Rachel is part of a very elite group of young women in The Republic of South Sudan. Her status does not come from family wealth nor does it come from tribal affiliation. Her affluence comes from being a girl enrolled in her final year of high school. Residing in a country where girls are more likely to die in childbirth than make it to grade 8 of school, she is only one month away from completing a high school education.
In my work through Africa ELI, I first met Rachel in 2009. She became an Africa ELI sponsored student the following year. Rachel is not atypical of girls in South Sudan. Her father died during the wartime between South Sudan and its northern counterpart. Her widowed mother is not healthy enough to hold a job. An uncle cared for Rachel and her younger sister until he fell ill and died. The uncle’s wife now has responsibility for raising 7 children in her home, including Rachel.
Money to pay for school fees is scarce. But Rachel has dreams. One of those dreams is to graduate from high school. After secondary school, she wants to study law and become a lawyer.
Rachel’s access to school enrollment has been made possible by donors of Africa Education & Leadership Initiative. She knows that Africa ELI donors believe she has a right to be educated. She can bridge the gap in South Sudan’s disproportionate ratio of boys to girls learning in classrooms. If she can read, write, understand numbers and learn to critically think about problems and solutions, then she is one step closer to bridging the large divide between the illiterate and literate in her country.
One morning I asked Rachel to tell me what she considers the most important thing for girls in South Sudan to learn. She said the highest priority for girls should be to get an education. “When educated, it will be easier to get a job. Problems can be more easily endured.” She identified four school subjects that she considers the most important for helping girls to have a bright future.
First, Christian Religious Education – more commonly referred to as “CRE” – teaches about the importance of helping people. It has helped her to know that one person should not be favored over another. She said, “To become a good lawyer, people should be treated equally and judged according to their problems.” CRE is a mandatory subject in public and private secondary schools throughout South Sudan.
Secondly, Rachel talked about the importance of girls learning History. “We should know how to tell stories and understand the background of our country and our families.”
Two other subjects that Rachel considers necessary for girls are Commerce and Geography. “Girls should know how to carry out business, how to balance bookkeeping, how to calculate and the best ways to economize a business. Geography helps us to know about America, Europe, Australia and even East Africa.” Girls should know how to read maps according to Rachel.
Lessons she wishes had been available to her in school include French, Swahili, and Arabic. Specifically, she would like to know how to write in Arabic.
I was curious to know what skills Rachel thinks a good leader should have. She responded, “A good leader must be social, intelligent, and she should not favor one person over another. A good leader should be honest and hardworking in order to bring people together.” She emphasized the importance of being impartial.
Impressed with Rachel’s strong sense of social justice, I pulled out from my totebag a copy of Eastern Mennonite University’s “Peace Builder” magazine. An Africa ELI board director who attends EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute, Susan Montgomery, PhD, had given me the Spring/Summer 2012 supplement. It featured Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee. Rachel was fascinated to learn that an African woman was so highly regarded by the international community. She turned each page of “Peace Builder” and smiled broadly as she discovered the many ways women are influencing people around the world to work toward a more just and equal society.
I can imagine Rachel becoming a great leader one day. I can visualize her face on the cover of “Peace Builder.” Equipped with her education, she will be ready to tackle the tough issues of her time in the burgeoning country of South Sudan. With her voice and her knowledge, she can reduce discrimination and assist in the elimination of chronic problems in sub-Saharan Africa such as malnutrition, malaria, AIDS, gender-based violence, and poverty. She will be able to shoulder responsibility in thoughtful and meaningful ways without resorting to warfare.
She is a girl. She can read, write and speak. By the end of 2012, she will be an Africa ELI-sponsored high school graduate in The Republic of South Sudan. She will be one step closer in the struggle to make education commonplace for girls in the new republic. She is a torchbearer blazing a new path for the nation’s younger daughters to follow in her footsteps. She is a peacebuilder. She is special.
Written by Anita Ayers Henderlight
Executive Director, Africa ELI
Verbal permission requested and granted by Rachel for publication of this information – Sept 27, 2012
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