In the early morning, smoke from burning cow dung rose over hundreds of animals sleeping tightly side by side, with children dotted between them, warming their hands in the smoke, their faces covered in white ash to fend off flies and mosquitoes.

The cattle camps – where South Sudan’s nomads migrate to find pasture during the December to May dry season – are some of the world’s most remote, nestled between the arms of the Nile in Lakes State’s swamps.

“My days are busy,” 24-year-old Mary Amal told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, standing between hundreds of cows and holding her baby, Gok, in her arms. “I came here with my brother to take care of our cows and I’m expected to clean up the camp’s cow dung and prepare food, while also taking care of my eight-month-old daughter.”

Cattle in Mingkaman, South Sudan on March 4, 2018. Photo credit: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Stefanie Glinski

The camp was full of children who work as herders, cooks and cleaners. For many, it was also their first chance to learn to read and write, calculate sums and learn about hygiene.

Aid agencies are starting to provide mobile education in the remote cattle camps amid fears that South’s Sudan’s latest civil war is creating another “lost generation” of uneducated adults and the country risks becoming a failed state.

“The cattle camp is like a village,” said Amal. “We have our tents here, we have small shops and even a church. It’s important to have a school here too.”

The United Nations estimates almost three-quarters of the adult population is illiterate – one of the highest rates in the world – and three-quarters of children are out of school.

Tens of thousands of people have died and 4.5 million people have fled their homes since clashes between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and former vice president Riek Machar broke out in the oil-rich new country in 2013.

A student who lives at the cattle camp copies a lesson into his notebook in Mingkaman, South Sudan on March 4, 2018. Photo credit: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Stefanie Glinski

All about animals

South Sudan’s cattle camps are not only a cultural tradition, but provide a lifeline for millions in the world’s youngest country, enabling them to trade and store their wealth as hyperinflation has rendered the currency almost worthless.

In the camps, everything evolves around the animals – their milk provides nutritious meals for children, manure lights fires and urine is used as a disinfectant hand and face wash.

Education rates among young pastoralists are particularly low because they are often on the move, the UN says.

Teachers receive training, textbooks and a solar-powered radio with pre-programmed lessons on basic subjects, relevant to them, as well as practical life skills, said Ezana Kassa of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

“Many of them have never before received formal education,” said Kassa, who manages the project, adding that adults also learn about livestock production, disease control and literacy.

The camp is several hours away from the town of Mingkaman, accessed by trekking through thick bush, swimming through a muddy, stagnant river and then walking over a vast open field.

Miles from any village, it has three informal teachers and almost 100 students, who crouched on the floor with a small chalkboard in front of them and hundreds of white, big horned cows behind them.

“I was trained to become a mobile teacher and now teach every morning once the cattle have been released for grazing,” said Abuoch Madit Awur, who lives in the camp and teaches for several hours each day, sitting in the dust.

Mary Amal poses with her eight-months-old daughter Gok in a cattle camp in Mingkaman, South Sudan on March 4, 2018. Photo credit: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Stefanie Glinski

Only chance

Only a fifth of the students are girls and their progress is often erratic due to their workload and monthly menstruation.

“Attendance is generally low among women,” said Maker Maker, livelihood officer with Norwegian People’s Aid, another partner in the project, who trains the cattle keepers. “Many take long trips to the village to pick up more food in the market. During their periods, women always stay at home...It’s a big problem.”

Amal, 24, is learning to read and write for the first time. “I’ve never been to school in my life. I grew up working in the household and later got married,” she said.

While her days are long, she is determined to learn. “This is my only chance,” she said. “When I found out about the camp’s school, I immediately decided to attend. I get up even earlier now so I can get my work done and study at night.”

She felt ashamed talking about her menstruation, but said she does not attend school while on her period.

Susan, another student, who declined to give her full name, said she sits by the river for days when she is menstruating. “I don’t like that I have to miss school,” she said. “We don’t have pads or a spare change of clothes. That’s why I stay by the river where I can wash.”

Out of hundreds of camps across South Sudan, only about 10 have a school, with about 100 students each.

Keeping the schools running is not easy. Children are brought to the camp to work, not to go to school, and women are expected to provide food, said Maker.

“It’s a slow progress but my students are encouraged,” said teacher Awur.

This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.