Elizabeth Ayen volunteered to spend two weeks in the bush translating for a course on midwifery. She came back transformed, and committed to continue what she started there.
“We were working with pregnant women, helping them learn to take good care of themselves and their babies. I loved it,” said the 20-year old Dinka graduate of the Loreto Secondary School in Rumbek, South Sudan.
“I liked working with women, because I am a woman. If you educate a woman you educate a nation. And our new nation needs education. So I would love to be able to help women learn more about being pregnant and giving birth,” she said.
Ayen came to the Loreto School, which is run by the Irish sisters of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loreto Sisters), after finishing primary school in Rumbek. She completed all four years of secondary studies at the school, graduating at the end of 2014.
Loreto Sr Orla Treacy, the school’s principal, praised Ayen.
“She is strong and confident and ambitious, and has a good sense of who she is and what she wants to do with her life. That impresses me. She can stand on her own two feet and say what she wants and doesn’t want,” Sr. Treacy said.
Treacy, who is Irish, says she’d like those qualities to characterise every graduate of the school, but the cultural context offers significant challenges.
“At the end of four years of living with us, you want to think that they know who they are and their own self-worth,” Treacy said. “But they live in a culture where they can’t go anywhere by themselves. That person could be their six-year old brother, as long as he’s male. They are usually disciplined through beating if the shirt isn’t ironed properly or the food not prepared right. Many of these girls grow up in very difficult circumstances. So we hope that at the end of four years they’re feeling a better sense of self-worth. Whether that means that they choose to go back to their village and marry or they go to the university, I just want them at the end of four years to take responsibility for who they are, for their behavior, for their manner of being and the way they deal with people. Whatever path they follow is fine, as long as it’s the path of their choosing.”
Ayen almost didn’t have that choice. When she was 14, she was taken out of school by her family and transported to a cattle camp, where they removed her lower front teeth and prepared to accept a large number of cattle in exchange for accepting an offer of marriage.
“But one of my uncles said, ‘This girl is very intelligent and she should get educated.’ The teachers came and talked with my parents. They talked and talked. Finally my parents accepted and I was taken from the cattle camp and returned to school,” Ayen said.
The young woman would like to study nursing next year at the Catholic Health Training Institute in Wau. In the meantime, she’s teaching first grade in the Loreto Primary School, helping small children learn the alphabet as they sit on rustic benches under trees.
“I like working with children because they’re so entertaining. And they don’t forget you. I still remember my teacher from first grade,” Ayen said.
Ayen is teaching in English, which she thinks is important for the development of her country, which became independent in 2011. She says she learned that lesson by watching how English functioned as a bridge between Loreto School girls from different tribal backgrounds.
“Before English was introduced about 2008, many of us here didn’t speak it at all. In a situation like that, when the Nuer or people from another tribe are talking among themselves in their own language, someone would say that they are insulting us Dinka, or gossiping about us. And soon people would be arguing and quarreling and fighting. But when we all know English, then we can talk and find out there’s nothing to worry about. That’s why Sr. Orla insists on English in the school, and we have very few problems because we can understand each other.”