When civil war broke out in South Sudan in December 2013, students at Upper Nile University (UNU) were taking their exams. It took a week for the fighting to reach Malakal, then the country’s second-largest city and home to the university’s main campus. Everyone grabbed what they could and fled, some across the nearby border to Sudan, most to a camp protected by U.N. peacekeepers.
The following month, the government sent planes to evacuate UNU staff and students to South Sudan’s capital, Juba. Even though books, computers and laboratory equipment were all left behind, the university restarted the interrupted exams by June. Most students took their tests in Juba, but papers were also flown to Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, and Wau, another southern city. Around 80 percent of students managed to finish the tests, says Malony Keer, the dean of UNU. But it was the university that had passed the toughest test, one of many it has since cleared.
South Sudan’s universities face challenges few of their peers globally can imagine: a conflict that has claimed 383,000 lives and an economic crisis that has seen the currency lose 98 percent of its value against the dollar over the past three years. But against those odds, the country’s five public universities are innovating in real time to grow while preparing a generation of South Sudanese who can transform their country’s future. They’re also offering a model for the survival of higher education in war-torn nations.
The largest among them, with almost 10,000 students, the University of Juba has increased its academic staff from 137 to 700 since independence in 2010. UNU restarted full-time education in 2015, in exile, in Juba. With no library and just 10 computers, it has doubled in size, says Keer, from around 2,200 students in 2013 to more than 4,500 last academic year. The country’s three other public universities — Bahr El-Ghazal, Rumbek and Dr. John Garang Memorial University — together host more than 5,000 students. Collectively, the five public universities had 2,632 academic staff members in the 2016–17 academic year, according to government documents accessed by this reporter — more than thrice the 721 members of academic staff reported by the World Bank in a 2012 report. And to meet an ever-increasing demand for higher education, five private universities have sprung up since 2008, three of them since 2014.
We Feel We Can Do Our Duty To The Nation. – Malony Keer, Dean Of Upper Nile University
Universities share their limited resources to overcome crippling shortages. UNU students use Juba’s library and train at its teaching hospital. Juba’s forestry department works with the Ministry of Agriculture. Meanwhile, Juba’s library is being gradually topped up with donations of around 2,000 books a year, mostly from Book Aid, a British charity. But there’s also sheer grit at play here. Keer laughs when he recalls the fighting outside the U.N. camp in 2013, comparing it to watching a film.
“Some bullets went into [the camp] and killed some citizens inside,” he says. “But … we were not afraid.”
For the moment, a fragile peace deal signed in September holds between the South Sudan government and rebels. But part of the reason the country’s higher education institutions have managed to expand despite seeing much worse, and receiving less than 1 percent of the national budget and little international aid, is they are “acquainted with displacement,” says Keer.
In 1989, six years after South Sudanese rebels started fighting for independence from Sudan, the University of Juba was moved to Khartoum. Parts of UNU and the University of Bahr El-Ghazal were also shifted to Sudan’s capital because of the war. They all moved back to the south again in 2010, a year before independence — some Juba students were moved to a southern campus a little earlier. But South Sudan’s divorce from its northern master was messy. So, most of Juba’s staff stayed in Khartoum. Some books and equipment were loaded on steamboats on the Nile River, making it three-quarters of the way to South Sudan before being turned back, remembers Kuyok Abol Kuyok, a professor of education at Juba. “They came back with nothing,” he says.
Nonetheless, Kuyok moved back to Juba in 2010 from the U.K., where he was a research fellow at London Metropolitan University, full of hope for his new country. “I was teaching students sitting on stones, and I had a class of 187 students,” he says. “They were really eager to learn.”
This optimism has been tested. Teachers say salaries have not risen since April 2014, despite inflation topping 800 percent in 2016. Wages often go unpaid for two to three months at a time. Many staffers have left or gone part-time to take up better, more regularly paid jobs at international nongovernmental organizations. But others are staying in their job for principled, patriotic reasons.
“We feel we can do our duty to the nation,” says Keer. “We are just working like volunteers.”
The impact is clear. Only 86 South Sudanese academics had Ph.D.s in 2012. But two from Juba have finished Ph.D.s at Virginia Tech University in the U.S., while another two are still there. That’s apart from several UNU academics pursuing Ph.D.s in Sudan and Uganda, says Keer.
And though South Sudan has one of the lowest rates of children in school in the world, demand for higher education still outstrips supply. Around 9,000 students apply for the 5,000 free public university spots each year, says Gemma Peter, an official at the Ministry of Higher Education. That gap has now spawned five private universities in Juba that are also using out-of-the-box fixes to cater to local needs.
Among them is Kampala University, which opened a campus in Juba in 2015, with 220 students. The Ugandan institution now has around 1,700 undergraduates, mostly studying employment-friendly courses like human resources and development. Most classes are in the evenings and on weekends, enabling students to work during the week to pay their $313 term fees. Isaac Ladu, a second-year business student, sells maize and other goods to fund his studies.
Like teachers, students are also suffering from South Sudan’s spiraling inflation. At UNU, one says he often goes to bed hungry. Another at Juba eats just once a day. But their drive remains undiminished.
Agnes Gabriel, a 25-year-old final-year environmental science student at Juba, travels an hour daily from her family home to the university, as there are no hostels for women. She says she wants to help her community by educating people about the reality of climate change, despite often facing sexism. “I [have] a dream that I have to achieve,” she says. “No matter what they say, I just have to continue with [my] studies.”
Nancy Acayo and Silvano Yokwe contributed to this report. Support for the story was provided by the International Women’s Media Foundation.