By Mark Michael

Rokon, a small town ravaged by decades of civil war, will be the site of a new branch campus of the Episcopal University of South Sudan, according to church officials, who broke ground there on December 18. “Maybe God has a plan to make this a center of production where previously it’s been a center of destruction,” said Archbishop Justin Badi Arama, the South Sudanese primate, who laid the cornerstone for the university’s first building.

Arama was joined in the celebration by community elders, government officials and faculty members from the Episcopal University’s other five campuses, dispersed across the nation.  A delegation of British supporters, led by Dr. Eeva John, president of the Episcopal Church of Sudan & South Sudan University Partnership (ECSSUP), also helped to break ground for construction.

John, former director of pastoral studies at Ridley Hall, Cambridge was the primary author of a 2011 feasibility study that led to the official licensing of the University, South Sudan’s newest, earlier this year. ECSSUP has provided professional guidance, as well as communications and fundraising support in the effort to launch the institution

John’s study identified a church-owned site in Rokon as a promising location for a branch campus. The study noted that “the history of intense fighting in the area makes [Rokon a] symbolically important place for rebuilding.” It also recommended an educational program for the site focused on “peace building and trauma counselling.”

Intense conflict broke out around Rokon during the closing decade of the 1983-2005 Second Sudanese Civil War, which raged between the Khartoum-based national government and separatist groups in the South. A garrison town for the national army, it was largely deserted by local residents, and large numbers of landmines were buried in the surrounding countryside. Episcopal Bishop Francis Loyo, a Rokon native, was imprisoned and tortured during the civil war. Members of his family, who fled into the bush, lost contact with one another for years.

The formerly abandoned town has become a refugee center during the South Sudanese civil war, which broke out in 2013. The United Nations Mission in South Sudan reported in October, 2018 that approximately 500 internally displaced people were living in Rokon, fleeing conflict and farmland destruction in neighboring regions. Though a peace agreement between the two major warring groups was signed in September, 2018, sporadic conflict continues, and the country continues to suffer from severe economic pressures and food insecurity.

The lack of higher education opportunities is also among the nation’s most pressing challenges.  A 2017 national education survey found that only about 27% of South Sudanese people over 15 are literate, one of the world’s lowest rates. Two of the nation’s five universities collapsed during the civil war. The Episcopal University’s 2011 feasibility study said “30,000 young people who were qualified for university entrance were not able to access places in South Sudan government universities due to the lack of capacity in existing institutions. Many of them developed anti-social behavior and were targeted by the warlords for recruits as militia to promote the war.”

The Episcopal University, headquartered in Juba, the South Sudanese capital, currently has five campuses. All are former theological colleges, founded to train Episcopal lay readers and clergy, and theological education remains a primary focus. They are also offering courses in education, agriculture, and business, and are aiming to develop advanced professional and doctoral programs in the next few years.

“In a country where 78 per cent of the working population are subsistence farmers,” John wrote in 2017, “the [Episcopal University of South Sudan] hopes to produce lawyers, administrators, accountants, engineers, entrepreneurs, and medical professionals as well as teachers. It will also continue its long history of training pastors and lay workers for South Sudan’s growing Church, enabling its members to grow in depth of discipleship, and skills in peace-building at a local level.”