Disrupted lives

Children and families grapple with forced school closures in South Sudan

By Saddal Diab and Tomson Phiri

A deserted classroom. Photo: WFP/Musa Mahadi

The Straight Link Orphanage in the heart of South Sudan’s capital Juba used to bustle with life. But like so many things around the world, this all changed after the emergence of COVID-19.

With an enrollment of well over 2,700 kids, the courtyard used to be full of boisterous children gleefully greeting visitors. Walking down the hallway, their energetic voices filled the air. But that is now gone, replaced by an eerie silence.

Empty classrooms

Viola Denya dreams of becoming a doctor one day. Photo: WFP/Musa Mahadi

Classrooms stand deserted, and hallways lie hollow with the echoes reverberating into the empty space. There is an indefinite partial lock-down in the country, a dusk till dawn curfew and non-essential businesses and large gatherings such as schools as well as sporting events and religious services, were directed to close on 20 March. South Sudan runs a February to December academic calendar, and it remains to be seen if the second term will start as planned on 25 May. With schools closed, the few students that are left are those with nowhere else to go such as Viola Denya.

For Viola, the school is not only a place for learning, it’s also her home. She and another 150 children mostly orphans are enrolled as boarders at the school. School closures have not only deprived them of consistent meals, but they also miss their friends and the classes they cherish. And they hate it.

“Coronavirus distresses me because my school is closed,” says Viola.

Despite the challenges, their dreams for the future are still intact. Viola wants to be a doctor, while her friend Aloy dreams of becoming a teacher.

But the children are not the only ones having a hard time.

A tale of two courtyards. Photos L-R WFP/ Gabriela Vivacqua and WFP/Musa Mahadi

School closures increase risk to children

Patrick Lapok, Straight Link Orphanage’s headmaster is a concerned man. The closure of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic present a risk to children’s education, protection and well being. And he knows this all too well.

“My biggest worry is that I don’t know when schools will reopen. I am concerned because many children are roaming the streets.”

And yet, despite these concerns, he still has high hopes for his students, and believes that they have bright futures ahead of them.

Plans for remote learning

Thankfully, the United Nations is working with the Government of South Sudan and other partners to ensure the continuity of learning, which given the low internet coverage is focused on using the radio.

One of the main draws for kids to go to school was the meal provided there by the World Food Programme (WFP). Loved by many, the meal helps boost enrollment and keeps children in schools.

“When WFP started providing school meals, enrollment skyrocketed,” adds Patrick.

Children used to receive a hot meal of rice or sorghum served with beans every day, but with schools closed, WFP and partners such as Canada, European Union, Germany and the United States are working to ensure that school children and their families continue to receive some form of support in lieu of the school meals.

However, it is not only the scholars living at the orphanage that are struggling to come to terms with their new reality. Even for those living with their parents, challenges abound.

Adapting to change

Hanna Francis, lives with her mother, Lona Hibat some ten-minutes’ drive from the school. She loves Mathematics, enjoys playing football and wants to be a doctor when she grows up so she can treat people.

“We do not have enough to eat because of coronavirus,” she says.

Hanna Francis misses playing with her classmates at school. Photo: WFP/Musa Mahadi

“Coronavirus has really affected our lives,” says her mother Lona. “We are totally isolated and cannot see our families, and we do not have as much food as we used to. When my children were in school they used to come home with full stomachs, but now the food we consume is limited.”

Like so many around the world, Lona is struggling to cope with self-isolation.

“When we heard that there were cases of COVID-19 in South Sudan, we isolated ourselves. Our neighbours were like family. Now, because of the pandemic we don’t see them anymore. I miss the life we had,” adds the 30-year mother.

A stone’s throw away from her house is her daughter’s 11-year-old friend, Hellen Benson’s family home. However, they have not been able to play together for weeks.

The families are also feeling the economic pinch.

“The situation is straining us economically and limiting our ability to earn a living because we have to take care of the children,” says Abdelrahman Othow, Hellen’s father.

“I did not finish my education, I want something better for my children. I want my children to complete their education.”

Father and daughter are on the same page.

“Staying at home is not good for me,” says Hellen. “I like playing football with my classmates at school, and I miss studying my favourite subject, Social Studies”.

Helen Benson, an avid reader misses studying for her favourite subject, Social Studies. Photo: WFP/Musa Mahadi

Hoping for the best

South Sudan reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on April 5, with the numbers of people infected increasing to 78 (as of 6th May). There has been no indication when schools will re-open or , when any form of normality will return. Children are looking forward to being reunited with their friends and once again enjoy their favoured school meal. But, for now, they must do their part and stay at home.

Food needs are mounting in the country, particularly as it heads towards the peak hunger season between May and July — the months leading up to the next harvest.

In South Sudan, in addition to providing regular food assistance to 5 million people, WFP is scaling up to assist an additional 1.6 million people mostly in urban settings who previously did not require assistance but do so now due to the fallout from COVID-19. WFP has already started providing food or cash to 150,000 vulnerable people in the capital Juba through 23 centres.

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