In the early morning, smoke from burning cow dung rose over hundreds of animals sleeping tightly side by side, with children dotted between them, warming their hands in the smoke, their faces covered in white ash to fend off flies and mosquitoes.
The cattle camps — where South Sudan’s nomads migrate to find pasture during the December-to-May dry season — are some of the world’s most remote, nestled between the arms of the Nile in Lakes State’s swamps.
“My days are busy,” 24-year-old Mary Amal told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, standing between hundreds of cows and holding her baby, Gok, in her arms. “I came here with my brother to take care of our cows, and I’m expected to clean up the camp’s cow dung and prepare food, while also taking care of my eight-month-old daughter.”
The camp was full of children who work as herders, cooks and cleaners. For many, it was also their first chance to learn to read and write, calculate sums and learn about hygiene.
Aid agencies are starting to provide mobile education in the remote cattle camps amid fears that South’s Sudan’s latest civil war is creating another “lost generation” of uneducated adults and country risks becoming a failed state.
“The cattle camp is like a village,” Amal said. “We have our tents here, we have small shops and even a church. It’s important to have a school here too.”
The UN estimates almost three-quarters of South Sudan’s adult population is illiterate — one of the highest rates in the world — and three-quarters of children are out of school.
Tens of thousands of people have died and 4.5 million people have fled their homes since clashes between troops loyal to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and former South Sudanese vice president Riek Machar broke out in the oil-rich new country in 2013.
South Sudan’s cattle camps are not only a cultural tradition, but provide a lifeline for millions in the world’s youngest country, enabling them to trade and store their wealth as hyperinflation has rendered the currency almost worthless.
In the camps, everything revolves around the animals — their milk provides nutritious meals for children, manure lights fires and urine is used as a disinfectant hand and face wash.
Education rates among young pastoralists are particularly low because they are often on the move, according to the UN.
Teachers receive training, textbooks and a solar-powered radio with pre-programmed lessons on basic subjects, relevant to them, as well as practical life skills, said Ezana Kassa of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
“Many of them have never before received formal education,” said Kassa, who manages the project, adding that adults also learn about livestock production, disease control and literacy.
The camp is several hours away from the town of Mingkaman, accessed by trekking through thick bush, swimming through a muddy, stagnant river and then walking over a vast open field.
Kilometers from any village, it has three informal teachers and almost 100 students, who crouched on the floor with a small chalkboard in front of them and hundreds of white, big horned cows behind them.
“I was trained to become a mobile teacher and now teach every morning once the cattle have been released for grazing,” said Abuoch Madit Awur, who lives in the camp and teaches for several hours each day, sitting in the dust.
Out of hundreds of camps across South Sudan, only about 10 have a school, with about 100 students each.
Keeping the schools running is not easy.
Children are brought to the camp to work, not to go to school, and women are expected to provide food, said Maker Maker, livelihood officer with Norwegian People’s Aid, another partner in the project, who trains the cattle keepers.
“It’s a slow progress, but my students are encouraged,” Awur said.
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