Meet Ngor Majak: Passionate South Sudanese giving back through education
“To whom much is given, much will be required,” reads Luke 12:48 in the holly book – the bible. But when Ngor Majak Anyieth, the founder of Education Bridge, decided to use it while referring to his journey through education and some tasks he is yet to complete, then you realize the special place his country, South Sudan, has in his heart.
As of most South Sudanese, Majak stands slightly above 80 centimeters high. From his frame, he cuts an image of a young man so unbothered by the past.
But his dark past turned out to be the blessing – allowing him an opportunity to acquire education at a time when his peers ended up in the bush, joining the ranks of soldiers in the liberation struggle, and later forced conscripts into various militia groupings.
“I grew up just outside the town of Bor, South Sudan, and I started primary school in 2000. At the time, many schools had been destroyed by the civil war, and I used to walk an hour to get to the closest school.
“When I was in Grade 4, I had to make a decision: I could either leave my family to pursue education, or I could stay in South Sudan, where I knew the chances of attending secondary school were slim,” reads his statement on the Education Bridge website.
Born at the height of civil war in South Sudan, Anyieth lost his father at a young age to the same conflict.
He was raised by his mother, who emphasized the importance of education. Anyieth took her guidance to heart, embarking on a life-changing journey that would later allows him return to a society once split apart by civil war that snatched a part of him – his father, from their midst.
In 2005, he left my home for Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where he attended primary and secondary school.
“I lived there for six years. I later had the opportunity to attend African Leadership Academy in South Africa and the University of Notre Dame in the United States. It was through these experiences that I recognized the power of education—and the opportunities that South Sudanese youth are deprived of without access to proper schooling. I started Education Bridge because I want to increase access to education in South Sudan,” his statement further reads.
At Kakuma Refugee, he would tell a congregation of students and staff at the University of Notre Dame in 2019, he would get valuable lessons on the negative ethnicity between the various ethnic groups in his country, and the need to venture into entrepreneurship.
“All 64 ethnic communities in South Sudan were at the refugee camp in Kakuma. Each always had demeaning narratives about the other. But being in a refugee camp, we got the opportunity to appreciate brotherhood. We were one big family,” he said.
He wanted to be a great neurosurgeon but circumstances around him would not allow it. And even when he emerged as the best student among the refugees in school. But there was an aspect of entrepreneurship that would be instilled in him and other young men and women at that tender age.
“During school holidays we would grow vegetables which we would, in turn, sell to get income which we would then use to buy personal effects,” he says.
Once on campus, Anyieth began work on his dream: To build a school back home in Bor, South Sudan. With the support of his classmates, professors, and University administrators, he turned this vision into reality. In 2016, he founded Education Bridge, a nonprofit dedicated to providing schools for South Sudanese youth with a focus on peacemaking, entrepreneurship, and access to education for girls. After taking a leave of absence to open the first school, Anyieth graduated from Notre Dame in 2018.
He knows that his country, which is the youngest in the world has some journey to walk towards a lasting peace.
“I know that the conflict in South Sudan cannot be solved by education alone. South Sudan has a long history of ethnic violence. I remember that as a child, I used to despise and distrust people from different ethnic communities. I was only able to change this mindset through my experience living in Kakuma Refugee Camp, where I interacted with people from different ethnic groups in South Sudan,” he says.
His aim for Education Bridge, he says, is to bring this same experience to South Sudanese youth.
“Our hope is that the interactions we foster in our schools will help break stereotypes that fuel ethnic conflict and create new narratives of peace. Short term, Education Bridge intends to create peace ambassadors: people to challenge the dominant biased narrative. Long term, we want to create a South Sudan that finds pride and richness in its diversity,” he says.
While it is the dream of Majak to provide the much-needed education to populations that may not have the same opportunities as he did, education statistics in the country are startling.
According to Unicef 2021 report, there was a significant increase in the number of out-of-school children, from 2.2 million in 2018 to 2.8 million in 2021.
The voluntary return of refugees from neighbouring countries, especially those returning from Uganda due to protracted closure of schools, has exacerbated the pressure on existing school facilities.
The report also noted that non-payment of salary for teachers increases the risk of quitting teaching and losing both qualified and nonqualified teachers, while inaccessibility due to insecurity and weather-related factors like floods impacts the timely implementation of interventions.
A whopping 2042 schools are operating under trees. While 1134 schools are temporary structures, 848 are semi-permanent, and only 1115 schools are permanent.
In 2017, Majak went back home – South Sudan – to start Greenbelt Academy, which currently serves 392 students.
“The first goal was to provide quality education given the low percentage of our population that can read and write.” This would be blended with entrepreneurship skills so that they can be productive right after completing their studies, either individually or as a community,” he says.
The second goal for the establishment of the academy was to use the educational space for peace building.
“The vision here is to have a young population that sees themselves as one family. “This is something that I observed while at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya,” he says.
Greenbelt Academy is located in Bor, Jonglei State, and currently serves over 400 students, including 129 female students in Grades 9-12. It has 50 staff members and uses the South Sudanese School Curriculum to teach Science, Mathematics, English, Geography, History, Accounting, Commerce, English, Christianity, and Agriculture as well as a special peace-building curriculum to help students develop peace-building skills.
“We constantly seek opportunities for our students to engage with the world. In June 2019, 12 students took home first prize in the national level of the prestigious World Scholar’s Cup in Juba, South Sudan. 6 of the winning students went on to compete in the Global World Scholars’ Cup in South Africa and won 2 gold and 8 silver medals. 3 students even qualified for the Tournament of Champions at Yale University,” reads their website.”
It is one of the few schools in the entire nation that provides access to global opportunities for students. With the help of the career services office and existing partnerships with global institutions, students have received full scholarships to attend the University of Notre Dame Summer Scholars Program, Young Global Scholars at Yale University and the African Leadership Academy that our own founder, Majak, graduated from.
“We select only the most qualified teachers to teach our students.” The percentage of our teachers with undergraduate degrees is 100%, far exceeding the national average of less than 56%. “This commitment to excellence is reflected in our 4th place national ranking in the 2020 National Examinations,” he says.