Home | News    Sunday 16 January 2005

Lonely south Sudan bookshop awaits peace dividend

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By Katie Nguyen

RUMBEK, Sudan, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Nobody cares much for 19th century English literature in Rumbek, judging by a copy of "David Copperfield" gathering dust in south Sudan’s only bookshop for hundreds of miles.

A southern Sudanese crew repairs roads in the provisional capital of Rumbek. Reparing infrastructure is a priority of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. (AFP).

It is not so much that the people of the battle-scarred African town find it hard to relate to the tale of an orphan boy in Victorian England, says the bookshop’s manager, Gabriel Dok.

"People are just not interested in literature," the former teacher said, speaking by the shop’s near empty shelves.

"They’re not accustomed to reading anymore because of the struggle," he said, gesturing at racks with only a few secondhand copies of English classics, virtually the only reading material available in the town.

For decades the residents of Rumbek have been more preoccupied with the demands of fighting the northern Khartoum government for greater autonomy than leafing through classic novels or pursuing an education.

But Dok has his hopes of turning a profit pinned on an agreement signed last Sunday to end Sudan’s civil war after 21 years of conflict.

Peace, he thinks, will bring customers flocking to his shop.

HERCULEAN TASK

Faced with the Herculean task of building a nation from scratch, the fledgling government of southern Sudan will first have to address the low level of education among its eight million people.

Many residents in Rumbek migrated north where the best universities and schools in Sudan are found, and complain that war aborted their studies in subjects ranging from law to medicine, engineering to business.

While most people are clamouring to go back to school, they will return to an under-equipped education system that lacks teachers, classrooms, textbooks, pens and pencils.

According to UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s fund, less than 10 percent of southern Sudan’s teachers are formally trained. Only one in four children is enrolled in school, with girls making up a quarter of those pupils.

Despite the dismal picture, small steps are being taken to reverse the trend.

Over the past two years, scores of classrooms have been built in the Rumbek area specifically for girls.

Traditionally, parents have opposed sending their daughters to school, fearing attacks on the long walk through the bush to the classroom.

They have also been loath to spare the girls who are usually made to collect firewood and fetch water at distant pumps or wells.

However, attitudes are slowing changing.

The teacher at Moper community school, a few miles (km) from Rumbek town described how a local rebel commander sold the idea of educating girls to suspicious parents.

The commander said he had sent his five children — four boys and a girl — to be educated abroad. Of the five, it was only his daughter who sent money home regularly.

Nine-year-old Elizabeth Ayen Makor said she enjoyed learning in the one-room school.

"It will lead to a better life," she said, standing with her friends, scraps of homework in their hands, waiting for class to begin. Asked what she would do with her new knowledge, she said confidently: "I will work in an office."

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