If I may be so bold, I would like to predict the future of the newest country in the world. I'm no fortune teller, but I know I can at least show you, with a high degree of certainty, a few of the people who will be leading South Sudan in the near future.
On Monday night, Eric and I jumped on a rickety bus for an overnight ride up to South Sudan. This was my very first trip to the country - which only gained its independence from Sudan in July 2011 - and on this trip I was only able to dip my toe in the country, just crossing the border to visit a school Cornerstone recently opened in partnership with East African Ministries. This school - The Leadership Academy of South Sudan (LASS), opened its doors just last month. LASS is an "Advanced Level" secondary school, or the last 2 years of high school, according to the British system. In following with the model of other Cornerstone schools in Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania, the staff scoured the country to recruit 50 of the best and brightest students - 25 girls and 25 boys. Unfortunately, a political rivalry in the top government of South Sudan turned sour in December, just weeks before the school planned to open its doors, and the rivalry quickly escalated into brutal tribal violence affecting much of the country. Foreigners were evacuated, horrible atrocities occurred on all sides, and the stability of the country was (and is) seriously jeopardized.
Still, the staff planned to move forward and in the midst of this violence and turmoil rooted in poor leadership and power wrangles, the school opened its doors with the wide-eyed ideal of creating the next generation of leadership for South Sudan - a far more positive, selfless, personally-transformed, and ethically-inclined leadership.
This is what Eric and I came to see.
We crossed the border early in the morning, after a long, squished, and bumpy ride, and we made our way to the school. Over the next couple of days, we saw the fruits of much hard work and dedication by the team at EAM and the school staff. We spent time getting to know the students, talking with the staff, and teaching a couple of classes.
The students have only been at the school for about a month and most, never having heard of this new school, came only because they had no other option, due to lack of finances, if they wanted to continue their education. They had come from all parts of South Sudan and represented all tribes - a clear feat in a country marked with so much division. Although they still seemed a bit unsure of what this school represented, they already had begun to make friendships across tribes and to pick up on our higher expectations of them as students and leaders.
On my last evening, I requested some time with the young women at the school. My job in Cornerstone is to evaluate our programs through a "gender lens," meaning I ask lots of questions to make sure both our young men and women receive the support they need to become effective change-makers. The people of EAM and the staff at the school had told me how difficult it was to get 25 girls to report to our school. Indeed, out of an attempted 25, only 13 girls reported although 26 boys came. I wanted to learn more about this discrepancy and how we could support these 13 girls in any other unique challenges they face.
The previous day, when asking the staff about the girls' struggles, one of the teachers commented, "These 13 girls are like eggs in our hands. They are so fragile. Any small thing could break them, but we must be very careful to make sure they hatch."
As I sat down with these 13 girls, we first talked about their fears and what challenges could keep them from becoming leaders in their communities and nation. The girl sitting next to me was one of the first to speak up. She told us that her parents have an older man in mind who they want to force her to marry soon, so she doesn't want to leave the school on holiday breaks in fear that she will be married off and won't get to finish her education. Some other girls nodded along and they explained to me that a girl in South Sudan is a financial asset to her family - when she is married, the family receives a large sum of money as a dowry, so many families are anxious to marry their daughters off in exchange for this badly-needed money. The teachers had to beg and plead one father to allow his daughter to come to the school. He reminded them of how much she was worth to the family (financially) and that he must protect his investment. Eventually, he resigned and allowed her to come.
Another girl was told by her father that no girl in their clan had ever completed Ordinary Level secondary school, so he refused to pay for her fees after primary school. Facing this refusal, she went to stay with her aunt in Uganda who helped her complete “O” level, making her the only girl in her clan to make it so far. The girls told me over and over how their society and their families view education for girls as a waste of precious resources. “Girls only go to school to fill the time until they are old enough to get married,” one student explained to me.
One young lady had to brew and sell alcohol to make it so far in school and she planned to continue this business on school holidays. Another young lady's brother continually told her what a waste it was for her to go to school, but fortunately her father sees the value in education and works to pay her school fees.
As I sat listening to all of this, I realized that it was a miracle these 13 girls had ever made it to this place. I was stunned with the realization of how much they have struggled to make it this far and how much they still face simply to finish high school, let alone continue on to university. When I asked if they wanted to go home on holidays, they softly shook their heads. As I began to brainstorm solutions to the many problems they faced, I asked them who would stay on campus during holidays, should that be an opportunity. Every single one of those 13 girls raised her hand. Every one of those girls, after only 1 month at this brand new school, found this place a haven against the innumerable negative messages telling her what she cannot do.
Before wrapping up our time together, I wanted to hear one more thing from the girls. I told them that I had listened to their fears and I told them that we would think of anything we can do to support them, but now I wanted to know their dreams.
When I asked this, a few of them giggled. Some softly smiled as they lowered their heads or peeked out of the corner of their eyes at their friends. I let a silence fill the room as they seemed to come to the realization that someone was actually giving them permission to verbalize their dreams.
The first girl slowly raised her hand. As I looked at her, she said one word: “accountant.” Then a few more spoke: “teacher,” “businesswoman.” All of them had a dream, even the girls who hadn’t spoken up about their fears told me about their dreams: “member of parliament,” “aid worker,” “accountant,” “businesswoman.”
I felt, in that moment, I was within a sacred moment. These 13 girls, despite so many others who had tried to douse their spirits, each had a spark of a dream still burning. I went back to my guesthouse and sat on a tree swing overlooking the mountains and sunset, in awe of the determination of these students. As ideas started swirling in my head about how to best support them, I realized just how true that teacher’s statement was about these 13 girls being so fragile and how carefully we must handle them and guide them so they will hatch.
And they will. I have no doubt that these girls, anomaly to their societies they may be, they will surely become its next leaders. These girls, who have already proven their strength, their desire for something more, their ability to stand against the odds, will make change in this nation - the newest nation in the world. These 13, these bakers’ dozen, they will hatch.