Literacy Will Tap Into South Sudan's Greatest Resource

South Sudan is one year and two months old. Although they won independence from the oppressive Sudan regime to the north, the nation is still in bondage. With only 1 in 10 South Sudanese women able to read, South Sudan is left with its hands tied as it struggles to achieve peace and prosperity.

Women are this young nation's best hope for positive change. If you haven't been to South Sudan you may believe its most valuable resource is oil. Spend a week there and you will think differently.

I recently returned from Northern Bahr El Ghazal state in South Sudan. Picture the most difficult place to sustain a healthy life, then drop down a level and you are almost there. I went there to prepare for the opening of our new school in Malualkon. Our organization, Lost Boys Rebuilding Southern Sudan (LBRSS), worked hard raising funds to hire teachers and build a school compound complete with a well and separate latrines. You can imagine how disheartening it was to realize our timing was off.

We arrived at the schoolyard to find a long line of women and girls lined up filling their jerry cans with clean water at the well. When we walked into our nearly completed, and not-yet-staffed, school building we were surprised to find it filled with women. The women were sitting leaning back along the walls to escape the brutal sun as they waited for their turn at the well.

Many of the women and girls had walked miles to arrive at the well to fetch safe water for their families. They said the walk there wasn't bad but the walk home was hard, carrying nearly 40 pounds of water in their plastic jugs. The wait was long but they passed time talking and laughing and solving each other's problems. Right then I realized that these are our students.

Before that moment we had been planning a traditional school with children in desks and a teacher leading the class. We pictured half the students would be boys and the other half would be girls. Seems reasonable, right? But as the girls and women talked it became obvious that school was not an option for girls who were needed to help carry water. Their mothers could not possibly do it on their own.

We found the statistics for schools in Northern Bahr El Ghazal. You can see it yourself. There is a beautifully crafted report by the Ministry of Education that can be found online. On its pages we saw all the other schools that had opened before ours and quickly saw the enrollment of their female students dwindle. It became clear that we needed to change our plan to fit the current reality of South Sudan.

If our goal is to provide education to equip South Sudan to solve its own problems, then it is essential that we teach the women and girls how to read. South Sudanese women have survived drought, floods, famine, war and genocide. The women of South Sudan kept the country going when millions of their husbands were killed and their sons had to run for their lives. They are needed now in leadership to help make decisions that effect their families and communities. There is no time to waste.

We began visiting well sites. At each one we found the same thing, long lines of women and girls waiting hours for water. Most could not read and many were trying to learn English, the new official language of South Sudan. When we asked if they would like to learn how to read they said, "Yes!" We asked what time of day they came to the well and how long they stayed there. We soon realized that this waiting time could be time for learning. School may not be an option right now but literacy was still possible.

Our motto soon became -- "When a Woman Can Read, a Woman Can Lead!" She can lead her family to improved health, her community to work together to solve its problems and her nation toward peace and prosperity. Her participation in local and national governance is necessary for developing a democratic society. There has never been a true democracy in a nation with a literacy rate as low as it is in South Sudan.

We began developing our program "Literacy at the Well" while in Northern Bahr El Ghazal. We collected information and began making contacts with local woman in leadership. This proved to be interesting when we found ourselves riding in a jeep with two local community leaders who both happened to be currently married to the governor, Paul Malong. We came to find out he has many wives. If they are all as capable and dynamic as Lucy and Ajok then he is a very fortunate man.

Upon returning to Chicago I was invited to meet with literacy experts at the International Reading Conference. As I shared what we had seen and how we sought to help raise the literacy rate of the women and girls in South Sudan, I was introduced to Judy Backlund and Janet Finke, Ph.D., who had recently returned from teaching in South Sudan. They are both experts in the field and needed little convincing to come on board. They are working with others to create our Literacy at the Well program.

We hired a managing director for the project and decided to use our school building as a community learning center as well as for training literacy tutors. Once trained, we will be assigning tutors to well sites to teach the women and girls how to read. Our first goal is to raise the literacy rate in Malualkon, then all throughout Northern Bahr El Ghazal state. Eventually we would like to hire and train a managing director for every one of the 10 states in South Sudan to oversee the training and site assignments of literacy tutors in their state.

Right now a member of our organization, Emmanuel Ngong, is in Northern Bahr El Ghazal overseeing the installation of four new wells. He is also collecting data in each of the villages that is receiving a new well. This data includes information such as: the number of families that will use the well on a daily basis, the average distance traveled to use the well, the percentage of literate community members according to gender, etc. Backlund and Finke will use this information along with their team at Central Washington University to develop the Literacy At The Well program.

We are fortunate to have a 501(c)(3) organization made up of Lost Boys of Sudan as well as American professionals. The Lost Boys are able to speak the local languages and travel easily in South Sudan. They are building relationships in South Sudan that are essential to the strength of this project, and they represent the people of South Sudan with integrity here in the United States. The American professionals are working hard to manage budgets, raise funds, apply for grants and develop strong partnerships.

This project is not complicated. Many of my South Sudanese friends in America learned to read in refugee camps using sticks to draw their lessons in the dirt. Others learned to read once they were resettled in America with the help of literacy volunteers at their church or local library. It seems like teaching women to read could not have much effect on such an undeveloped nation but studies show it has a profound impact. As Kofi Annan puts it, "Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope."

Without literacy South Sudan has no hope of becoming a democracy and providing for its people. It will continue down the well-worn road towards war, oppression and corruption. We need to put women, equipped for leadership through literacy, in driver's seats and watch South Sudan head off in positive new directions!

If you would like to help in our efforts please email Our web address is We are working on a very tight budget. We raise funds primarily from speaking at high schools and universities. Our presentations raise funds for education and wells in South Sudan while helping to fortify American students for life's inevitable hardships. The South Sudanese members of LBRSS will continue to share their firsthand accounts of surviving genocide in order to protect the future generations from the hardships they endured. However, we will need to secure grants or ongoing support in the near future in order to expand our project. Thank you for any help you can provide!