Carolyn Murray MBE and I became friends when we were both working in South Sudan in the early 1980s, and we both shared the deep sorrow of watching that country being destroyed by yet another civil war. But there were many Southern Sudanese, like Esther Poni Solomona, who didn’t give up hope. With other Mothers’ Union members she re-started the Immanuel Kindergarten in Yei and, with the help of friends like Carolyn, it has become a beacon of hope in a war-torn country. This is the story Carolyn shared with me:
A joyful parade of 140 kindergarten children with their parents and teachers led by a local brass band marched through a small town in South Sudan in December to join 2,000 from their community who had come to celebrate their graduation with their guest of honour – Carolyn Murray of Lancaster. (All photos courtesy of the Immanuel Kindergarten Charity)
A few weeks later she would be honoured with an MBE for her work with that school – Immanuel Kindergarten in Yei (pronounced Yay) which is near the Ugandan border.
The children’s parents and grandparents are struggling to build a future in a land torn by two civil wars since 1955. Many have spent years as refugees.
Carolyn worked in South Sudan for ten years in the peaceful time between the civil wars (1972-1983). In the early 1980s she visited her friend Esther Poni Solomona in Yei, as Esther’s husband was the Episcopal Bishop there. Esther started the Immanuel Kindergarten in the vestry of the Cathedral – but very soon most of the town’s residents had fled as refugees to Uganda.
When they began returning with their few belongings to Yei in 2002 there wasn’t much left – and there still isn’t.
Esther and her Mothers’ Union colleagues re-started the Kindergarten but they had only a dilapidated hut for a school. The roof was falling in and inside was dark and dreary. (left – Esther in one of the classrooms)
Believing that the children deserved a new start Carolyn and friends set up the Immanuel Kindergarten Charity to work in partnership with families in Yei to build a new school. Fundraising began in 2006 and the new school building was officially opened in 2009. In 2015 the charity had funded a new school hall and a bore hole well to provide clean drinking water.
Of the graduation ceremony in December 2019 Carolyn said: “It was the culmination of 11 months planning and hours of hard work by the entire staff team who work long hours for minimal financial reward.
“It shows how much education is valued and more than one speaker talked about education being the key to long-term peace in South Sudan. We were privileged to share in the celebrations.
“Malish [head teacher] and the team work incredibly hard to enable the children to have an amazing education. Despite each of the three classes having upwards of 120 children they have lots of opportunities to learn in a fun way.
“The energetic staff bring ‘chalk and talk’ to life with lots of jumping around, singing and rhymes. The older children also regularly spend time reading and writing. Imagine marking 120 work sheets for each session!
“They also have lots of outdoor activities including games and more formal PE lessons.”
Carolyn also visited Yei in August 2019. Her journey that time had included a ten-hour very bumpy bus trip in Uganda from Entebbe to Arua. From there she had flown to Yei arriving just before the end of term which allowed her to see the school in action and to work with the teachers in the classroom.
She then participated in a three-day training course not only for the team at Immanuel but also for teachers from other nursery and primary schools in the area.
Carolyn continues to work part-time as a primary school teacher in Lancaster so that she can help cover the cost of her journeys to Yei without using funds donated to the school. She did some practical sessions during the training course on how to use story books to bring various aspects of the curriculum alive.
“We had lots of fun making caterpillars from socks and butterflies and animal masks creating story sacks as well as sharing ideas. Many of the teachers have had little or no formal training so opportunities like this are very important.
“One of our kindergarten governors led some excellent sessions on administration and management and another taught about child development.” (Both of these governors are South Sudanese.)
She had taken resources with her which will be stored at the kindergarten and can also be used by other schools as well as sufficient funds from the charity to buy another solar panel. With stronger power the photocopier and laptop at the school will be more reliable. She explained: “This means that creating resources and planning are slightly less stressful.”
This was possible because all donations to the charity go directly to the school.
She reported that the school hall was being used during the day for Day Care provision for 20 small children. She said: “The children are part of the whole school family so when there is a need for the staff to use the room for other classes the younger children go outside if the weather is good or into the classroom that is being vacated by the class using the hall.
“This is a self-financing venture with any profits being used to provide extra facilities for the kindergarten. This means that young children are able to access the opportunities the school provides.
“The television in the hall is used regularly to show English Premier league football matches. The customers pay to watch each match. This is proving to be an excellent source of income for the kindergarten.”
In December she attended several meetings about the future needs and plans for the school.
The school is recognised as one of the best in Yei State and so there is a high demand for places. But the three classrooms are bulging at the seams with 120 to 130 children in each. The charity is, therefore, committed to raising funds to build a new classroom block. (right – an early start for this baby as its mother teaches one of the large classes.)
But the governors don‘t want to remain dependent upon foreign funding. “The focus is on sustainability and having long-term enterprising projects to enable the school to be completely self-sufficient,” Carolyn said.
There are plans to start a bookshop, bringing in supplies from Uganda and selling these at a small profit to help support the school. Carolyn explained: “Part of the requirements for school attendance throughout East Africa is not only to pay school fees but also to take stationery and other items such as a chair, cup and plate. Often it’s difficult and sometimes impossible to buy these things locally so a small local shop would fulfil a huge need and ultimately be a good money spinner.”
The school also aims to have an internet dish which would not only provide it with a reliable internet connection but make it possible to set up an internet café for the local community. This is an expensive project but would provide a reliable and regular supply of income for the kindergarten.
Currently the school is able to provide its pupils with a meal every day consisting of beans and the local staple of maize porridge. The ingredients are provided by the World Food Programme.
The school supplements this with the crops from its own garden which the children help to care for. The school’s feeding programme means a lot to families whose income is only sufficient to buy one meal a month. And they don’t have money to buy underwear – even if these were available in Yei.
So on the Immanuel Kindergarten website there is a heading: Smalls for Yei. Carolyn (left) regularly sends or delivers donations of ladies’ and children’s underwear to the school. There is always a lot of excitement when she distributes those smalls.
When she came to leave in August she was amazed at how much she was given for her journey: 20kg of locally grown or produced food such as peanut butter, honey, roasted peanuts and a couple of bags of something very similar to doughnuts. Plus eight boiled eggs.
“The generosity of people who have nothing never fails to touch me even though I have been experiencing it for more than 40 years!”
Donations can be made via https://www.kindlink.com/charity/immanuel-kindergarten/profile