But they weren’t dancing or drinking. They were sharpening their pencils and taking math and English exams needed for high school and college – in a country where an already ailing school system now faces the challenges of a war.
Fighting here broke out Dec. 15, a day before national or final exams were scheduled to commence. Schools closed. Since then, a bitter struggle between rebel and government forces has displaced a half million people and created a reign of fear and resignation in many villages and towns – though a tentative ceasefire was announced Thursday during talks in Addis Ababa.
Yet showing pluck and resolution, the outbreak of war is seen by many local educators and aid groups in Juba as no excuse to delay exams and throw the past school year into limbo.
So last week using propped up scrap tables and old wooden desks, aid workers handed out loose-leaf exams to students of all ages who sat cheek by jowl. And a somewhat unearthly quiet marred only by scribbling descended on what is a nighttime disco for humanitarian workers.
“The fighting has already disrupted the students’ school year,” says Simon Mphisa, a spokesperson here for UNICEF which has taken charge of exams inside the UN camp, which shelters some 17,000 people. “That is why we decided to let them sit the exam in the camp.”
When fighting broke out, 17-year old Sunday Ulang fled to the camp, which she says was the only place she felt she would be safe. Ms. Ulang is taking exams with hopes of going to a university to be a doctor.
“Soldiers were shooting all around us. People were coming from everywhere,” she says of the days in mid-December.
“In a few hours the ground between the airport and the city was full of people,” she recalls. Later she learned that her uncle was among those killed in chaotic shooting.
After Dec. 15 the camp sprang up quickly. It is dusty and congested. People move in and out in a steady stream. One area has become a virtual market space with women selling vegetables, soft drinks, and pieces of dough fried in sizzling oil. Young men haggle over mattresses, pieces of wood, and plastic sheeting with humanitarian logos.
One exam taker, Michael Bior, a primary school student (6th grade) despite being 19, helps to provide for his family by selling phone credit and charging mobile phones at a wooden stand on one of the camp’s busy side streets.
“Since we can’t go outside, everyone in here is struggling to survive,” says Mr. Bior, who adds that many dwellers here refuse to leave.
“With the shooting still going on, I fear for my family’s safety. Almost every night there is gunfire from the army barracks not far from the displaced camp.”
A generation of South Sudanese had their schooling delayed by a war with the North. South Sudan gained formal nationhood in 2011. Some students whose families left for Kenya or Uganda or Sudan during the earlier independence war and upheavals found on returning home that they were years behind in school.
Now comes a new war pitting two former generals of South Sudan’s independence movement against each other; it is a power struggle between President Salva Kiir (a Dinka) and former vice-president and rebel leader Riek Machar (a Nuer). The struggle has since devolved into an ethnic conflict among the Nuer and Dinka ethnic tribes.
Very few youth in the camp believe the fighting will end soon or that there will be long-lasting peace between political factions or ethnic groups.
“Both sides will continue fighting until there is nothing left to fight for. I don’t believe in peace in South Sudan,” says Ulang darkly, after taking her exam.
Yet levels of schooling here have always been low, according to UNICEF numbers. Illiteracy rates among adults now are 27 percent. Some two thirds of children aged 6 to 17 have never set foot in a classroom. The completion rate in primary schools is less than 10 percent, one of the lowest in the world. Only a third of females get a basic education.
“Many rural areas in South Sudan lack even primary schools,” says Mr. Mphisa from UNICEF, which helped coordinate the test. “Now schools have closed again because of the fighting that started in Juba in mid-December and later spread across the country.”
So it is not surprising to find two generations of South Sudanese taking these exams, with fathers and sons sitting together.
One 27-year old bent over the test is sitting next to his 48 year old father. The younger man, Kueth Machar, says that if he passes the test “I want to go to school and learn English. Maybe I’ll become a teacher.”
His dad, Michael Machar, a trader, never got formal schooling but is using his predicament as a displaced person to test his level of learning.
“Where I grew up there were no schools. If things are going to improve in South Sudan we need educated people. I’m taking the exam to give my children a better future and for my country,” the elder Machar says.