This teachers’ conference had a theme of equipping and empowering, but I think more importantly, it imparted vision and purpose. Living in a refugee camp is like living in limbo. There is no telling when the return to your home will come. It might be a few months, or not in your lifetime. Being a people who have had to flee more than once, many of whom have spent most of their lives in the camps, hopelessness is very common here. They are an hour and a half car ride from the nearest town, but they don’t have cars. They walk, or ride bikes, or motorbikes if they are lucky. They feel trapped here and abandoned. Why try? What’s the use of making an effort to do anything if it is doomed to fail? Even survival is hard here. Just getting food and water takes tremendous effort. Working beyond that, is overwhelming and pointless. Many have lost their sense of purpose.
That is why Hope Primary School is such a special place. It is a place where the people of South Sudan saw purpose. One man thought they needed a school, so he started one, under a tree, by himself with no resources. Other refugees came alongside to help him. Soon they had 600 or so kids to teach, still with no resources and no pay. I cannot imagine the gumption it takes to do such a thing. I also cannot imagine how tiring it is to teach, in addition to having to survive yourself. Seeing the need, and attempting to meet it, only to find it nearly impossible to do the job. That adds discouragement to the hopelessness, and morale plummets. What a hard, hard thing.
Our partnership with the school has helped to provide a roof overhead, and food for the lunch program, but as nice as those things may be, the teachers still feel like they are drowning. No books, no curriculum, no resources…it is like being plopped down in the middle of a field and told to teach. The teachers’ conference has been a time to pour into them…to encourage them and to lift them up. The majority of them have not had teacher training. It blows my mind what they are doing, truly. A major goal of this conference was to bring hope in a hopeless situation. We wanted to encourage them that they are people of purpose, who have taken on the huge task of imparting that sense of purpose to children, in such a desperate environment.
In Uganda, each day of school is started with a devotional and a prayer. It is an important part of the educational culture here. The motto is: First for God and country. In like fashion, our conference started with devotions every morning. Uche taught the story of Joseph, and related it to the refugees. Joseph knew what it was to be in a pit, to be hated by his brothers, to be in a foreign land, and to wonder if he would ever get back home. Yet, he still had dreams and still walked in an honorable way…even when he was falsely accused and put into prison. He forgave those who sold him into slavery, his very own brothers! Only God could give him the power to do that, and only God could use Joseph’s horrible experiences to save a nation. The teachers were encouraged to continue to dream and develop, even in the camps. Not to give up or just wait around, but to look around and see how they can contribute to the students they teach by raising up children who embrace peace, which starts with forgiveness. He gave the teachers a charge to look beyond their circumstances into the future and to know God will use this season for good as he did for Joseph.
Seventeen of the teachers decided in order to forgive their enemies, they must first receive forgiveness themselves. There was a message given…love equals sacrifice, and how Jesus sacrificed because of his great love for us all. More holy moments were had when these 17 teachers, agreed to embrace forgiveness from God so they could pour it out on their enemies. Walking it out will be a challenge, but one they are wanting to take in order to find peace. It was a beautiful thing to witness.
We did eventually get to the educational part of the conference, and I took some notes in each of the sessions. There were three Ugandan nationals who head up the teacher training program in the region that came to share their wisdom and experience. The topics were professionalism and morale, teachers code of conduct, understanding primary curriculum, and a faith based approach to education. The hope filled statements I collected breathed purpose into what the teachers are doing here. It gave them a long-term viewpoint that the limbo they live in might just have a purpose for the next generation. It also gave them a desire to push through the hard things, to the important things.
- “Teaching is nation building.” This statement is especially true in a refugee situation. When they go back to their country, whether that is next week or years from now, the students they are teaching will be the leaders. What they receive now, in the camps, will determine how they will lead.
- “You are teachers to the nations.” Again, teaching a refugee population who is displaced makes this true, because some of the people will choose not to wait and will move to other countries. The students here will be the ones who will integrate into other places.
- “You are agents of change.” These teachers desire peace to come to their country. They know it will require forgiveness among the tribes and that the kids will be the ones to bring unity back. If they can teach peace and forgiveness to them, they could change a country who has been at war for 5 generations.
- “Teaching is a calling, not a job.” If you are talented in the area of teaching, it is a gift from God. Teaching in such difficult circumstances can only be done with strength from Heaven. It is a noble profession which is under appreciated, but highly necessary, in order for peace to come. God planted them here for such a time as this.
- “Because we are; the nation is.” Without teachers, there can be no nation. The teachers are the ones who develop the doctors, lawyers, leaders, engineers, who form any nation.
- “No country is better than its teachers.” Encouragement to be a great teacher so the nation will be great.
- “Another place is very far.” They can long for another place, but to be present where they are currently, is more helpful and more important to developing a future.
- “We are orphan teachers. It is who we are. We have to learn parenting, even though many of us do not have parents. We have to use peace to teach, not war.” This was spoken by a teacher in a discussion about disciplining students. He sees the reality of his role, and the difficult but important task of learning peace in order to teach it.
We were all so taken with these teachers, and we were privileged to bring purpose and healing to them at a time when they needed encouragement. The conference covered many topics to begin the process of educating the educators, but none was more needed that the foundation of forgiveness. It is the thing on which everything else must be built to begin to heal the wounds of war. Please pray that the seeds planted this week would grow and multiply in the community.