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Page last updated at 08:29 GMT, Thursday, 6 August 2009 09:29 UK

Sudan: One teacher to 100 pupils

By Grant Ferrett
BBC Radio 4, Crossing Continents

Ban Tut, the young head teacher of Akobo primary school, is proud of his institution. His office is in one of the few brick buildings in the southern Sudanese town, off an avenue of trees which was planted before independence in 1956.

The study is a dark, cluttered room smelling of sweat from the many visitors waiting to see him.

A class at Akobo Primary School
Learning after decades without schools

Asked how many pupils attend school, the head teacher consults the register on his desk. "We have 2,655 children," he says.

And how many teachers?

"Twenty three," was the reply.

There are more than 100 pupils per teacher.

I did not ask how many classrooms he had, but a quick look out the window revealed that most of the children were learning outdoors, sitting under the occasional trees dotted across the dusty, red-earth school compound.

The reason he is proud is that this school was not open for much of the civil war in Sudan, which pitted the mainly Christian and animist south against the largely Muslim, Arabic-speaking north.

Most of the children and young people across the south simply did not go to school. And that has been the case for as long as most people can remember.

The children who were lucky enough to be educated were those who fled, heading across the border to Ethiopia, Kenya or Uganda, or the more developed, northern part of Sudan.

Illiterate

The south has been at war for about 40 of the 50 or so years since independence.

The conflict, coupled with an almost complete lack of development dating back to colonial times, has left a terrible legacy.

The UN estimates that more than 90% of women in southern Sudan are illiterate.

"A 15 year-old girl has a greater chance of dying in childbirth than completing school," says Lise Grande, the UN's deputy resident and humanitarian coordinator for the region.

All the more reason for Ban Tut to be proud that 960 of his pupils are girls.

The teachers are not qualified and the tuition does not appear exciting.

On the day I visited, the class I joined under a tree in the compound was reciting English phrases written on a blackboard: "I can see a teacher. I can see my mother. I can see a blackboard."

None had exercise books or pens.

But the head teacher says the children are always keen to come to Akobo school.

"At the moment we are happy. Since the peace agreement, there is a change in our area."

New country

Map

The peace deal, signed by the north and south in January 2005, heralded a period of relative calm and stability - despite the recent ethnic violence near Akobo .

About two million displaced people have returned to southern Sudan, hoping to rebuild their lives and play a part in creating a new country.

Of all the people I spoke to, not one wanted the south to remain joined to the north.

All said they would vote in favour of independence when a referendum is held.

Under the peace deal, this is scheduled to take place in early 2011, although given the delays in implementing other parts of the agreement, there is little chance the referendum will be held on time.

But the optimism in Akobo is tempered by the realities of day-to-day existence.

The head teacher complains that he and his staff have not been paid for three months. "There are no salaries because there is no road," he explains.

Roads

South Sudan is the size of France and England combined, but has just 20km of tarred roads.

Transport is either by boat along the river Nile and its tributaries, or along dirt roads which become impassible during the rainy season.

A road in Malakal on the border between North and South Sudan
Education, roads and development are dependant on security and peace

The UN peacekeeping force, one of the biggest in the world, travels by plane or by helicopter.

The few roads that have been built under the embryonic government of southern Sudan link newly constructed government offices in the southern capital, Juba.

Salaries of state employees, including teachers, often go unpaid for months at a time.

The south relies for 97% of its budget on revenues from oil.

When the oil price fell sharply last year, the government suddenly had a funding crisis on its hands.

But there are frequent complaints from donors and members of the public that the new administration is prone to corruption.

I heard no complaints, though, about the fact that, nearly five years after the peace deal, the government still puts security at the top of its list of priorities.

"Without security, there cannot be any development," says the oil minister, John Luk Jok.

If the civil war were to resume, the school in Akobo, like others across south Sudan, would probably be forced to close.

"But," the minister acknowledges, "the function of government is not security alone."


Crossing Continents: Sudan is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 6 August 2009 at 1100 BST and repeated on Monday, 10 August at 2030 BST.

You can also listen to Crossing Continents on the BBC iPlayer or subscribe to the podcast .



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