Drawing hope from South Sudan
May 5, 2014 § 1 Comment
Today I woke up with my fresh cup of coffee and started to skim through the morning’s news reports on the BBC. Something I have promised myself to do less of recently, as although I feel it is important for me to keep up with current affairs and stay connected to the world, I have noticed that when I end up consuming bad news stories first thing in the morning (which often seems to be the case), my day will start off on the wrong foot. That is to say, I am simply much happier when I delay my daily disappointment (I mean appointment) with the news at least until lunchtime. Today is not one of those happy days. I open BBC news and smack – ‘John Kerry warns of South Sudan genocide’. My experience tells me I should look away and ignore yet another undoubtedly saddening and tragic report about South Sudan. I mean, nobody wants threats of genocide with their bowl of breakfast cereal right?! But of course I do read it, ever since becoming acquainted with James Ochieng, I always make a point of reading every single article that I come across on South Sudan. I feel that paying attention is the very least I should do. But really I know I could do more.
BBC report warning of genocide in South Sudan
It began with a tweet two years ago, when James Ochieng, a volunteer teacher at Kan Ajak Primary School in a remote village in South Sudan decided to contact me via Twitter. His school in the North Bahr al-Ghazal State is not far from the border that since independence in 2011, has separated Sudan from what is now recognised as the world’s newest nation, South Sudan. From this remote location, James Ochieng expressed a desire for the children at his school to become a part of my rainforest conservation project, Bloomtrigger. A project, which through the use of modern day technology, connects primary school children around the world with Amazon forest communities. The Bloomtrigger project is a free online platform providing schools with interactive environmental workshops that teach the importance of tackling global deforestation and climate change, empowering the children to help protect their own part of the rainforest in a meaningful and creative way.
The first step of the project requires a little bit of artistic expression, which any child is more than qualified to do. The children simply have to draw a self portrait, which is then uploaded to Bloomtrigger’s website. This, however, is when we identified our first major challenge! Apparently the internet has not yet reached Kan Ajak Primary School, neither have computers, nor electricity for that matter. If this does not surprise you, then perhaps like me, your impression of South Sudan is of a country ravaged by decades of civil war and crippled by severe poverty. Where the children wear tattered clothes and are lucky if they have shoes, let alone computers and broadband internet. Unfortunately, in the case of Kan Ajak village, we would be right. James Ochieng informed me that most of the approximate 500 children who attend the school are Returnees or former (IDP’s) internally displaced persons. They are indeed barefoot or perhaps fortunate enough to own a pair of plastic sandals. He explains “Some children stay at home, too ashamed to go to school without appropriate clothing”, though he added, “the more courageous come in whatever they have”. The lack of resources in one of the world’s poorest countries is even less surprising when you consider that more than a million people have fled their homes since the conflict ignited again last December, resulting in increasing economic hardship for the South Sudanese people.
Helping this school to become a part of the Bloomtrigger project was clearly going to be an ambitious challenge, if not slightly ridiculous considering the facts. Bloomtrigger is still a relatively small startup organisation by most standards, but proud to have united a diverse network of schools, individuals and businesses to help pioneer our model of environmental education and conservation. The project has reached schools across the UK as well as in other developed countries like Japan and (some developing nations) such as Nepal and Brazil. Now to branch out into South Sudan may seem like an unnecessary distraction from the focus of our work, but the passion and persistence of James Ochieng for progressing his school was contagious from the beginning. I carefully examined his emails and while reading in between the lines of his not quite perfect English, I could see that here I was dealing with a true gentleman. James is a man who clearly has an impressive understanding of the world and a quiet determination for where his school, community and country should be heading. As months passed he continued to send me the occasional updates from the village via a mobile modem attached to his laptop. This poor connection often proved too unreliable, even to send a simple email, and I would often be left waiting months for a response, until James could make one of his long and difficult journeys by road to Nairobi in Kenya, where he is able to find a decent enough internet connection to send images and video updates from the school. I asked him how the conflict is affecting the children at his school and fortunately, the fighting is not happening in their State this time. However, he informs me that “the army is currently the biggest employer in South Sudan and that there are men and women with the duty of defending the nation and some of these men and women from the region have lost their lives. When the fighting broke out most of the roads were closed and the cost of living was, and still is, unbearable for many. Despite these conditions the children keep the school a vibrant place, which is rapidly growing in numbers and becoming a centre for education amongst all the local population”.
Today I live in Brazil, São Paulo, a city which is literally surrounded by favelas (slums), yet it is still possible to ignore this extreme poverty, and like many of the middle class Brazilians in my neighbourhood, I find it easy to shut out the inequality that exists on our door step. When I think about the troubles in South Sudan, it is again all too easy to feel detached or powerless to do anything about a complex problem that is somebody else’s, the people who live in Africa perhaps or just the people in South Sudan, it is just their problem. As if we are not one and the same people. Human beings living on our one small planet, with a finite amount of resources, struggling to find a sustainable balance, a way to share our resources fairly, without great disparity between the rich and poor, without conflict and without threats of genocide.
I have just checked on the UK government travel website and the official word from the (FCO) Foreign and Common Wealth Office is “DO NOT TRAVEL TO SOUTH SUDAN” and they add, “the situation is tense”. I don’t mind admitting that I would not want to get physically too close to South Sudan right now. These reports of insecurity do not exactly help my feeling of distance and detachment from this far away place, but at the same time, reading these reports, has left me feeling deeply humbled. To think that a school with so little, which is confronted by the constant fears of war, lack of water, food, basically survival, is also concerned about teaching their children about a global perspective, such as the issue of deforestation and climate change. They are even willing to make a huge effort in order to play their role in protecting rainforests on the other side of the world in Peru! James Ochieng, puts it very simply, “these conflicts happening now will not dampen our spirits, we shall keep on working hard to ensure that children are prepared now for a future without conflict.” You cannot argue with his thinking. And as it turns out deforestation is not only a problem happening far away in the Amazon or even in the neighbouring states of the African Congo basin. It is increasingly becoming a very local problem that can have severe consequences for the children’s education. Like most schools in South Sudan, Kan Ajak Primary School is under the UN World Food Program (WFP). The children’s meals are cooked in the school and firewood is the only fuel used to cook this food. What happens is that the children are instructed to bring a piece of firewood on their way to school, at least twice a week, failure to do that will result in punishment. So you can imagine what happens on the routes to school. Children break branches along the way, resulting in the destruction of all the trees within their reach. The school has now taken steps to find a solution to this problem by introducing biofuel briquettes as an alternative fuel source, but James Ochieng believes that the children need to gain a wider understanding of this issue, as he puts it “only through having both a local and international perspective will South Sudan emerge from conflict and become a household name in the future”.
So this is how without any computers or internet the South Sudan Bloomtrigger Club was born and 52 pupils from Kan Ajak took the first steps to join the project by drawing their profile images for the website. Despite several set backs and delays along the way, such as when James’s laptop broke falling off the back of his bike with all the photographs of the children’s profile drawings stuck on the hard drive or when it became too dangerous to travel, finally a few weeks ago, he made it to Nairobi to upload the drawings to Bloomtrigger’s website.
Ultimately the goal is to bring solar power, computers and a reliable internet connection to the school, so that the children will have the opportunity to fully realise the online experience of the Bloomtrigger project, and perhaps even exchange videos with other schools and forestry communities participating around the world. More importantly, imagine how a simple internet connection could transform the lives and education of all the pupils and communities around Kan Ajak Primary School. We hope to make this happen one day in the near future, but until then we will continue to make small steps towards this goal and look for ways to bring more immediate essentials to the school, like helping to provide better access to clean drinking water, books, pencils, school uniforms. Just helping with basic things, like chairs would be a good start! And as the world continues to present us all with more difficult and complex problems; global deforestation, climate change, poverty and conflict in South Sudan to name a few, we know how easy it is to turn a blind eye to these problems, at least at the moment, but it may not always be this way. There is a chance that our finite resources will one day run out, that continued deforestation will lead to more extreme weather conditions, bringing droughts and food shortages, and impoverished people with nothing to lose will be forced to migrate on a massive scale in order to survive. I believe the risk of these scenarios happening to us are worth taking a little time to consider. Paying attention is worthwhile (though perhaps after you have had your coffee and woken up in the morning), because amid all the complexity there are incredible, inspiring people creating local solutions that can help make a better future for us all. People like James Ochieng and the children at Kan Ajak Primary School, who are drawing faces of hope that capture our attention and remind us which way we should be heading.
by James Sutton, Bloomtrigger Founder
The South Sudan Bloomtrigger Club profile drawings
*If you would like to support the children of Kan Ajak Primary School then please get in touch to find out all the possible ways you can make help make a difference: firstname.lastname@example.org