17 July 2013

A Gift for Life

Written by Published in Film

Beyond the feel good choice of ‘making a difference’, photographer and social storyteller Tom Price latest project focuses the lens on the people behind our charity donations

I recently travelled to South Sudan to document the work of some charities and NGOs in Central Equatoria state. As the diminutive single-prop plane touched down onto a rough laterite runway, my mind entered sensory overload as the landscape of a real place rose up to meet the troubled histories, distressing statistics and projected imaginations of a country that I had previously only experienced through the mediated forms of text, talk and image.

Having recently emerged from what arguably amounted to half a century of brutal civil war with the north, South Sudan officially gained independence as the world's newest nation in July 2011. It soon became evident that protracted warfare and displacement, predictably, had laid waste to the infrastructure and development that the area possessed before the conflict. Representation of this new nation in the media mostly veered towards a typical fixation on the viscera and devastation of war, and the perpetuation of discourses of victimhood and violence. Whilst these hostilities certainly deserved global attention, my experiences and observations suggested that there were other stories to tell.

Early on in my trip I had the pleasure of meeting the three student teachers in this photo-film, Kiden, Pitia and Burle, who were about to graduate from Yei Teacher Training College. Not unscathed from the epidemic of abbreviation, YTTC was an example of one of the many bold and buoyantly determined efforts to move on from the rubble and stagnancy of war. Around one in a thousand teachers in South Sudan have any formal training, many having only received primary education. The Government of South Sudan's target is to train around 20,000 teachers over the next five years but its current annual output is around 1,000 graduates, twenty per cent of which are trained at YTTC. Kiden, Pitia and Burle were keen to show me around their college compound, which boasted one of the largest buildings and the only marching band in town.

It is no secret that one of the key factors to positive development is education. Its profound importance is enshrined in the second Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal (that's all children, everywhere) primary education by 2015. The first is eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, poses the stark equation that children who have no access to schools, a curriculum and trained teachers are most likely ‘condemned to a lifetime of hardship and poverty.’

In Gordon Brown's 2012 review of the state of education in South Sudan, many of the staggering 'worst-in-the-world', but to me emotionally incomprehensible, facts and statistics were relayed: One million primary school-aged children do not go to school and enrolment rates in secondary schools are below ten per cent. For girls, the situation is even worse: just six per cent of thirteen-year-old girls have completed primary education and girls are more than twice as likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than progress through primary education to secondary school. How do you even begin to think about that?<

In a recent article, Professor of Media and Communications Lilie Chouliaraki argued that in the context of fundraising for aid and development, such problems are packaged in all too consumable ways. The focus has shifted from the subjects of the issues to the consumer and the difference they're making in one simple donation/ tweet/ email. The 'feel good' lifestyle choice of making a difference in this way is having an impact in increased donations, but Chouliaraki reports that this kind of 'slacktivism' has engendered a drop in the quality of engagement: we give but we don't seem to care and we don't know much about who these people are anyway. 

When I met Kiden, Burle and Pitia, three friends from the Kuku tribe in Kajo Keji, I knew their stories added an important dimension to the statistics and dominant story of overwhelming need. These three individuals had overcome significant struggle in their educational journeys, battled against limited funds, personal and family difficulties, and experienced exile as refugees during the war.

Last December I saw them for the last time at their graduation ceremony in Yei just before they left the state to go back to the homes and schools where all their training would be put to the test. All three received awards for their academic and social achievements and were brimming with the drive, passion and optimism of a second chance.


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