- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 4, 2004

LOBONE, Sudan — Joseph Arok quit school in 1993 at 12 to join southern Sudan’s fight for liberation against the government in the north.

Now, at 23, Mr. Arok has set aside his automatic rifle and fatigues for textbooks and a school uniform in pursuit of an education. But his future remains precarious even as the nation draws closer to ending two decades of civil war.

“I know the importance of education,” said Mr. Arok, who is focusing on history and economics with hopes of landing a government position, but realistically is prepared to return to the military. “Education requires money, and I do not have the support to attend a university. I am ready to go back, if I do not succeed in finding other work.”

The Arab-dominated Muslim Sudanese government in the north and the animist and Christian black Sudan’s People Liberation Army (SPLA) in the south signed a peace accord in Navasha, Kenya, in May to end Africa’s longest ongoing war, which has killed an estimated 2 million people, primarily by starvation, and displaced an additional 4 million.

Fighting continues to rage in a yearlong insurgency in the Darfur region of western Sudan, where government-backed nomadic Arab militiamen, known as the Janjaweed, have forced more than 1 million black farmers from their homes.

Two decades of war have deprived millions of southern Sudanese children and adults of education, contributing to an illiteracy rate of nearly 90 percent of the people in the region, according to the United Nations.

A recent report by the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) said only 20 percent of children in southern Sudan have access to primary school and only 2 percent complete primary school.

The lack of educational opportunities throughout southern Sudan during the war, the staggering depth of poverty that came after the fighting and traditional cultural attitudes toward education threaten to undermine development in the region even if peace is established.

A loosely structured educational system is beginning to take root throughout southern Sudan as an estimated 1,300 schools have been established across the region in recent years, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

But this is little comfort for many southern Sudanese, whose opportunity for completing their education has passed — evidence of the irreparable damage inflicted across the region by two decades of fighting.

According to UNICEF, only 2,000 boys and 500 girls graduate from school annually.

Joseph Wal Garang joined the SPLA at 16 and battled Sudanese government forces for the next 20 years — at the expense of his education.

Mr. Garang, who is no relation to SPLA leader John Garang, is now an unemployed 37-year-old with a wife and four young children in Lobone, a remote southern Sudanese village along the Ugandan border.

“I would like to be a doctor, but I’m an old man now,” said Mr. Garang, who is one the 31,000 residents of Lobone. “If there was a chance, I would finish school and go to a university to study, but it is too expensive.”

Mr. Arok, who joined the SPLA before completing primary school, is quickly advancing toward a secondary degree, but his prospects are limited by the lack of employment opportunities and his responsibilities to his wife and 2-year-old daughter.

“I have my military uniform and weapon packed away in my home,” Mr. Arok said, anticipating a return to the army.

Sudan has experienced only 11 years of peace since gaining independence from Britain in 1956, and decades of fighting have impoverished southern Sudan, making it one of the poorest regions in the world.

The Rev. Louis Ajusi, 47, a Roman Catholic priest who heads a program that supports six schools in Lobone serving 3,500 students, said many families are reluctant to invest what little money they have in their children’s education.

“The opportunities for education are there, but there is a lack of support among some of the parents, both morally and financially,” said Father Ajusi, who is from Uganda. “If the parents don’t support the child’s education, the child may not go on to secondary school.”

Monica Sevit, 42, who chairs Lobone’s school management committee, canvasses the village to campaign for education.

“We encourage the parents to send their children to school by explaining to them that, if the children are educated, they will be better able to support the family,” said Mrs. Sevit, who has five children, all of whom are enrolled in school.

“Some of the families are resistant to the idea, because they simply cannot afford it, while others are entrenched in their traditional customs,” she said through an interpreter.

The war and poverty have compounded the cultural obstacles to education facing the region’s girls, who are predominantly viewed as a source of income by their families. They are often sold into marriage for a so-called “bride price” before completing secondary school.

The UNICEF report said only one in 100 girls complete primary school and one in nine die in childbirth.

John Bosco Wani, 23, a deputy headmaster at Lobone’s only secondary school, said most girls in the village never graduate, because of a common attitude that an educated girl is more difficult to wed and subsequently will garner less money.

“The traditional belief is that girls should remain home because of marriage purposes,” Mr. Wani said. “The perception is that education reduces bride price, and it’s very difficult to convince the people otherwise.”

Lual Lus, 18, probably will never return to school, because her family recently sold her to a 42-year-old man with two wives for $4,000, an enormous sum in this region.

“I want to continue my studies,” said Miss Lus, a statuesque and regal woman who has not finished primary school.

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