On May 19, NESEI's U.S and Sudan staffs were joined by regional chiefs and elders, and other members of the local Lanya County and Yei town communities to welcome the first students of NESEI's flagship school to the new campus.
The "blessing ceremony" was an opportunity for the NESEI family and local Sudanese friends to come together and stand witness to a milestone in development for South Sudan. As each student shook the hand of Directors Robert Lair and Atem Deng and passed through the entrance of the dining hall where the ceremony was held, the dream of providing secondary education in South Sudan took a step closer towards reality.
About 20 young women were present for the blessing ceremony that morning, the first of many young women and men who will receive a quality, life-changing education at a NESEI school. They donned their uniforms- a NESEI-orange shirt that bears the message "Building Peace Through Education" and black, cotton skirts- with visible pride. Despite long, difficult journeys from various counties across the region, the girls were cheerful and energetic, listening carefully as the speakers addressed them and the founders of their school.
The ceremony began with a brief address from schoolmistress Margaret Juan, which was followed by an emotional offering of song by the local Lanya County women. Their voices rang out, strong and symphonious, capturing the spirit of the day, and expressing in music a feeling difficult to describe with words. Defying borders, languages, and roads riddled with the potholes of a persistent rainy season, we assembled together that morning to show gratitude and reverence for the accomplishment that was materializing before us.
Each chief took his turn addressing the NESEI community, stressing the importance of community partnerships, respect for the land, and commitment to provide quality education to the young people of Sudan. Robert Lair and Atem Deng also spoke, addressing the group with humility as they presented to the community a school that has been many years in the making.
For Robert, Atem, and the other NESEI founders, this ceremony was the culmination of an idea that first took form on a plane ride home to VT, after Atem's first journey back to East Africa in 2004. That day, Robert and Atem made a plan to bring sustainable peace through education to the people of Sudan. Four years later, the long awaited moment of the school's opening had arrived. But for the people of South Sudan, the wait for education has been much longer, and far more costly. In a region that has been plagued for two generations with a destructive civil war, where over 93% of women are illiterate, where there are less than 100 doctors to serve 10 million people, this health sciences high school is an incredible resource and achievement. It is one of the first major steps towards education and economic development in this region, and it would not have been possible without Sudanese and Americans working tirelessly side-by-side.
This was illustrated when NESEI staff member Anita Henderlight closed the ceremony with a story she had heard from a Sudanese friend: When a group of Sudanese boys were fleeing the civil war and found themselves being forced to cross the River Nile, they had a choice to make. They could either jump in as individuals and fight the currents as one small person, or they could join hands and swim across to safety as one, unified body. Unity was their greatest strength in the face of great difficulty.
With the telling of this story, Anita and the other NESEI staff members joined hands with their Sudanese, Ugandan, and Kenyan friends who have made this first school possible. Then, together, the unified NESEI family took a symbolic jump forward for Sudan.