By Elissa Jobson
GAMBELLA, ETHIOPIA, 25 JUNE 2014 – “School is good for the boy and the girl,” sings ten-year old Nyanget Tohok, her voice, cutting through the midday humidity, rings out clean and clear. “SCHOOL IS GOOD FOR THE BOY AND THE GIRL,” chorus the crowd of around 100 children, some as young as 6 or 7 years of age, who have gathered outside the chicken-wire fence of the school compound in Kule refugee camp.
They have not come for lessons. They are not there to collect their schoolbooks. They are there to demand their right to an education. “We are singing for school,” says Nyanget. “We need to learn but there is no space.” The school only has room for 1,200 children but more than 6,000 students registered and are waiting to enrol when the space allows. The exiting places were allocated on a first come, first served basis.
“When we don’t come to school we cannot be happy. We have seen our friends coming to school but we are not given a chance to learn,” laments Majiok Yien, aged 9. This young boy wants to be an English teacher but his dream has been violently interrupted by the civil war raging in South Sudan, which forced him and his family to seek refuge in Ethiopia.
On land provided by UNHCR and the Ethiopian Administration for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA), four 6m x 4m classrooms have been built by Save the Children with vital support from UNICEF. The school operates two shifts: one in the morning from 8am to 12pm and a second from 1.30pm-5.30pm. The class sizes are huge – 150 children each – and the whole curriculum is being taught by just 10 teachers, all recruited from the refugee community.
Returning to normality
“School is important for the children. When they are in school they forget what they have seen in the war. School is the first priority to help remind them of normal life,” explains School Director Lam Chuoth Gach, himself an exile from South Sudan’s bloody conflict. The students have been through a terrible ordeal, he adds. They have seen people – for some their parents and siblings – killed directly in front of them. They remember the sounds of the bullets and the long, arduous journey to safety in Gambella. “When we started classes it was difficult to bring their attention to the teaching but now they are listening,” Mr Gach continues. “That is why are worried about the children who are not yet in school.”
Jael Shisanya, Education Adviser for Save the Children feels that the teachers are doing a good job under extremely difficult circumstances. “They are lesson planning and they have written a timetable but the challenge we have is that the numbers of students are overwhelming. We don’t have adequate space,” she says pointing to the four tents made of wooden poles and plastic sheeting that serve as classrooms. Early childhood education is taking place under a tree which doubles as a church on Sundays, Ms Shisanya says, but if classes are to continue during the imminent rainy season a more suitable location will have to be found. “Funding is an issue. We could do much more. We could build better structures. But we need more money for education,” she insists.
“The children are eager to learn and the community itself is yearning for school. ‘We can look for food but we can’t easily get education for our children,’ the parents tell me. They don’t want their children to forget what they have learnt,” Ms Shisanya says.
Adolescents not catered for
For the children themselves, education is a lifestyle, an essential part of their weekly routine. “I need to go to school. On Sunday I must go to church and on Monday I must go to school,” asserts 14 year old Buya Gatbel. He is one of the lucky few who have secured a coveted place. Buya is happy to be in school but he wishes that the situation was better. “There are no desks. The classroom is very small. We need pens, uniforms, bags and umbrellas for when it rains. There are no exercise books or text books and many children are outside. You need to build more schools, and build a library,” he says.
Currently the school is only teaching grades one to four. “I’m studying grade four but it is not really my grade,” Buya explains – in South Sudan he was in grade eight. His best friend, Changkuoth Chot, aged 18, is in the same boat. “I want to go to grade eight but it is better to be in grade four than to not be in school,” he says.
Ms Shisanya is particularly concerned about those adolescents that are not currently in education: “Teenagers are saying they are so depressed. There is no work.” There is no school.” Tezra Masini, Chief of the UNICEF Field Office in Gambella, is also worried. “Donors are more interested in providing education for younger children but it is protection issue for the older ones. If we don’t provide them with school they may go back to South Sudan to fight.”
Dech Khoat, age 19, bears these fears out. He joined the rebel White Army when the conflict began in December last year. “I’ve come for a rest from the fighting,” he says. In the future I will go back but if I can continue my education I will stay in the camp.”