In February, MAF Pilot, Wim Hobo, flew Filip Lidström and Magdalena Waern, to Lotimor for three days to instal solar panels and lights at the school. It’s been a whole year since the last planes landed in Lotimor.
Story and Photos by Jennie Davies
Nestled in a cradle of hills on South Sudan’s south-eastern border is the village of Lotimor. It is a two day walk to the closest market in Nanyangachor, faraway at top of the escarpment, where you can buy essentials like soap and salt. Moving towards the highest mountain you reach Ethiopia after a three day walk.
Arriving into this isolation two years ago were teachers the teachers of Lotimor Mixed Primary School, Daniel, Philip, Thomas, who have since been joined by local colleague James. They are long, long way away from their families - for months at a time. With no phone signal, internet or transport in Lotimor the dedication of the teachers comes at significant personal cost.
Their journey from their homes in northern Kenya at the beginning of every term, takes them along a stretch of road from Narus to Kapoeta that is one of the most dangerous in South Sudan with weekly reports of vehicles being ambushed on the roads. The final drive to reach Lotimor is a bottle rattling endurance test of 12 hours.
What remote really means
When a missionary from the Pentecostal Church of Sweden arrived in Lotimor for the first time in 2015 they found people sheltering under trees waiting to die. A bad growing season caused by drought meant they’d eaten the seed they should have planted. With no help coming, the people had given up hope.
At that point there was no airstrip. Neither was there a road. Getting food aid to the community seemed like an impossible task. Accounts that reached the ears of the church in Sweden led to documentary which quickly turned into a national fundraising campaign to raise over $400,000 to build a road connecting Lotimor with Kapoeta a 12-hour drive away. The food trucks began to arrive.
The airstrip came later when MAF Sweden director David Nordlander heard about the overland ordeal suffered by a medical team travelling into Lotimor by road. The airstrip was opened by MAF in 2019. Only three MAF planes have landed since then, bringing a medical team in 2019 and three Turkana teachers to open the school in 2020. The third plane is landing today, bringing Swedish missionaries supporting the Pentecostal Church of Sudan to complete a project to install solar panels and lights at the school.
The dedicated teachers are patiently waiting at the airstrip as pilot Wim Hobo flies the Cessna Caravan into the valley through a haze of dry season dust. The visibility is so poor that he misses the airstrip completely on the first go around climbing out towards the hills for a second pass. The caravan lands on the third time around, rattling to a halt at the far end of the airstrip where the teachers and students are waiting.
Filip and Magdalena are warmly welcomed by the teachers. The two jerry cans of petrol are located before the cargo of solar panels, batteries and lights is carefully unloaded. These are needed to fuel the motorcycles (the only ones in the village) that will carry the batteries which each weigh nearly 60kgs, the 3km to the school. The nearest the petrol station is in Kapoeta a 12-hour ride away.
Filip sets off by motorbike with the batteries and his big bag tools. Following behind on foot are the teachers, and an entourage of excited school children. The ladies carrying the solar panels bounce them joyously in the air.
Against the clock
The school, nestled in the hill overlooking the village, is bigger than Filip remembers.
The walls in the teachers’ room are covered with flip chart pages. Timetables, duty rotas, governance structures. Everything you would expect of a well-run school. The school’s few resources are displayed neatly on shelving that are being eaten, from the floor up, by termites.
Filip starts work immediately - wishing he had more time, more electrical cable, and fewer spectators watching his every move. The first thing he does is to fit the switchboard and invertor on a stretch of wall, out to the way of small hands, where the roof doesn’t leak. Beads of sweat run down his face, as he works. Above him the tin roof is hot enough to fry an egg.
By the end of the day Filip has run cable and installed the lights in the first of the two classrooms. He surveys his handiwork with satisfaction. The amount of light is ‘lagom’ – a Swedish word, which is practically a philosophy meaning, not too little, not too much.
There is no purpose-built accommodation for boarders. In the other classroom, fifty students bed down for the night on mattresses on the floor. Tomorrow they’ll have lights out for the very first time.
Filip is up on the roof early the next morning. At the bottom of the ladder, Magdalena is praying that the rust holding the 20-year-old tin roof together won’t suddenly give way.
Electricity and children aren’t a good mix, so the village children have been given the day off. The school’s fifty boarders head down to the airstrip with head teacher Daniel to carry out repairs suggested by pilot Wim. The older students hack away with machetes and rakes to remove some of the more stubborn bushes from the sandy soil.
Amongst them is 17-year-old Patrick Mapuon, the school’s head boy. The primary four student is bright and motivated, loves mathematics and wants to be a teacher when he finishes school. His village is 45km from here which is a six hour walk. The distance means he doesn’t go home very often to see his family. Lights will mean he can study in the evenings and complete his studies sooner.
Head teacher Daniel is happy that they are installing the lights, but the thing he’s most looking forward to being able to run a printer. At the moment, the teachers write everything on the blackboard - from daily vocabulary drills to end of year exam questions. Being able to print exam papers, rather than extract the pages from the students exercise books to send away for marking, will revolutionise their work.
The school opened just two years ago with 56 students and now has an enrolment of 260. The closest school is 86km away, Daniel explains. The catchment area for his students is as far as they can walk. The school is already visibly outgrowing its structures. As the students as progress through the grades, they will need to build two classrooms every year just to keep up with demand. The boarders can’t continue sleeping in the classrooms indefinitely.
Attendance is lower now in the dry season (only 139 students) as some of the semi nomadic families have left Lotimor in search of food. The World Food Programme feeding programme, is a big incentive for the families to keep their children in school. Lotimor’s location a 12–14-hour drive from the town of Kapoeta means it often gets overlooked. This year, the bags of beans and sorghum never arrived. The current boarders are surviving off the sorghum donated by the village.
The boys come drifting up the hill towards the school ready for lunch as the midday sun passes overhead. They pass a herd of donkeys, driven by a local Nyangatom woman and shepherds coming the other way. Young Nyangatom and Toposa boys start herding goats and sheep as soon as they can walk. As the schoolboys pass the boy herders – it’s as if two different version of the future are passing one another on their very different trajectories.
By the time the students arrive at the school, the panels are in place. Filip is running cable to the teacher’s room, adjacent storeroom and second classroom securing the white cable to the metal roof support with cable ties. He’s spent the best part of two long days at the top of a ten-foot ladder peering upward into the roof space by the light of his head torch with only the mud wasp nests and spiders for company.
Darkness envelops the school for the last time as the sun goes down. When the lights are turned on for the first time, the effect in the pitch-black surroundings is impressive. The school shines on the hillside like a beacon of hope.
Time for school
The next day, the students gather for assembly before classes begin. Filip has moved outside for the final push to install floodlights on the outside walls to improve the building’s external security. There is no shade and he’s working against the clock to complete the work by 10am, the time the MAF plane is scheduled to arrive.
As he set his ladder against the school’s front porch, he has an audience of the youngest students seated in rows facing a blackboard that has been painted on the outside wall. This is the school’s makeshift third classroom. The teacher explains that the roof neither shades them from sunshine nor keeps out the wind and rain. The area isn’t big enough for the scores of small eager students who squash together onto metal bench desks.
Inside the first of two classrooms, eager students encourage one another as they take it in turns to recite vocabulary drills. Next door older students strain to read math problems on the blackboard. The teachers switch between grades as they task students according to their ability.
The age range is wide. Young students who have had the opportunity begin early are mixed in with older boys that never had the opportunity to go to school. The quality of education they are receiving from their Kenyan trained teachers is way ahead of the curve.
There is a notable absence of teenage girls. In the Nyangatom and Toposa cultures, child marriage is practised. Girls are also the chief source of domestic labour - helping with cooking and childcare. They traditionally leave the home in exchange for dowries. Education is seen as a poor investment that interrupts this traditional way of life.
Ready to respond
Magdalena spends time listening to the teachers as they share about their hopes. When they return to Juba, she will distil this feedback into a realistic plan to support the school. Every request is tinted by frustration. Two years ago, development was just beginning when it inexplicably stalled as the global pandemic hit. The community is keen to accelerate the process of development to make up for lost time.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at the small clinic comprised of a small treatment room, pharmacy, and shaded waiting area where pharmacist Joseph Moruese and nurse Loriko Breraga serve a local population of upwards of 15,000 people. They’ve seen the lights and come to ask if the clinic can have some too.
Loriko tells how the frail and sick walk for more than a day to attend the clinic and arrive to find that there is no inpatient facility (the nearest hospital is in Kapoeta). He shares how hard it is to treat patients in an emergency in the middle of the night without lights. He opens cupboard doors to reveal modest stocks of malaria and pneumonia medications and lifts the lid of the solar blue chest freezer to show the vaccines inside. They are clearly under-resourced. A new fridge on the veranda which will contains veterinary medicines, suggests that help is reaching Lotimor - although perhaps not as quickly as people would like.
Lighting up the future
Help has also been reaching the school. In the last two years, Oxfam have constructed a latrine, covered kitchen area and storeroom so the school can qualify for the WFP School Feed Programme. The students have UNICEF backpacks and enjoy extracurricular activities including football and volleyball thanks to sports equipment provided by Christian NGO ACROSS.
ACROSS also run a programme to teach farming techniques to women in the wider community. The women receive seeds and tools, learn about crops they can grow, and how to use them for food. They are tackling the village’s food insecurity and malnutrition problem one lesson, demonstration plot and seed distribution at a time.
Programmes, though important are only part of the solution. The real change is being nurtured from within the community by the teachers. In a few short years, these students will be equipped to shape the future for themselves.
Leaving and left behind
The skies are clear as the plane appears on the horizon, conducts a low pass and lands. There is time for thanks and final farewells before the plane takes off piloted by MAF Kenya pilot Daniel Loewen Rudgers. The school is beneath the plane as it tracks its westward course.
After three long days of working from dawn to dusk, the couple are ready for the 45-minute pause which is all the time it will take to reach the plane to reach Kapoeta. Filip will disembark there to spend another week overseeing some while psychologist Magdalena will deliver training on trauma awareness to the hospital staff. They will listen and manage expectations as people share about the needs in Kapoeta too.
Filip points out the road below that both connects and isolates Lotimor from the outside world. The long road to development. While you can’t overcome every challenge with a plane and an airstrip, but it can speed the pace of change.