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SUDAN-EDUCATE Dec-28-2010 (1,050 words) With map posted Dec. 3 and photos posted Dec. 28. xxxi

With paper and pencils, missioners rebuild education in Southern Sudan

By Paul Jeffrey
Catholic News Service

MALAKAL, Southern Sudan (CNS) -- Sister Ninet D'Costa served in a variety of educational posts in her native India. And then, thankful for recovering from a serious illness, she told God she wanted to be a missionary.

Her congregation sent her to Rome for immigration studies, and there she heard an appeal for help from the church in Sudan.

Sister D'Costa, a member of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, ended up heading for Malakal, a muddy town along the contested border between the North and South of Sudan. Ahead of her proposed departure, she and others planning the new mission received discouraging information.

"They told us there was no security in Malakal, no food, no health facilities. But in Malakal, they did have one thing, the poor, and because of them we were committed to go," she told Catholic News Service.

Sister D'Costa arrived in Malakal in 2008 as a pioneer member of Solidarity with Southern Sudan, an international network of religious orders and congregations supporting the church in what may become Africa's newest country following a referendum on independence scheduled for January.

Solidarity currently has 22 full-time members and two short-term volunteers living in Southern Sudan. They come from 16 congregations and 18 countries. Solidarity's work is supported by 170 congregations or orders.

The group has its roots in a 2004 visit to Rome by a Sudanese bishop who met with the justice and peace coordinators of several congregations. With his country's long civil war about to end, the bishop invited the church workers to come to Southern Sudan to help rebuild the church and war-torn society. Sudan's episcopal conference soon followed up with an official invitation to the superiors general of religious congregations. A delegation of six representatives traveled to Southern Sudan in 2006, visiting every diocese to listen to what the church needed.

"We returned with a list of needs from car batteries and shock absorbers to schools and clinics," said Sister Cathy Arata, a School Sister of Notre Dame from New Jersey. As religious leaders in Rome reflected on the delegation's report, they decided to focus on providing training in education, health and pastoral services.

When Sister D'Costa arrived in Malakal, three religious brothers came with her, but conditions were so harsh that none of them lasted long. Sister D'Costa stayed with a group of Comboni sisters, which she said made adjustment easier.

The Indian nun has since been joined by others. Sister Elizabeth Ryan, a member of the Faithful Companions of Jesus, had never encountered a pit latrine before she came to Malakal late in 2008. She admits any romantic ideas about mission were quickly eroded by the differences from her native Ireland.

"When I got out of the plane, the barrage of heat hit me. Then they took me to the house, and I was shellshocked. There was no glass in the windows and the place was full of dust. The door was hard to open. Dirt and cobwebs were all over the place. I sat on the side of a bed and was totally paralyzed. Margaret (Sheehan, a fellow Irish sister) said, 'We'll sweep up and then have a cup of tea.' They swept around me as I sat on the side of the bed, staring into space. Then we had the cup of tea, and that improved matters slightly," Sister Ryan said.

By the time Sister Ryan had spent two months in Malakal, fighting broke out in the town. The nuns' living quarters were right in the middle of the firefight.

"When the fighting started, people here were surprised that we stayed. But we did. And we still intend to stay," she said.

"It can still be difficult here, but our presence has become a sign of hope for the Sudanese," she said.

The Solidarity team in Malakal is helping to jump-start the area's educational system. The team is building a modern teacher-training facility with four classrooms, a lecture hall, computer and science labs, a library, preparation rooms and offices. In the meantime, however, they have little with which to work.

"We came here with lots of plans, but we quickly forgot about those. We had prepared PowerPoint presentations, but here there's no power. There are no books, let alone science or computer labs. We've had to provide our teachers with pencils and paper and dictionaries," Sister D'Costa said.

Malakal's schools had taught in English, but the government in Khartoum decreed that all education must take place in Arabic. Since then, the semi-autonomous southern government has ordered all education to take place in English, but switching back will take a while. Few people in Upper Nile State speak English. Few English books are available, although church officials hid some away when the northern government was burning English texts.

"There is no bookshop here, and so when I asked where I could find some English books, they opened the church storeroom and I found these lovely books, all dumped in sacks. The church had protected the books," Sister D'Costa said.

Teacher pay is low and sporadic, which Sister D'Costa acknowledges does not help motivate teachers to teach.

"And if they learn English from us, they can often get a better job for an NGO, and they'll abandon teaching. Then we have to find someone else," she said.

"At first that bothered me a lot, but then we decided we'd just keep teaching English until everyone knows it, and there will be enough trained people for both the schools and the NGOs. And in the meantime we're lobbying the government to pay higher salaries to help retain good teachers," she said.

Solidarity has made a 15-year commitment to accompany the people of Southern Sudan, and Sister D'Costa said she considers it a privilege to be an integral part of the church's mission during the excitement and pain of a new country's birth.

"The church was a credible sign of hope for the people throughout the times of war. During the time of peace, where is the church? We came here to be a sign of hope, to help the church in its mission. I love this work. I'm teaching teachers who are teaching the whole country. Behind each teacher are hundreds of students. Think about the difference that one good teacher can make," Sister D'Costa said.


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