A recent trip through parts of Eastern Africa provided this writer with a small insight into the role of the Catholic Church in this region.
Arguably the biggest component of this work is in the area of education: including primary, secondary, university and vocational education.
The overall scale of the sector is extraordinary. According to J.J. Carney’s book about Catholic leadership in modern Uganda, the Church operates 33,000 primary schools and 10,000 secondary schools across the continent, while a 2021 article in an educational journal estimated there were 19.2 million students in Catholic primary schools in Africa, along with 5.4 million more in Catholic secondary schools.
The social context in which these schools operate varies greatly, including schools operating in the most basic facilities, but also educational institutions which attract students from the most affluent socio-economic groups. Yet the missionary connection is obvious.
In the village of Kit outside South Sudan, the roofless ruin of a church built by the Comboni Missionaries more than a century ago stands as a reminder of the persecution meted out by the Islamic government in Khartoum against the Christian South Sudanese.
A Comboni seminary also stood nearby, but it too did not survive the upheavals of the late 20th century.
Something remarkable has occurred in the last decade when an African congregation, the St Martin de Porres Brothers, chose this location to build primary and secondary schools.
A large religious retreat centre was established some years later on land leased from the Brothers, and during the worst of South Sudan’s civil war, a community of new arrivals started to construct ramshackle huts nearby.
This community is desperately poor, but they see in the area security which does not exist elsewhere, as well as seeing hope for the future in the schools which the Brothers have opened.
Such developments are commonplace. Rumbek, for instance, has been one of the most dangerous areas in South Sudan in recent times. It is also not very Catholic by the overall standards of the country, being historically Protestant.
In spite of this, the Italian bishop who leads the diocese, Christian Carlassare, oversees the operation of 21 primary schools, 13 Accelerated Learning Programmes, 10 kindergartens, seven secondary schools, three vocational centres and a university.
As Bishop Carlassare walked through one of the largest of these schools at break time, the enormous number of children in the playground gave an indication of his schools’ popularity.
This can be a mixed blessing, particularly in a diocese where relatively few people are Catholic and where one could argue that the Church’s resources would be put to better use than in running an outsized educational infrastructure.
But the demand is there, and Catholic schools have earned a deserved reputation for excellence.
Loreto Rumbek — led by an Irish nun, Sister Orla Treacy — has established itself as one of the top girls schools in all of South Sudan since it opened prior to independence.
As is often the case, cooperation between religious orders in Rumbek has helped ensure that local boys could also get the education they need.
With the assistance of the Loreto sisters, the De La Salle Brothers were able to set up a boys secondary boarding school in 2018.
Brother Emmanuel Adega is a member of the De La Salle order teaching students who have grown up in an area racked by clan warfare, which often takes the form of deadly cattle raids and retaliatory strikes.
Only around 10 percent of the students are Catholic, which necessitates a slightly different approach to religious and moral instruction. Reconciliation is a strong focus.
“Our target is to convert their hearts: to turn them away from this issue of revenge, war, all of that. So the emphasis is not even so much on the Catholic faith, but the Christian faith,” Brother Emmanuel explained.
In order to run first-rate facilities and pay the salaries expected by the few qualified teachers available, both the Loreto and the De La Salle schools in Rumbek have to charge fees which would be beyond the reach of many South Sudanese people.
In most parts of the country, the shortage of qualified teachers remains a major barrier to improving education. It is estimated that less than half of the 52,000 teachers in South Sudan have received a formal education.
Fixing this problem is painstakingly slow. Just as rudimentary school facilities are better than nothing, semi-trained teachers are an important part of the country’s education system. Here, the Church must gradually put in place the elementary building blocks of what a functioning education sector should look like.
Solidarity with South Sudan, a unique organisation made up of clergy from many orders, runs the Solidarity Teacher Training College in Yambio in the west of the country.
One of only two teacher training colleges in the country, the project is part of Solidarity’s long-term objective of developing the country’s educational capacity in the long-term, so that it will eventually require less assistance from outside.
This emphasis on creating foundational building blocks at primary school level does not mean that higher education is being forgotten.
Near to the Solidarity site, Fr Morris Ibiko is working to grow the Yambio Campus of the Catholic University of South Sudan in a small facility owned by a religious order.
The college has increased in size from 23 students in 2019 to 155 today, spread across courses like business studies, education, economics and accounting.
Given the failings in the country’s primary and secondary school system, there is a relatively small population to cater to: only around 1,500 students finish secondary school in the state of Western Equatoria each year.
It is not possible to employ full-time lecturers and modern equipment is hard to source, but a recently signed academic agreement with Seton Hall University in the United States means that Fr Ibiko’s college should soon be able to improve their internet access.
Empowering girls and the poor
Gender inequality remains a major problem throughout Africa, particularly in the poorest countries like South Sudan. Not only is the Church providing education to millions of African girls, its schools and colleges are taking extra steps in this area.
In the last academic year, Solidarity with South Sudan funded ten scholarships for girls on the Yambio campus. The Catholic University of South Sudan Rumbek is engaged in similar efforts: charging female students half as much as males to encourage young women to stay in education.
Africa’s Catholic Church is also heavily involved in vocational education. Sharing Youth Centre in the Ugandan capital of Kampala provides two year programmes in areas like carpentry, hairdressing, metalwork, catering and tailoring.
The director of the Centre, Fr Hilaire Guinko of the Missionaries of Africa, says that this type of education is very important in today’s Africa, where large-scale infrastructure projects do not necessarily lead to local employment, as skilled foreign labourers often need to be brought in.
As in the developed world, the possession of a third-level degree is often of less use in the labour market than it should be.
“We have many youth who are unemployed, so by [up]skilling them, we are already preparing them for the path to work, to employment. You increase the chance of employment, and by doing that of course you decrease the rate of crime,” Fr Guinko said, while also pointing out that the availability of vocational education options was particularly important for school dropouts.
“For me it is the right direction, even for all the countries in Africa. We have dwelt so much on white-collar jobs. You ask a kid who is born today, who is in nursery school, you ask him ‘what would you love to become?’ He will say ‘I want to become a doctor, I want to become a…’ but they will not think that there is a need for skilled labour in the country.”
Uganda is in a different position to South Sudan when it comes to overall development, but the economic growth in recent decades has not lessened the role of the Church: instead, Carney notes that Uganda’s Catholic Catholic runs 5,400 primary and secondary schools along with 150 vocational schools and five universities.
Its voice carries great weight, and is used to advocate a greater focus on education more generally. In November, media reports highlighted how the Catholic educational authorities had put forward a ten-point plan to improve Uganda’s education system across the board, with nine of the objectives relating to secular concerns like improving teacher pay, standardising the curriculum and so forth.
Neighbouring Kenya is even more prosperous, and in spite of being multi-religious, it continues to rely on Catholic schools where parents of all backgrounds seek out education like that which is provided in Sister Mary Killeen’s Mukuru Promotion Centre, which caters to 6,000 students in one of Nairobi’s largest slums.
Clearly, an extraordinary contribution is being made across Africa. Europeans of previous generations could have seen similar foundational work being done by Catholic dioceses and religious orders, much of which is currently being ignored or deliberately written out of history to suit a secular narrative.
Leftists appear content to believe that school systems built themselves, and that it is entirely unreasonable to believe that churches should continue to have a role in the management of schools which they created long ago.
For now, the situation in Africa presents some interesting questions, not least of which is whether the Catholic education sector in the West could do more to assist their counterparts in the African Church, or whether the Catholic education sector in the developed world needs to learn from Africa and pay more attention to vocational education.
Are parts of the Church overreaching in attempting to do too much: running too many schools, and distracting from its core mission?
In both the developed and developing worlds, there may be too many Catholic schools: due to a shortage of resources in Africa, and a dearth of religious commitment in the post-Christian West.
Big schools do not necessarily lead to a bigger Church. The acknowledgement by non-Catholics of the value of church schools has not prevented the Catholic share of the Kenyan population from falling in recent decades.
Others might respond that this misreads the situation: both Fr Guinko and Sister Mary Killeen argue that the enhanced popularity of other religious denominations stems from a worrying disinterest among Catholics about issues relating to poverty and social justice. Losing the prophetic vocation, as Fr Guinko puts it. One thing is clear: Africa has a bright future if it remains on the right course, and the Church is playing a massive role in making this a reality.