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Frontline Diary

16 November 2005: Serving the underserved in Darfur

© UNICEF Sudan/2005/Nguyen
Students in Jebel Mara enjoy a break from lessons.

By Phuong Nguyen

JEBEL MARA, Darfur, Sudan, 16 November 2005 - One of the hardest parts of working in Darfur is getting around. Roads across the sandy terrain are not paved. Control of the countryside ping-pongs between government forces and rebel groups. In the rainy season, which lasts half the year, abundant stretches of quicksand have to be avoided. But travelling and evaluating the changing needs of far-flung communities are routine parts of aid work. Reaching those communities is often an adventurous mix of the low- and high-tech.

Anyway, that’s how it was on one of my recent trips to visit schools among the lush hillsides and fertile volcanic plateaus of Jebel Mara in South Darfur. Grateful that UNICEF had established good relationships with rebel commanders in the area, I used a satellite phone to alert Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) rebels of my data-gathering visit. To record my findings, I brought my laptop. In a swirl of dust, I arrived by helicopter.

The purpose of my visit was two-fold: to determine the educational problems of the communities of this remote mountain region, and to see how UNICEF could assist further. Since I wanted to visit as many schools as possible, I borrowed the fastest available transport. My donkey was named Bishy (after a Japanese car manufacturer). Bishy and I were able to set off on our fact-finding mission on what began as a golden day…only to end cold and rainy. (Personal consideration: given the choice again between hiking four hours between villages and riding the donkey for two, any day I would opt for schlepping on foot. After a while the ride can be rather back-breaking.)

© UNICEF Sudan/2005/Nguyen
Schools in Jebel Mara have suffered from neglect.

Since the beginning of the war the population of the Jebel Mara region has swelled. As many as 22,000 displaced persons have fled their decimated villages to stay with extended families; the region has no camps for internally displaced persons. Local authorities estimate the population of the area to be about 172,000, many of them children, yet fewer than 6,000 attend the stone structures that serve as primary schools. The war has brought collapse to the region’s already wobbly administrative infrastructure, and the schools I saw had received no direct assistance from the Government of Sudan. Over two days I visited five of the region’s 22 villages, sometimes riding Bishy up and down hills and through muddy rivers for hours.

The educational needs were glaring. Each school lacked blackboards and textbooks. Students had no notebooks. Spaced evenly in rows inside classrooms, large stones served as students’ desks. Rusted zinc roofs were collapsing and some classroom floors were covered by large puddles.

Teachers lived off donations from parents. Nonetheless, the optimism and diligent work of these teachers was inspiring. For example, in the village of Gulumbain, I met Najwa, a 23-year-old woman who works six days a week teaching fifth-grade Arabic, maths, and Islamic studies. Outside of school she brings her infectious smile to regular meetings with parents, where she emphasizes the value of their children’s education. Using training and materials she received from UNICEF, Najwa runs the village’s child-friendly recreation centre. During the harvest season for grains, fruits, and vegetables – when schools temporarily close and thorn bushes are used to cover entrances to prevent animals from straying inside – she works alongside her pupils in the fields.

The biggest educational roadblock, Najwa believes, is her region’s isolation. This remoteness causes parents to dismiss the importance of learning about changes outside the region. Najwa tries to change this by using her radio as a classroom tool.

Throughout my short visit I met other teachers and students who also had surmounted seemingly huge difficulties to get an education. As tough as working in Darfur is, these kinds of stories stimulate my interest. My mind races a mile a minute with ideas on ways that UNICEF can reduce these difficulties.



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