The teachers' staff-room is a charming thatched building adjacent to the classrooms overlooking the dusty recreation and assembly ground at Good Hope Basic Primary School in Bentiu, the capital of oil-rich Unity State in South Sudan.
Bentiu is near the disputed border with Sudan and within striking distance of Sudanese fighter jets and warplanes.
In recent weeks, there have been aerial bombardments targeting newly-independent South Sudan that both the White House and the United Nations have condemned. A U.N. Security Council resolution has told the two Sudans to stop fighting, sit down and negotiate a settlement to their outstanding disputes over oil and borders.
Students like Dalat Stephen Kuong, 17, worry that the fear of more air strikes is keeping South Sudanese children away from classes at Good Hope.
"Right now, the northern Arabs are still bombarding us, because they are still feeling bad things," she says. "In school, we don't have any children. Maybe in class you can find 50 pupils." Stephen Kuong says there used to be many more at her school.
Rebuilding Education After War
Long years of civil war, exile and life as refugees have disrupted the education system in South Sudan. They are still catching up nearly a year after seceding from neighboring Sudan.
None of that, however, stops South Sudan's students having passionate opinions about their new homeland, their hopes and especially their neighbors in the north.
"Are they going to give us back our land?" Stephen Kuong says of the Sudanese, referring to quarrels about territory, boundary demarcation and oil revenues.
"Maybe if they say they are going to give us back our land, maybe the children will come back. I want everybody to come back to South Sudan," she muses. "If they leave us in peace, maybe those people who traveled will come back."
You might expect to find rather young students at a primary school in Bentiu, but among the little ones at Good Hope are a number in their late teens, like Kuong and 19-year-old Dhoal Thuol Khan.
"They are always attacking us, bombing our children," Thuol Khan says. "And even now, there are some other schools that are not open because of this war. People are running to other countries like Kenya, Uganda."
Many students had their schooling interrupted by war, which they say is bad news for the development of freshly-minted South Sudan, the world's newest nation. They blame Sudan, across the border, for the continuing troubles between the two neighbors and for the renewed conflict, a charge the north rejects.
The classroom is full of children of all ages, some listening attentively, others chattering and whispering as kids do. But the group sharing its views on what independence and citizenship mean is totally focused.
"To me, to be South Sudanese, I need to be free in my land. No one can attack me in my land. No one can dominate me," Thuol Khan says. "We don't need to fight, but we need our rights."
Proud To Be Sudanese
Changing gears from what separates the two nations, 14-year-old James Ran Biel says he is proud to be a citizen of South Sudan. "Yes, of course," he says.
Veronica Nyeriek echoes the sentiment. "In my land, I want to be a good citizen," the 15-year-old says. "And I want to be a leader. I want to be free in my own land. I want peace, but if they refuse to make peace ... then we are ready to fight for our land."
Nyeriek wants to be a pilot, Ran Biel a surgeon and Thuol Khan an engineer — in order to build schools and hospitals to help their people in South Sudan, they say.
Thuol Khan concludes that education is the key to progress and peace in South Sudan.
"Education means you can feel free," he says. "No one can dominate you. You can get whatever you need when you are educated."
Like Nyeriek, he says he is hopeful for the future of South Sudan and that their country will not return to war with Sudan.
"I need my people to be in peace and I need this young nation of mine to be like other countries in the world," he says. "I don't need my people to die. I need them to be in peace."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
From Zimbabwe, we head to South Sudan. It's been almost a year since that country gained independence from its northern neighbor, ending a two-decade civil war, which displaced thousands of people. South Sudan's education system is still feeling the effects of the conflict. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton talked with students there about their hopes and views about their new homeland, and she brings us this audio postcard.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SINGING)
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Students at Good Hope Basic Primary School in Bentiu, in oil-rich Unity State near the contested border, sing South Sudan's new national anthem with gusto.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SINGING)
VERONICA NYERIEK: Guests of honor, ladies and gentlemen. It's Good Hope Primary School. Ready to introduce ourselves. My name is Veronica Nyeriek. I am 15 years old.
JAMES RAN BIEL: My name is James Ran Biel. I'm 14 years old.
QUIST-ARCTON: You might expect to find rather young students at a primary school here in Bentiu, but among the little ones are a number in their late teens. For many, their schooling has been interrupted by war. And 17-year-old Dalat Stephen Kuong blames Sudan's cross-border air strikes for the continuing troubles.
DALAT STEPHEN KUONG: Right now, even the northern Arabs, they are still bombarding us. Even in school, we don't have any children at school because they are fearing those Arabs.
QUIST-ARCTON: Dhoal Thuol Khan is 19. Like Dalat Stephen Kuong, he's pretty intense about Sudan, whom both accuse of restarting the conflict, a charge the north denies.
DHOAL THUOL KHAN: They are always attacking us, bombing our children, and even now there are some other schools not yet open because of this war.
QUIST-ARCTON: James Ran Biel, who's 14, tells me he's proud to be a citizen of South Sudan.
RAN BIEL: Yes, of course, I'm proud.
QUIST-ARCTON: Fifteen-year-old Veronica Nyeriek echoes the same theme.
NYERIEK: In my land, I want to be a good citizen and I want to be a leader.
QUIST-ARCTON: Gathered in this classroom, Dhoal Thuol Khan says education means you can be free.
KHAN: You can get whatever you need when you are educated. And I need my people to be in peace and I need this young nation of mine to be like other countries in the world. I don't need my people to die, not to go back again in war.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN SINGING)
QUIST-ARCTON: Thank you very much to the students. Thank you for your time. Thank you for answering my questions. And I wish you good luck with your studies. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
QUIST-ARCTON: This is Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, with the students of Good Hope Basic Primary School in Bentiu, Unity State, South Sudan.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN SINGING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.