ONE of the prime movers in the overseas aid efforts by the Bryn’s School foundation based in South Gippsland, George Hendry, returned from South Sudan recently admitting to being exhausted with his latest efforts in the trouble-torn country. He didn’t have to admit it. You could see it.
But the satisfaction too was evident after delivering a barrier-breaking education facility for some South Sudan girls – an appropriate story ahead of International Women’s Day on Friday, March 8.
With a friend from Inverloch, Martin Haynes, he spent a month there in November-December to add the finishing touches and witness the opening of the school.
Here’s George’s account of this inspiring project:
“Sometimes the impossible is possible. A dream to build a girls’ school in war torn South Sudan was considered by many to be a task too difficult for anyone and the challenges seemed insurmountable.
“The vision started back in 2010 when I met a South Sudanese refugee named Haluel Herjok, whose great desire, after returning to visit her country after 13 years in a Kenyan refugee camp, was to build a simple school to educate girls in Bor, South Sudan. She set up a South Sudanese womens support group (the Bai Bor Women’s Association) in Melbourne to help them settle into Australia. After a period of time their major focus was building a school. We formulated a plan and starting finding contacts who could assist.
“Our first task was to acquire the land, so in late 2010 I headed to South Sudan. I immediately faced many obstacles and knew we needed to be
patient and determined. The Governor of Jonglei State told me we would need an armed escort to get girls to and from school and the locals considered the education of girls to be a waste of resources. The first land was taken from us when the locals realized our intention was to build a girls-only school.
“In 2012 I returned to South Sudan with the $100,000 we had raised, determined to find another block of land and start building. Things didn’t go well for me initially with me being deported by an overzealous official but with the contacts I had made I managed to get back into South Sudan. A few days later, after a frustrating week, we acquired a new block of land in a very promising location and the building materials began to arrive.
“The previous Government Department which had owned the land was not going to give up the land without a fight and on day two of building they delivered an arrest warrant for the builder and myself. We avoided being put in jail and I spent the balance of my visit trying to get a title to the land. Eventually we got the title and I left South Sudan confident the building was underway.
“Our fundraising was only just keeping pace with the building works but we were making steady progress.
“I returned to Bor in October 2013 with little knowledge of what was about to occur. Our school was nearing completion and all materials were on site to complete the project. I left in November 2013 believing that we only need to raise more funds to complete the project.
“In December 2013 an alleged coup occurred in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. The fighting reached Bor within days with the opposition overrunning the place, and death and destruction everywhere. The government regained control within a week but Bor was unfortunately overrun a second time and completely demolished. Thousands were killed and I lost many good friends. The stories of the mass killings in the churches and schools and of children drowning in the river while trying to escape were devastating. I have witnessed humanity at its best and now at its worst.
“The focus of our South Sudanese women naturally turned towards helping family and friends to deal with yet another war. And, as usual, the victims were mainly innocent women and children. The government regained control two weeks later and the international press started reporting the death and destruction in Bor. I shed many tears watching the footage of the streets I was so familiar with lined with bodies. Our school building was still standing but all building materials that could be carried away were looted by opposition soldiers.
“After weeks of trying to understand what had just happened I came to the conclusion that we just had to persevere. We offered our school for humanitarian relief and then eventually to another school group to be uses temporarily. We focussed on getting a container full of school equipment to Bor and to recommence building when it was again safe.
“War has raged for the last five years but Bor has been reasonably settled for the last two years, as a comprehensive peace agreement signed one year ago seems to be holding in most areas. We decided to officially open the school, finished or not, on December 12th, 2018. Haluel did a whirlwind tour of Australia, Canada and the United States, talking to South Sudanese women’s groups while raising funds and awareness of our school opening.
“I had invested lots of time and emotion into trying to get the school operating and knew that I had to be there for the official opening. Fortunately Martin Haynes, a good friend from Inverloch, decided to accompany me on this trip. His support was invaluable as we negotiated the minefield of getting things done in South Sudan. We had to organize the building and all that was required to run the school. Time and patience are virtues in South Sudan.
“We were the only Kawaja (white men) walking the streets but were always greeted in a friendly manner by the locals who showed their appreciation of our work. It’s quite a strange feeling walking the roads and being passed by truck loads of UN peacekeepers armed and in full combat gear, but at no stage did we feel we were in danger.
“In traditional African style Martin and I arrived at the official opening time of 12 noon and waited an hour for people to turn up. After a couple of phone calls we went back to our hotel to await a call as to when things would get started. At 4pm we were told to get back to the school asap – this is Africa. I didn’t even have time to put on my white shirt and long pants that I had carted halfway around the world for this very occasion. We arrived and to our surprise saw that hundreds of people had arrived, with many more women than men and the ladies dressed in their traditional colourful costumes.
“It was a moment of mixed emotions – relief, elation, pride, hope – and as I looked at the girls I could see the happiness in their eyes. A moment when they felt valued. This school will give them hope for a brighter future. The school, the best building in Bor
(population 300,000 with only 20 schools) sits as a beacon of hope for all girls and makes a statement that girls are at last valued. Our school is the only school built anywhere in Bor in the last 10 years.
“Why girls? I have now worked on nine school projects around the world, with several different organizations. The most important thing I have learnt is the value of women, particularly in developing countries and where there is conflict. In any programs, committees or structures I now insist that the majority of those involved are women. They are the key to much needed change in this world. There is a quiet revolution around the world. “I can hear the roar of women’s silence – I sense the rumble of their storm – and feel the fury of their revolt.” (Thomas Sankara)
“The school will open as a primary school and with our six classrooms cater for grades 1-5. There is an urgent need to build more classrooms and eventually cater for grades 1-12. We need to get the girls past the vulnerable ages of 12-14, when they are considered women and can be sold off as brides to anyone willing to pay a dowry of cows. A girl in South Sudan is more likely to die during childbirth than complete a primary education.
“To all those individuals and groups who have supported us to this point a heartfelt thanks. I hope you feel pride in what has been achieved. I’m more than happy to talk to any groups or individuals who wish to support some of the most vulnerable girls in the world. Help us grow this female revolution and make this world a better place.”
George Hendry, phone 0431 474578 firstname.lastname@example.org
Helping a broken country