When we first walk into the compound, sixteen-year-old Aben Kon Guon is seated next to a basin of soapy water washing a bright yellow shirt.
Across from her on a metal bed with nylon strings forming a firm base, her mother sits reading a bible. And seated on the ground in front of a makeshift iron shelter, is her grandmother. Three generations are gathered here today, passing time in the heat of sunny Malakal – a town about 600 kilometres away from South Sudan’s capital Juba.
It is Sunday afternoon. I imagine 16-year-olds in other parts of the world are spending their time in huge malls with friends, maybe at concerts, or spending time with family. Not here, though. This is Aben’s version of events in Malakal. A town devoid of social activities and opportunities for teenage girls, many of whom have seen more in their few years than many twice or even thrice their age.
“My English not so good,” she begins as I ask her whether she prefers to speak in Arabic or English. We eventually settle on a mix of both to allow her to express herself freely. She is bold and cheery and pays no mind to the constant clicking and movement of cameras around her. Only glancing occasionally at her mother with a smile.
“My name is Aben Kon Guon, I am in primary six. I live in Mudiria with my grandmother, my mother and my two brothers. I am sixteen years old,” she begins. Her father passed on.
Her family’s compound is a collection of houses that tell tales of destitution and desertion for many years. Most of the houses have no roofs and the paint has long peeled away. Between these, the family has set up several iron-sheeting structures that they use. In one corner, a garden is filled with different kinds of vegetables and a few chicken roam around freely.
“My morning starts at six o’clock every day. I wake up and prepare tea for the family. I then take my bath and get into my school uniform. I then take my tea and leave for school.” Aben’s school, St Lwanga, is nearly a kilometer away from her house.
In an ideal world, she would be in the 11th or 12th grade with her peers. However, a protracted war has meant many years of school missed. Most schools in Malakal only reopened in late 2017 after a three-year hiatus due to recurring fighting.
“If there is peace I will be able to complete my education. I would have been in primary eight or a senior [secondary school], but after the war I had to return to primary three and lost many years,” she says. “One of the things I like in school is being part of the Child Rights Club which empowers the girl-child. They teach us how we can stay together as friends without fighting among ourselves.”
As we walk to the water point to collect water, I notice that she is as independent as she is industrious. She politely declines a ride that would shorten the 30-minute walk back and forth. She doesn’t wait for her friends to join her as other girls would.
I decide to use the opportunity to prod her about boys. Her response is as resolute as her expression. “If a boy approaches me I tell him ‘NO! NO! I am in school. See my books? I have a future. Don’t spoil my future!’”
As we wind down the day with Aben, I conclude that a typical day in her life is all about her books and helping her mother, who recently injured her hip, with household chores. Her determination to have a better future is unwavering and her expression shows how determined she is. “I am young with ambition and I want to climb to greater heights and I can only do this through education,” she says.