An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Long Road to Recovery in Southern Sudan

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELLE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michelle Norris. Yesterday on our program we were introduced to six American women who made a promise to build a girls'' school in a remote village in Southern Sudan. But as NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault tells us the story is about more than the promise. It's about the hard road back from a 21-year civil war that killed two million people and destroyed an already primitive infrastructure.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, reporting:

It's early morning and Melinda Weekes is walking over to the big fruit tree where village meetings are held.

Ms. MELINDA WEEKES (Lawyer, My Sister's Keeper member): What are your hopes and dreams for the girls? What are your fears for the girls?

HUNTER-GAULT: Weekes, a lawyer from Boston is practicing questions for an all important session with a group of father's, hoping to find out how committed they are to their girls' education. Weekes is one of six women from Boston who call themselves My Sister's Keeper or MSK. During the war between the north and the south they promised to build a school for girls. Young girls are far behind their male peers due to a culture that hasn't valued girls, many of whom had been forced into early marriages. This trip is supposed to be a fact finding mission to determine the feasibility of building a girls' school in a village the 21-year war has taken back to the Stone Age. No money, no infrastructure, no tools. When Weekes asks if anything has changed she gets a surprising answer from these Christian Southerners who have a history of enmity towards Northern Arab Muslims. Angelo Wohwau(ph) says...

Mr. ANGELO WOHWAU (Southern Sudanese): Northern Arabs they have girls who are educated, so it is better now our girls are to be in the school. We'll put them all in the school.

HUNTER-GAULT: But what kind? Some want a concrete day school building. Others are insisting their girls will only be safe in a boarding school. The problem is there's nothing within hundreds of miles of impassable roads to make concrete and the tukals, mud, brick and cone shaped grass roof housing common to the area, have a limited life span.

A few yards away two of the women from Boston, Ashley Lanfer(ph) and Cynthia Heinz Bell are greeting mothers under another big leafy tree, what passes as the classroom for a school of about 500 girls, a fraction of those needing to be in school. A few tukals nearby house them when it rains.

Ms. REGINA NIANUTE (ph) (Southern Sudanese): (Speaks Sudanese)

HUNTER-GAULT: Regina Nianute tells the two MSK women, we need all girls to be educated not to be illiterate like us. We'd like our girls to be like you.

Ms. CAROLINA TANG (ph) (Southern Sudanese): (Speaks Sudanese)

HUNTER-GAULT: Carolina Tang is saying she wants the girls to be educated some could become doctors the village sorely needs. The mothers are all in favor of a real building and some want a boarding school because they say many of the girls have to walk distances as long as three hours to get to school.

Ms. ACONE WATTS (ph) (Southern Sudanese): (Speaks Sudanese)

HUNTER-GAULT: But Acone Watts says all the time we were running because of war and now we cannot hear any sound of guns, only disease. Maria Criss adds they need a hospital especially for the children. The mothers also told the Americans their daughters are often too weak from hunger to go to school. At home we are poverty says Regina Nanute. Six of the thirteen women are war widows with no support. Most of the others are married to men in the military who are far away. But Aboon Corroque(ph) says if the women build a concrete school they will help bring sand from the riverside.

Nearby, young girls are playing a Dinka version of dodge ball, their pink and white uniforms increasingly soiled by the fine dry dust. Gloria White-Hammond, a pediatrician and leader of the MSK delegation is speaking with the teachers, all young men, none of whom have gone beyond primary school. There is no secondary school and only a brief period of teacher training. One young woman has qualified as a teacher, but also hopes to go onto high school, but there are no high schools here either. None of the teachers gets paid.

White-Hammond calls the girls around her.

Dr. GLORIA WHITE-HAMMOND (Leader of MSK): My name is Doctor Gloria, what is your name?

Ms. ELIZABETH KODUKE (Akon villager): My name is Elizabeth Koduke (unintelligible).

Dr. WHITE-HAMMOND: Ok, I'm going to call you Doctor Elizabeth. There will be many things that will want to take you away from becoming a doctor, but you must keep your eyes on the prize. And then you'll be able to help all of Akon and all of new Sudan.

HUNTER-GAULT: The girls respond with a plaintive song that brings White-Hammond and the other MSK visitors back to their challenging reality. They sing about being lost girls.

(Soundbite of singing)

HUNTER-GAULT: The male teachers at the school say as many as two hundred of the five hundred girls often miss days due to hunger and fatigue. Later at the women's report-back session, Cynthia Heinz Bell injects another reality check from the male teachers meeting.

Ms. CYNTHIA HEINZ BELL (MSK Member): There was an undercurrent at the beginning the mood towards the issues of them not being paid, fed or compensated in any kind of way.

HUNTER-GAULT: The women then begin trying to sort out all the long and sometimes conflicting expectations, from teacher training and pay, to tukals or concrete. Melinda Weekes, the group's young lawyer, is worried.

Ms. WEEKES: I think my biggest frustration at this point is that we are not really doing some scoping out to see exactly what these things would entail.

HUNTER-GAULT: Late in the day a group that has constituted itself as an advisory council says they've had failed promises from others and as a show of good faith they want construction to begin immediately on some kind of school. White-Hammond reassures them but adds --

Ms. WHITE-HAMMOND: In our country the government of Sudan is considered a terrorist government and our laws say that we cannot do business with the government of Sudan. So we have to talk to a lot of lawyers in order to even provide the funds to build this school.

HUNTER-GAULT: Later, back at the women's center compound, Weekes, also a Divinity student, is venting her frustration over the range of expectations, even the concrete building.

Ms. WEEKES: I have faith, but I feel hesitant to be like yeah, we can do that.

HUNTER-GAULT: Patricia Brandis, a foundation executive back in Boston has another concern.

Ms. PATRICIA BRANDIS (MSK Member): So are we talking a half a million dollars, are we talking a million dollars for the whole thing?

HUNTER-GAULT: But White-Hammond weighs in hard on the concrete building.

Ms. WHITE-HAMMOND: I gave them my word that that's what we would produce.

HUNTER-GAULT: Though some were taken a bit aback by this, all agreed to support the promise White-Hammond has made in their name. They would go home and find a way to build a girls' school in Akon despite the enormous obstacles and unrealistic expectations. And no one challenged Ashley Lanfer.

Ms. ASHLEY LANFER (MSK Member): I feel really peaceful about making this road by walking it. I think we're all pretty clear and we have a real shared sense of that vision.

(Soundbite of singing)

HUNTER-GAULT: Even Melinda Weekes puts her doubts aside, soon leaping in the air and leading the women in a spirited hymn as the villagers watched from afar, dancing joyously under a crystal clear night full of promise. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault
Charlayne Hunter-Gault recently left her post as CNN's Johannesburg bureau chief and correspondent, which she had held since 1999, to pursue independent projects. Before joining CNN, she worked from Johannesburg as the chief correspondent in Africa for NPR from 1997 to 1999.