Paul Samasumo – Vatican City.
The La Salle Brothers, sometimes also known as the Institute of the Brothers of Christian Schools, have stayed true to their founder’s mission of providing education.
Dedication to education
When Saint John Baptist de La Salle founded the Brothers in France in 1679, he only had a handful of men to help him. By the time he died in 1719, there were 100 Brothers in 22 schools. Today over 5 000 Brothers and many lay co-operators continue the De La Salle tradition of education worldwide.
In Rumbek, South Sudan, the Brothers are running a fairly new high school, reconstructed after the war ended in 2018 when the warring politicians agreed to a transitional Government of National Unity.
Rumbek is about 370 Kilometres northwest of South Sudan’s capital, Juba.
The Director of the La Salle School of Rumbek, Brother Joseph Alak, recently told Vatican News about what this school of 153 boys, aged 14 to 16, means to the people in post-war South Sudan.
The Sisters of Loreto already have Loreto Rumbek, which comprises a primary school, a secondary school and a primary health care unit. Loreto Rumbek opened in 2008 and provides for the education needs of girls aged 5-20 years.
South Sudan, ten years after independence
According to Brother Alak, some of the boys would be exposed to gangs, physical and emotional violence without the new school. During the war, schools were destroyed or used as military bases. The unfortunate consequence was that there is a high rate of illiteracy in South Sudan today.
In July, South Sudan celebrates ten years of independence, paid for dearly by a long and bloody liberation war that led to independence in 2011. Barely three years into independence, the country’s peace was shattered by yet another bloody fratricidal civil war that lasted five years.
New beginnings and the Covid-19 setback
The newly reconstructed La Salle School of Rumbek opened its doors to 153 learners in March 2020. It was to be a short-lived school term. The government ordered schools closed in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19. After excruciating months of closure, the government has now allowed the reopening of schools on the condition that they observe health measures put in place by authorities.
“Since the Covid-19 pandemic is not yet over, reopening schools has been a difficult issue to consider. However, it is crucial to balance the extremely harmful effects of school closures on children with the need to control the spread of Covid-19. Yes, children are at risk of infection, and yes, this is terrifying for us. However, the vast majority of children, if infected, show mild symptoms and recover well. And the risks to them of keeping schools closed outweigh the health risks caused by the pandemic. We now know more about children and Covid-19 than we did before, and we know that children are less likely to get very sick,” reflected Brother Alak.
What are those harmful effects of school closures?
“We have seen growing evidence of the negative impact that closed classrooms have had on children, such as an increase in abuse, exploitation, early child marriages and early pregnancies. Children are safer inside school walls than outside. There is overwhelming evidence of the negative impact on children’s physical and mental health, nutrition, safety and learning. When they are out of school for extended periods of time, their exposure to physical, emotional and sexual violence increases. Their mental health deteriorates. They are more vulnerable to child labour and less likely to break out of the cycle of poverty. Besides, hundreds of children, particularly those living in rural areas, from poorer families or with special needs, who rely on schools as a lifeline for meals are negatively affected. When schools close, their lifeline is taken away,” emphasised Brother Alak.
One of the students, Malok, echoed Brother Alak’s sentiments.
“I feel lucky to be a La Salle student because this school is guiding us towards our future. It has nice facilities and is giving us the possibility we need to study,” he said.
The La Salle School of Rumbek has cultivated good relations with the community around the school. The school sits on a 48-hectare plot of land donated by village elders. The school is also sharing its water with the villagers.
“The four Wells are providing the people living near the school with clean water. Some families are using the water to grow vegetables,” explained Brother Alak.
The school is aware of the great need and the bigger number of potential students still out there. Eventually, the plan is to raise the school’s capacity for learners from 153 to 480 boys.
“We have eleven teachers: Three Brothers of the Christian Schools and eight lay teachers. Two teachers are Kenyan, one Ugandan and five South Sudanese trained in Uganda during the war. Secondary school teachers in South Sudan must have a university degree,” said Brother Alak.
“There is no fighting at the moment. The truce is holding. We hope that the peace will hold for a long time. The lack of armed conflict is better than a return to war. The guns are silent, and we are hopeful for the future,” said Brother Alak.
The Brothers of La Salle and the community of Rumbek thank partners in Europe and elsewhere whose generosity and solidarity is touching and changing lives. The needs are still many: A library, computers, a utility vehicle, expansion plans and learning materials.
Pope Francis’s plea for South Sudan
Although South Sudanese’ warring political parties signed a peace agreement on 12 September 2018 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, it would be two years before the Revitalised Transitional Government of National Unity would be implemented on 22 February 2020.
For his part, on 11 April 2019, at the end of a spiritual Retreat, organised by the Vatican, for the political leaders of South Sudan, Pope Francis knelt at the feet of the leaders of South Sudan, kissed their feet and implored them to definitely end the war.
“You have begun a process. May it end well,” Pope Francis told them. “There will be disagreements among you but may these take place in the confines of your offices while, in front of your people, you hold hands. In this way, you will be transformed from mere citizens to Fathers of the nation. As a brother, I ask you to stay the course of peace. I ask you from the bottom of my heart, let us go forward. There will be many challenges, but do not be afraid,” Pope Francis told South Sudan’s leaders and then kissed their feet.