Five decades of war and upheaval in South Sudan has had an inevitable impact on education - almost three-quarters of adults in the world's newest country are unable to read or write. A recent report by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) holds that less than 2 percent of the population has completed a primary school education.
"South Sudan is believed to have the worst literacy rate in the world, worse than Mali and Niger, which were the only ones close. [Adult literacy] currently sits at 27 percent, according to the latest statistics we have from 2009,” said Jessica Hjarrand, education specialist at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
A 2005 peace deal paved the way for South Sudan to secede from the north in July 2011. The country has since struggled to build an education system for its young and to educate the millions of adults who missed out on school during the war.
“There're not enough schools. There're certainly not enough teachers,” said Hjarrand. “Most of the teachers in South Sudan are primary school leavers.”
As a result, the quality of instruction is poor, Hjarrand continued. "They don't know how to manage a classroom. They don't know how to manage people with different needs in the classroom, let alone the content area and the skills you're supposed to be passing down through education."
Michael Adier Kuol, headmaster of Lomuku Primary School in Yei, a town in Central Equatoria State, concurred. “In the school where I'm teaching now, there are around 16 teachers, and all of them are untrained."
Complicating matters is the fact that South Sudan has decided to switch from offering instruction in Arabic, which is associated with the north, to teaching in English - a challenge for most teachers and students.
Many education experts believe that children should first become literate in their mother tongues. “But it’s very difficult to do when you’ve got something like, I think, 66 languages in South Sudan, to have to develop materials for each of those languages,” Hjarrand said.
Keeping up with demand
After southern Sudan signed the 2005 peace agreement, its education programme, supported by international donors, underwent one of the world’s fasted reconstruction programmes, a recent study reports.
Between 2006 and 2010, the number of primary school students more than doubled, from 700,000 to 1.6 million, the study notes.
But even after the influx of international donations, the country’s school system does not yet have the resources to keep up with demand.
In a courtyard in Yei, children sit on makeshift benches under a tree as they recite the alphabet. "They are taught under the mango tree, not in a classroom,” said the teacher, John Wandera. “That is one challenge - lack of enough space for learning”
Lack of educational materials is another challenge, he said.
The community has banded together to build new classrooms, but they can only afford local materials like flimsy wood and grass thatch, said Kuol.
Retention is also a problem. "You can look at enrolment, but unless your look at attendance, you'll only get part of the picture," said Hjarrand, noting that dropouts are common.
A report by the South Sudan office of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) says that 70 percent of children between six and 17 years old have never set foot inside a classroom, and that only one in 10 children complete primary school.
While 16 percent of the national budget is allocated for education, opposition political parties and aid agencies claim it actually receives less than 10 percent. (The figures for Kenya, Burundi, and Ethiopia are 26, 15 and 5 percent respectively.)
Meanwhile, the country’s economy is in free-fall. Because of a row with Sudan, South Sudan took the drastic step of shutting down oil production in January, cutting off 98 percent of its revenues. Civil servants say their newly slashed salaries are not being paid.
"The government is unable to pay all the teachers of South Sudan. In the school [where] I'm teaching now, the payment of the teachers is done by the parents," Kuol said.
"The parents are the ones raising money every month so that their children are taught. It's very little…. They are paid only 200 South Sudanese pounds, which is maybe US$50, or even less… per teacher per month," he said.
If this continues, many fear that professionals will leave the sector.
But those studying in Yei are lucky. A trading hub in South Sudan's greenbelt, the town was not on the frontlines during the war and has remained peaceful since independence.
Many students at Lomuku Primary School in Yei come from Jonglei - a state bordering Ethiopia that has been plagued by inter-communal violence. A 2009 household survey showed that only 19 percent of the state’s population can read or write.
"There're no good schools [in Jonglei],” said 10-year-old Daniel Bol, who travelled with his 16-year-old sister to Yei in search of a better education. “I've come here to learn, and now it's good," he said.
"The good schools are really only found in the Equatorias [three southern states] here, because the security here is… all right," Kuol explained. "But those in Jonglei, and beyond Lakes State and Unity State, the schools are not all that good. Some of the students are staying at home due to a fear that… anyone may break in and kill or abduct the children.”
Already full, Kuol’s four-room school has also attracted over 300 adult learners, who attend an accelerated learning programme in the afternoons.
"We encourage them to come, and they are also willing, as they have seen the importance [of] education," said Martha Aleul, who has been teaching at Lomuku since 2008. He has run the accelerated programme for around 200 students a year since 2009.
It is part of the country’s Alternative Education Programme, which originally targeted former soldiers but has since been opened to students of all ages. Nationally, enrolment mushroomed from 81,000 to 217,000 students between 2008 and 2009.
"We have very many disadvantaged children, dropouts during the war, those who lost their parents, those who were taken as child soldiers… Later on they decided to come back to learn. These reasons made me open this centre to accommodate them," he said.
But many women are being left out. Only 16 percent of women over age 15 are literate, according to the latest data.
Joseph Laku Henry, fire brigade director in Yei, attends school because, he says, "I want to help my community.” But he says his two wives do not attend school as they are already “grown up” and work at home.
Aid agencies are stressing education for women as a driver of development. "An educated adult, especially an educated woman - and when we are looking at who is illiterate, most of them are women living in rural areas - they are much more likely to advocate for the education of their children," says Hjarrand.
Education can also be a driver of peace.
"Now that schools have been opened, everyone has seen that education is important and that they need to come, and that war and guns are not the future," said adult learner Hannah Bol.
"Education is very, very important for peace. If you are educated you will able to know what peace is, you will be able to educate people about reconciliation, forgiveness and coming together to solve problems," said Wandera, who hopes that education will stave off further conflict with Sudan.
But his goals are being hampered by the persistent lack of resources.
"When [students] complete level four, they will be going to secondary school, and who is going to pay for them? When I enter their classrooms, this is always the question they ask," he said.