Q & A with Sr. Joan Mumaw, president of Friends in Solidarity

Sr. Joan Mumaw, right, is president of Friends in Solidarity, the U.S. partner to Solidarity with South Sudan that trains teachers, nurses and future leaders. She is shown here with Sr. Annette St. Amour in the chapel at Good Shepherd Peace Center in Juba, South Sudan. Both are Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. (Provided photo)

Sr. Joan Mumaw, a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, or IHM Sisters, is the president and chief administrative officer for Friends in Solidarity, the U.S. partner to Solidarity with South Sudan. The African ministry, now in its 10th year, is a collaboration of sisters, brothers and priests to train nurses, teachers, midwives and future leaders in South Sudan. Friends in Solidarity is an initiative of U.S. Catholic religious men and women to support the work in South Sudan by raising money and awareness through promotion and education.

In a recent appeal to supporters of the work of Solidarity, Mumaw said that education is a particular focus of Solidarity's work, noting that 26,000 teachers are needed now in South Sudan, as "60 years of civil war have stalled all attempts to educate people and to train teachers. Most teachers in the schools have about four years of education," she said. "Only 27 percent of the population is literate. Only 18 percent of women older than 24 are literate."

Solidarity, with support from partner groups like Friends in Solidarity, "is committed to raising the level of literacy by training primary school teachers," Mumaw said.

Mumaw has held various leadership positions in her congregation, as well as serving in overseas ministries for 16 years, first in Uganda (1975-1981) and later South Africa (1996-2006). Trained as a teacher, she taught in Catholic schools in Detroit from 1965 to 1971 and holds a master of arts degree in anthropology from Wayne State University in Detroit.

Global Sisters Report caught up recently with Mumaw.

GSR: A new peace agreement was signed in September between President Salva Kiir and his chief opponent, former vice president Riek Machar — the latest in a long series of pacts. As previous agreements have failed, how do you assess the current one? Will it hold?

Sr. Joan Mumaw: It's very difficult to assess, actually. I'd say what has been agreed to is at least a start. The former vice president is back in the country, and that would seem to diffuse part of the situation. The president has apologized for violence and corruption. But people fear that there are issues that are underlying the conflict that have not been addressed and that violence could become ugly again. Not all factions are on board with the peace agreement. There are still a lot of paramilitaries operating. There is fear fighting will resume. Certainly people on the ground want peace. We have to continue to pray that things can improve — that fighting can end and that people can resume their normal lives. I'd say what has been agreed to is at least a start.

In the midst of so many problems, why are education and educational initiatives so important?

I think education is the No. 1 priority after food, of course, and stopping the war. Without education you cannot plan for the future, you can't apply good governance. You can't rebuild after the war. Without education, the country can't move forward.

South Sudan's literacy rate is 27 percent overall and only 18 percent for women — women are really hampered by this lack of education. South Sudan is a young country — 44 percent of the country is under 15 years of age, and 1.7 million people between the ages of 3 and 17 are in need of education. Fifty percent of the schools are not functioning and there is a need for 26,000 teachers.

Solidarity is trying to build the capacity for educational institutions, to make sure that there are institutions to train teachers after we are gone. Long term, these institutions need to be sustained by South Sudanese themselves.

Sr. Joan Mumaw of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Provided photo)

And of course education is the basis for so much else.

Yes, particularly education for health care. 4.8 million people need health care in the country and nearly 40 percent of health facilities in the country are not operating. Our work in a number of places is focused on health care training and education. In the middle of the fighting, like at Wau [a city in northwestern South Sudan], we've been able to keep a health training center open.

In these very difficult situations we've been able to continue our work. The fact that we've been supported by congregations of women and men and Catholic foundations has been so important. Without that external support, we wouldn't have been able to keep going.

I should mention that one of the things we have to press ahead on is English instruction. Arabic was the imposed language before independence [from Sudan] and the need now is to help improve and expand English instruction at the Teacher Training College in Yambio and at the health training center in Wau [the Catholic Health Training Institute].

Do you feel supported?

We find there is a lot of support. Pope Francis has been very supportive of efforts in South Sudan, and there is a lot of support from Catholic foundations and congregations in Europe — Europe historically has done a lot of work in Africa.

In the United States, there's been a bit more skepticism about putting money into South Sudan, and that is because of concern about the effects from the war. But we're moving ahead. Despite great challenges, the teacher training college has a new library, two new dormitories, a small chapel and auxiliary buildings. The challenge now is to maintain the campus.

Part of that expansion has to be about educating girls and women. What are the challenges with that?

The challenges are built into society, in a country where women have traditionally not gone to school, have stayed at home, fetched water and gotten married. The fact that 38 percent of the students at the health training institute are women and 20 percent at the teachers college is phenomenal. It's a priority to recruit women and we are succeeding.

I think we're also succeeding in recruiting both men and women from different parts of the country and who represent different ethnic groups. Our students begin to appreciate the gifts of others from different parts of the country; that's the future of South Sudan if there is ever to be peace. I'd say we're not just training teachers or medical personnel — we're also training future leaders of the country. You can't solve the country's problems without good leaders. This diversity, and respect and appreciation for diversity, are important byproducts of an education at a Solidarity institution.

Is there a concern that you are training people for jobs that don't exist?

No. Nearly 71 percent of those graduating from the college are employed and 88 percent from the health training institute have jobs. Our graduates are sought out for the quality of their education. And I have to return to this issue of leadership: Unless you have educated people at the local and national levels, you can't turn the country around. That means we need good teachers, good medical personnel. Our graduates are becoming leaders in their local communities.

And I should add they are becoming leaders in helping South Sudan become more "food secure." Our agricultural training program is helping train the leaders who can build the agricultural sustainability of the country.

Let's return to the theme of women and education. Is there an issue of women needing to be empowered for the future?

Absolutely. Without education, women and girls don't have power. But it is women who are seeing that their children are educated, particularly that their girls are educated. Right now, the fields of education and health in South Sudan are dominated by men, and women need more of a voice. Take the issue of peace. The country needs the voices of women for peacemaking because women have such a stake in peace. Women are victims of war — they are raped, they suffer, they are forced from their homes. The majority of refugees or displaced are women and children. For their own recovery and prosperity, women need to start their own businesses, their own initiatives and, in order to do that, they need education.

Sr. Joan Mumaw, right, president of Friends in Solidarity, the U.S. partner to Solidarity with South Sudan, visits an agricultural training project in Rimenze, South Sudan, with Sr. Rosa Le Thi Bong. (Provided photo)

Tell us about your own experiences in the country and what you have seen.

In my travels there — at least four times since 2013 — I am amazed and gratified not only that the work continues but that it continues so well. This is the 10th year for Solidarity with South Sudan and it continues to be a leader in education for the whole country. Despite all of the difficulties and challenges in the country — where basic services are sporadic, where phone service and internet connections can be tricky — the campuses Solidarity supports are running, and even expanding. The obstacles are tremendous. Most people would give up. But Solidarity isn't giving up. There is still tremendous energy and commitment to working for the long-term goals of the country. The religious and staff of Solidarity are out there making a difference, not only with the education and health initiatives I have mentioned but also with training for trauma healing and diocesan pastoral teams.

Certainly one factor for Solidarity's support is the support of the church and the fact that the church, too, is not leaving the country.

When things get difficult in terms of fighting between factions, a lot of NGOs have pulled their people out. But Solidarity has stayed and has gained the respect of the bishops of South Sudan, the government, and even the factions with the guns. They know we're not taking sides. We're there for the people. And for the students, who, by the way, see us, members of congregations from different countries, working together. The fact that we, women and men, can work together cooperatively is not lost on them.

Is there a "Solidarity spirituality?"

There is, and not only that, wherever we are, there is a commitment to the Eucharist, community formation and prayer. We believe support comes from each other, that we have to witness to the faith of the people. Those volunteering know that we have the support of our congregations and supporters worldwide. Without the foundation of spirituality, it would be quite different. You have to have a spiritual motivation to stay at this for so long, so a strong spiritual foundation is very important.

[Chris Herlinger is GSR international correspondent. His email address is cherlinger@ncronline.org.]

Check out Horizons, featuring reflections from younger sisters.