The Legacy of Project Education South Sudan (PESS)
Since 2005, Project Education South Sudan (PESS) has been finding ways to fulfill our mission in the fast-changing environment of South Sudan.
“Lost Boys” was the 1990s name given to refugee children in the southern portion of what was then the largest country in Africa – Sudan. These children were driven from their villages during attacks by the dominant Arabic north against the southern population – primarily black Africans.
The children walked hundreds of miles to refugee camps in Ethiopia; they were soon driven out of Ethiopia and forced to again trek hundreds of miles to Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya. Some were eventually fortunate enough to obtain asylum.
In 2001, Carol and Richard Rinehart became mentors to over a dozen refugee “Lost Boys” in Denver, Colorado. One of these boys, Isaac Khor Bher, received news that his mother was still alive in Isaac’s native village. In May 2005, after a shaky peace with the north had been reached, Carol Rinehart traveled with Isaac to southern Sudan to find what was left of his family. In that war-torn region, there were only intermittently passable roads, little clean water or electricity, few latrines and virtually no healthcare. Yet, the plea of Isaac’s village was not help for these fundamental needs. Instead, they asked for the education that was needed to build their new country; Having been almost completed neglected by their colonial rulers, southern Sudan had almost no educational infrastructure. Isaac and Carol returned to Denver with a mission: to help communities build schools in South Sudan. In October 2005 Project Education Sudan (later updated to "Project Education South Sudan" or “PESS”) was formed.
Isaac’s and other reunifications began a unique relationship between PESS and the remote communities in Jonglei state where these young men had been born. PESS partnered with these villages to build schoolhouses. These projects started in Konbek in 2005, but quickly expanded to Maar, Pagook and Gopmeth – a remarkable achievement given the lack of resources or infrastructure in these rural areas. Beyond school buildings, and with a view to promoting school attendance, especially by girls, PESS donated water wells, commercial grinding mills, cinderblock-making equipment, sewing machines and annual school supply money to the villages where the schools are located.
In 2011, over 99% of the southern Sudanese population voted to secede from Sudan; the election created the world’s newest democracy – South Sudan.
While PESS was building schools in South Sudan, Lost Boy Daniel Majok Gai graduated from the University of Colorado in Denver and became a United States citizen. Daniel joined the PESS team as a volunteer and advocate, and in 2011, he returned to Jonglei state to become the PESS South Sudan Director, working locally to implement and oversee PESS’s educational projects. When PESS Executive Director Carol Rinehart retired in 2015, Daniel became the new Executive Director; he led PESS from his home in Jonglei, where he lives with his wife and children.
Tragically, sparked by a rift between South Sudan’s top leaders, inter-tribal conflict broke out in December 2013. Since then, conflict, population displacement, and inflation have made school building impossible.
PESS has adapted by choosing direct investment in young people rather than bricks and mortar. We believe providing educational opportunities for girls and young women is South Sudan’s greatest educational need and one which will best serve the economic and democratic development of the new nation of South Sudan. On the ground in Jonglei, Daniel matched promising young women with functional private schools so that these girls could receive a meaningful secondary education.
The non-profit She’s The First has been an important partner in our girl scholar program. Founded by two young women from New York, STF sponsors chapters at American colleges that raise funds for girls’ education. In turn, STF supports vetted international nonprofits in developing countries that provide scholarships to educate girls.
“The fact that our girl scholars are passing the South Sudanese national exams is proof PESS is doing the right thing. Seeing some South Sudanese parents allowing their daughters to pursue education like the boys gives me hope that the society is changing gradually and if we keep up the momentum, we will see more changes before long” - Ngor Abiar