Months ago, I had the privilege of meeting a remarkable colleague named Steward Francis. Despite being in different time zones and thousands of miles apart, we connected via video chat. During our conversation, I was in awe as Steward shared his incredible journey from Yambio, South Sudan, to his current position as an education specialist with UNICEF in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic.
Steward grew up as the youngest boy in his family. He lived with his mother in Yambio, South Sudan in a traditional grass-thatched house, surrounded by fertile land. Meanwhile, his father owned a coffee plantation and a small business in Birisi village of Gangura Payam, located 25 km from Yambio town, near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Steward, affectionately called Tiyo by his family and loved ones, is actually short for Kparatiyo, a name that originates from the Zande language and signifies "different from others." This name perfectly captures his character because Steward always had his own distinctive approach to doing things. At the age of four, he started primary school but faced difficulties due to being placed in the wrong class level. Consequently, he endured severe physical punishment for his learning challenges. Yet, he remained determined to learn, even selling cassava to cover school fees and purchase school supplies at the age of seven.
In 1990, when war erupted in Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) gained control of Yambio, 12-year-old Steward was sent to his brother near the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo for safety. Meanwhile, his mother and the rest of the family remained in Yambio town. Steward later returned to Yambio when schools were established under the SPLA's control. However, tragedy struck when a bombing incident took the lives of his teacher and classmates, prompting his relocation to a relative in a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Life in the camp presented Steward with numerous challenges, particularly when the wife of his relative viewed him as an outsider, making his living situation difficult. However, when the relative decided to move to another part of the camp, Steward made a brave choice to stay behind, living alone in the old home. As an unaccompanied child, he faced the daunting task of navigating the complexities of the adult world. At one point, his access to food rations became limited, leaving him with no choice but to rely solely on mangoes for sustenance for ten days. Despite the harsh conditions, Steward chose to remain in the camp, primarily because of the better educational opportunities it offered compared to his previous circumstances.
Approximately a year later, an opportunity presented itself for Steward to undertake a French course. This opportunity proved to be a turning point for him, as it allowed him to enroll in a government boarding school located in Dungu Town, away from the refugee camp. The school provided not only an educational haven but also a safe and secure environment for Steward. In many ways, it became his new home, offering him a fresh start and renewed hope for the future.
At the age of 15, Steward displayed remarkable courage by making the decision to leave the Democratic Republic of Congo in search of better educational opportunities in Uganda. He settled there and discovered a supportive community among Sudanese refugee students. To sustain himself financially, Steward worked as a laborer on construction sites when he was just 16 years old. These experiences served as powerful motivators, igniting his passion for advocating children's rights.
Steward pursued his studies in French and Education at Makerere University and with the support of a British NGO he had the opportunity to travel to the United Kingdom to complete a Master's in Development Studies and Education. He became a qualified teacher and eventually reunited with his mother after 15 years of separation. Sadly, his father had passed away before they could see each other again. Motivated by his passion for children's rights, Steward joined UNICEF. Currently serving as an Education Specialist in Bangui, Central African Republic, he inspires others through his unwavering dedication and commitment to education.
As I listened to Steward's story, I was simultaneously filled with admiration for his courage and sadness for the hardships he endured at such a young age. His journey serves as a poignant testament to the transformative power of education in shaping the life of a child. As someone who shares his passion for education, I find Steward's story to be a powerful reminder of the vital role education plays in shaping a brighter future for all.