Jerry Kenney is Program Coordinator at the Borlaug Institute currently based at the Ukulima Farm Research Center in South Africa. Jerry is in South Sudan helping kick-off the efforts to assist the John Garang Memorial University of Science and Technology (JG-MUST) develop its agricultural research, teaching, and extension curriculum and skills. To learn more about the USAID-funded program, visit the link at the end of this article.
Violence is spreading in Jonglei state, South Sudan. Tribal tensions flare into vicious cycles of retribution that threaten to undermine the hard-fought optimism earned after the struggle for freedom. Even if the celebratory billboards remain festive throughout Juba, residual hope seems to be fading after seven long months since independence. Search the news for South Sudan and cattle raiding, ethnic conflict, displacement, and death point toward a country on the brink of catastrophe rather than on the path to development.
Yet, amidst the violence and hardship there’s another story of people trying to move forward. In Jonglei state, things stand in drastic contradiction; there are those entangled in death and destruction while the majority fights for survival and a select few continue their struggle for progress as a vanguard for change in the world’s newest nation.. The story is still unfolding, and things seem to be on a vicious spiral, but there is good news in Jonglei state and people should know about it.
First, think of every comfort Western students expect universities to provide for creating a safe and comfortable learning environment. Now, think of what the opposite of that would be and you’ll begin to appreciate the students of John Garang Memorial University of Science and Technology (JG-MUST). Instead of sleeping in dorms, students live in decaying tents with holes in the bottom, their cafeteria serves as a storage space for the corn harvest, currently there’s no electricity due to a broken generator, the water has been out for days, and there are no textbooks or lab equipment.
But talking to Daniel, an undergraduate preparing to enter his fourth year, you begin to see the promise of great things to come. Daniel is a tall and slender young man, his shirt is bright purple and crisp from time spent with a coal-heated iron. He says that although JG-MUST is finishing construction on new dorms, he prefers to spend his final semesters in the tents. He’s made it this far and he’s used to the routine.
Daniel speaks of students from across Jonglei state that have come together to learn at the college. Some students have trouble sleeping in the tents, traumatized from the news of raiders attacking their homes, to mention nothing of whatever may crawl under the large holes they stare through.
Mostly, Daniel focuses on the present; how conflict is keeping South Sudan weak, how he desires laboratory equipment to apply the chemistry and biology concepts that he’s learned, about how things could be different. Daniel can speak persuasively for hours on local politics, curriculum development, the need for agricultural extension, and the promise of youth.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Daniel is all talk. He played a central role at the district level to prepare communities for the South Sudanese referendum for independence. Although Daniel and the approximately 90 other students of JG-MUST focus as much as possible on their studies, they’re not immune to the constant violence outside the university fence. After the latest attacks devastated communities in northern Jonglei, local youth groups, one of which Daniel leads, mobilized and provided humanitarian supplies and food. They have very little but they did what they could to help.
The students of JG-MUST are a glimmer of hope in the constant swirl of conflict and confusion that surrounds Jonglei state. You should know their part of the story. You should be proud that Texas A&M University and the Borlaug Institute are working with these communities. You should be more proud of Daniel and students like him who continue to endure. Keep them in your thoughts and cheer them on.