Discourse on Decolonizing the Education System in South Sudan
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Discourse on Decolonizing the Education System in South Sudan

By Andrew Anda Wöndu

The formal educational system in South Sudan has its origins in the mid-nineteenth-century British colonial period. Christian missionaries set up mission schools to train natives for evangelization and recruitment into the colonial administration. UNESCO defines formal education as “institutionalized, intentional, and planned through public organizations and recognized private bodies.” Its activities also often take place in a fixed location. Our present schools are the institutional descendants of these colonial mission schools. For at least a hundred years, the pre-colonial systems of passing on cultural and intergenerational knowledge have lost pride of place as the norm. According to a recent publication by USAID, 72 percent of primary school-age youth do not attend school. This is the world’s highest proportion, leaving a significant knowledge gap.

Modern schools do not have to oppose indigenous knowledge—much of which is informal. But indigenous knowledge has been neglected and marginalized as outdated by the indigenous community and the government due to the emphasis on modern, formal schools. Some indigenous education traditions could already be formalized because of their systematic nature. For example, in some South Sudanese cultures, youth are organized into age sets and social groups of a similar age. This group then undergoes initiations and training together. These are analogous to academic levels, a core feature of formal education. These kinds of influences and practices ought to have been the foundation on which indigenous communities build their institutions. But they lack government recognition and support.

Not all indigenous knowledge has to be formalized to compete with a school system. But if schools don’t incorporate local perspectives, independent formalization should be available and remain an option. Such indigenous knowledge may include arts & crafts, medicine, sports, or anything from sociocultural practices. Foreign knowledge can itself, of course, be appropriated and indigenized. Even if parents and the indigenous community acknowledge the value of indigenous knowledge, hard choices must be made about where and how best to educate children. This is delicate balance parents and education officials must strike. A colonial legacy that continues today is governments applying a mix of coercion and incentives to get the population to take their children to school—some communities being more accepting than others. There is a common joke in South Sudan that in the face of government pressure, some parents would instead send their mediocre son to school and send their brightest son to the cattle camp—the vital school.

Confronted with these problems, some academics like myself at the School of Arts and Humanities, the University of Juba, in the Department of Philosophy, our current focus is on updating the philosophy curriculum. Decolonization of African philosophy means a shift of focus to African philosophies from a predominantly European curriculum, as is the case now. The curriculum review process has been slow and lacks the urgency it ought to have: the last review occurred almost over a decade ago. In my experience, such curricula review and updating processes are only undertaken when the highest university administration makes it a priority. Since this is not the case in my institution, we, as lecturers, try to steer change by adapting our lectures’ content and wording. However, still within the limitations of the old curriculum. In practice, that means providing wider scopes of philosophical schools and significantly increasing the perspectives of African and other indigenous global voices. Nevertheless, the classes take a critical perspective, subjecting all schools of thought to rigorous critique. Higher administration at the School of Arts and Humanities has supported these Africanization initiatives.

The curricula reform process points to other obstacles, such as education officials and policy-makers oblivious to the colonial roots of policy frameworks and their historical contexts.

In my experience as an administrator at a public university, I have seen first-hand the rigid and top-down nature of the higher education sector. In South Sudan, this starts with the national Ministry of Higher Education, Science, and Technology—which oversees five public universities, the largest being the University of Juba. An autonomous university administration system would be the solution instead of ministerial orders.                                                                                                                             

In my lecturing experience, students appreciate their lecturers’’ attempts to explain concepts in more understandable terms. Being more understandable or ‘relevant’ for my lectures means preferring local examples. For example, in formal logic, the logical operations of negation, conjunction, and disjunction are introduced as representing the English words ‘not,’, ‘and’ ‘or’, respectively. These words don’t necessarily map neatly into local languages, such as Bari, Juba’s indigenous language. One word (‘ko’) can be used for all three logical operations. All this does not constitute a problem for logic because the English terms are also approximations. Decolonization, in this case, implies a transfer of ownership to students and their lecturers at the university.

Another case in point: during British rule in South Sudan, the use and teaching of vernaculars and English was the official policy. After independence in 1956, Arabic and English became Sudan’s official languages—but Arabic was dominantly spoken. South Sudan became independent of Sudan in 2011, where English is now the sole official language. But in reality, an uneasy balance exists between the two languages for influence in society and the education sector. For example, some lecturers still use Arabic to lecture. Finally, this year, the University of Juba scrapped Arabic as a compulsory unit for students in the School of Arts and Humanities. It is my observation that for African scholars who have been trained in western institutions, to find themselves enveloped within western instruction instead reinforces their intention to understand and respond to the needs of their local environment, which they have been distanced from. The justification for the decolonization of education is that knowledge should be locally situated.                

It could be more evident that naturally inquisitive academics would eventually encounter the need for the decolonization of educational influences. In the sciences, for example, most scientists are engaged with what the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn called “normal science.” Most will rarely make career-shaking discoveries or find irregularities and inconsistencies in their field that question its philosophical foundations. The modern African scientist is indeed a pacemaker for our societies, a leader across time. They link our indigenous traditions with foreign knowledge. But this should not be identified with an “African past” and a Western future. After all, the colonial period gave way to our post-colonial present, hopefully ushering in a golden renaissance.

The important thing is a move away from the model where western experts drive the research agenda in totality to center people who were formerly mere consumers of knowledge, even about themselves, because Africa is in a unique position to lead an inclusive research model to decolonize its education system.