Excited little voices chant welcome messages as the head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) arrives at Mayen Gumel Primary School, located in the town of Kuajok, in north-western South Sudan.
Some have those messages written on little paper placards, while some have gone an extra mile to draw a portrait of the head of UNMISS.
“His name is David Shearer, the head of UNMISS,” says Paul Manyeng Deng, the artist. “We are very happy to see the SRSG [Special Representative of the Secretary-General],” he adds.
When asked whether he wants to be an artist, he says he wants to be a doctor instead, explaining why:
“I see the doctors have [done] good things to the people. When a person [is about] to die, a doctor can come and help him,” he says.
A short while later, the guests converge under a little tent where a youthful gentleman in a maroon jacket reveals that he is the school headteacher, as he welcomes them. The little children under his care listen intently, some still holding up the posters with their welcoming messages.
“Right now, we have 831. 386 are girls – this is surprising compared to last year, where the enrollment of girls was totally down – it was 235,” says the headteacher, 30-year-old Donato Muong Ajing. “Now we are really blessed because the school is really enjoying the service being given by UNMISS,” he says.
There is something striking about the headteacher’s face when he speaks about the increased enrollment of girls this year: it lights up with a warm smile, exuding satisfaction. He explains why:
“Of course the whole nation is interested to see that girls are brought up, and to go away from the cultures – you know our cultures are so irritating; we are so rigid that girls can simply be the resources at home, but now the challenge in education has come in to cover the issue of culture,” he says.
He has an even bigger dream.
“We are so excited when we see this number of girls enrolled in school – we are really happy to have this because we will have future ladies who’re representing our nation like other nations,” says Donato.
It is quite an accomplishment in a country where girls’ education has not been a priority, and where women are severely underrepresented in the public sphere. Asked about the challenges he and the school encounter, the youthful headteacher is undaunted:
“Of course, here and there, there are challenges, but when you’re in a system like this, you only look at the positive sides. The negative ones can be ignored,” he says, with some acknowledgement. “Not that we do not have challenges at all; they’re there, like, when you see a population like that, they need recreation; they [need] to have educational facilities [so] that they enjoy themselves; in physical education and other educative activities that they do to support their learning system,” adds Donato.
One of six siblings – three girls and three boys – Donato holds a diploma in education. He would like to progress his education so he can better his own life, but he has put that on halt for now – a sacrifice he has made for his community, whose cultural norms were contrary to his personal beliefs.
“I realized that I had to join the other life – the civilization that is coming up – and so I managed to go to school and completed [my studies], and then decided that the majority of the people around me were not enjoying the same life that I had,” he says, explaining why he took the altruistic decision. “So, I have to come and support them and at least pull them up to my level, and maybe later on I’ll have to go back and see on my side how I can pull myself up,” he says.
And so, he has embarked on this journey, looking to change his community from this primary school.
Built in 2011, the school’s structures were dilapidated by war between 2013 and 2017. In 2018, the school was renovated with support from UNMISS, under its Quick Impact Projects. The projects are a part of the Mission’s mandate of creating a conducive environment for displaced people to return home.