adddressed to all the young male students in his homily at mass, encouraging them to have courage to speak up for their sisters against the elders, to protect their sisters from being forced into arranged marriage, to persuade their families not to sacrifice the future of their sisters for cows, to defend their rights to study and the rights to pursue their dreams in life.
Thanks to the Salesian Sisters for your vision and determination to bring quality education to Tonj, and to educate the young people with love by example. I pray that this new generation, who have been blessed with the education of love, can become the change agent and the positive force in the community to reinforce Catholic values in the local culture, and drive South Sudan towards peace and new development. Lord, graciously hear our prayer.
Madut, Caribino, Jal, Josephine, Julia, Elizabeth and all our students of St Bakhita, you are the new generation in Christ, you are the change agent, you are the positive force, you are the future of South Sudan. 💪
(Published in FMA newsletter, 15 February, 2020)
(Last modified: 08-10-2020)