ROCHESTER, New York — Founded in 2009, Building Minds in South Sudan is a New York-based nonprofit that constructs schools and aids local communities within South Sudan. The organization aims to “enhance the lives of South Sudanese families through community-based educational programs and facilities,” its website says. Since its establishment, Building Minds in South Sudan has provided educational as well as economic opportunities for the people of the Mayen-Abun village in Twic State, South Sudan. In an interview with The Borgen Project, the organization’s president and co-founder, Sebastian Maroundit, and Judy Schwartz, chair of the board and the ambassador program, provide further insight into the work of Building Minds in South Sudan.
The origins of Building Minds in South Sudan begin in a small village within South Sudan. Sebastian Maroundit and Mathon Noi, two cousins younger than 10 years old, had to escape their village of Mayen-Abun in the face of war. As a result, the two cousins became part of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” as they were separated from their families as children. They subsequently escaped to Ethiopia, and later, to a refugee camp in Kenya. In 2001, they became part of a refugee resettlement program in the United States.
In 2007, the cousins returned to visit their homeland. Maroundit explains that contact with a young boy from South Sudan inspired Maroundit and Noi to establish and build a school to serve the boy and the rest of the village. The boy asked a simple question, “What about us?” Thinking about all the people still struggling in South Sudan, the cousins committed to making a difference in their homeland.
Schwartz explains that the organization receives annual funding from a women’s presbytery and Spiritus Christi, a Catholic church based in Rochester. “All we have [to]do is, when the time comes for them to consider donations from organizations, we submit [an application]and usually get [a small amount of funding]every year,” says Schwartz.
She explains that although the organization receives grants, the funding is not significant. Maroundit explains that funding is the most difficult part of the process. “You’re raising funds in America and you’re going to build a school in Africa. It is a hard sell, but fortunately, people understand the fact [that]we don’t have to pay staff. So, that encourages people to gift [to our organization]. But it is not easy,” Maroundit says.
Ajong Primary School
In 2015, Building Minds in South Sudan built the Ajong Primary School — the very first educational facility constructed by the organization. This school cost around $304,000, funded by donations, and aimed to resolve the poor educational conditions within the village.
Prior to construction, 240 male primary school students had to receive their education outdoors underneath a tree. At the time, the village of Mayen-Abun did not allow females to receive an education. At Maroundit’s insistence, the village allowed girls to participate in education, and upon completion of the school, Ajong Primary School had 959 male and female students attending. This school still remains the “largest primary school in all of South Sudan,” the organization’s website says. This school has also proven effective, as “since the construction of the [first]school, enrollment has dramatically increased, especially for the female population, ” an Avon Rotary News letter says.
Majok-Keen Girls School and Bill Cook High School
The Majok-Keen Girls School was built in response to parents who wanted their children to learn in an all-girls environment. The current enrollment at the Majok-Keen Girls School is 813 female students. This is the only public primary school in Sudan that exclusively teaches females. This is also the only public school in Sudan that currently has a female principal.
The Bill Cook High School plays a crucial role in Mayen-Abun because previously, students did not have this level of schooling available. Bill Cook, whose charitable foundation primarily funded the construction of the school, inspired the name of the high school. Since 2015, the Bill Cook Foundation has provided educational support to 31 developing countries around the world. The Bill Cook High School has a system where girls go to school in the morning followed by boys in the afternoon.
Laima and King Beck High School for Girls
Maroundit states that the construction of this school is currently underway. “Right now we are completing (and raising funds for) the girls’ high school. This will be the first and the only public high school for girls in the country.” The Laima and King Beck High School for Girls came about after three donors came through with an offer to finance four classrooms for an all-female high school in the village. The all-female high school is still under construction but will reach completion in 2022.
Donors Laima and King Beck provided money to support “educational, agricultural and entrepreneurial initiatives” within the village of Mayen-Abun. Thus, they were chosen to be the namesake for this new school.
Laima Microfinance Project
The Laima Microfinance project provides loans to female entrepreneurs within Mayen-Abun. Business leaders as well as leaders within the community choose certain applicants to receive grants. The selection process is “based on their level of economic need and the submission of a sound business plan.” Maroundit estimates the number of women who receive assistance from the program at about 37.
Building Minds in South Sudan provides grants of $500 for selected female entrepreneurs to pursue a large variety of business ventures. This includes but is not limited to “restaurants, tea shops, breweries and convenience stores,” the organization’s website says.
The organization began building its first community garden with permission from the village chief (who is the only one authorized to give land for different purposes). Since then, these gardens have gradually increased, with new plots being added each year. This has led to more stable production of food for the village as well as new opportunities for female residents to work.
Female gardeners use their plots of land to feed their families and sell products at the local market. The organization aided these efforts by providing the villagers with a “well, a water capture/storage tank, irrigation routes and foot-operated pumps with attached hoses.” This proved effective as crop yields increased and water use became more efficient.
Maroundit and Schwartz explain which projects they are most proud of as an organization. “Schools. Schools. Schools,” Maroundit says. “They’re life-changing,” Schwartz adds. Maroundit highlights, “Last year we had about 300 [students]going to university… it’s a legacy that we will never forget.”
Building Minds in South Sudan is an organization that acts in good faith but does so with incredible effectiveness. This organization provides services that are both impactful and sustainable long term. These services allow an increase in educational and work opportunities to help residents rise out of poverty.
– Max Cole
Photo: Courtesy of Building Minds in South Sudan