A girl called Ding

How an MCC partner creates space for young women to grow, learn in a safe and supportive environment.

Mary Laat is a graduate of Loreto Rumbek School's girls secondary school and a participant in the school's post-grad internship program.

For three days and three nights, Mary Laat ran and hid from members of her own family. The goal of their pursuit? To bring her to the altar to marry a man she didn’t know who’d paid his dowry and expected a wife in return. Clinging to the upper branches of the tree she was hiding in at night, she says she could hear the hyenas below her, circling, hoping for an easy meal.

It wasn’t until she fell to her knees at the gates of Loreto Rumbek School that she shed the tears that were burning within her. She was home now. Finally safe again.

Named for a cow, sold for a price

Now 22, Mary uses “Laat” as her surname, but for most of her life, she was called “Ding.” Mary and her family are members of the Dinka people of South Sudan. The Dinka are perhaps most famous on the global stage for being the tallest ethnic group in the world— the Wikipedia entry for “Notable Dinka” includes no fewer than seven NBA players and numerous fashion models. But within the borders of South Sudan, the Dinka are strongly associated with their “cattle camps,” the nomadic family tribes of agro-pastoralists whose social and financial standing is directly tied to the size of their cattle herd.

Mary’s father, Mabor*, was the chief of her camp, well-liked by most. Like all Dinka men, when he was a young man, a marriage was arranged between him and Mary’s mother, Akuach*, with a dowry of cattle paid as part of the exchange. In Dinka culture, each daughter in a family is expected to command a respectable dowry of cattle when she comes of marrying age. But the first-born daughters, like Mary, are also expected to recoup the dowry spent on their mother’s marriage.

So, as a reminder of the value she was expected to have for the men of her family, she was called “Ding,” after one of the cows spent on Akuach’s dowry—an emotional weight she was forced to carry and a constant reminder of her place in the social order of the Dinka.

Dictated by the Dinka

The people of Mary’s tribe are, in her words, considered to be among the least educated people in South Sudan. This stems, at least in part, from the effects of British colonialism, which administratively separated the north and south of Sudan. The economic, political and educational impacts this split created would be major factors in the civil war ending with South Sudan achieving its independence.

“The Dinka do not support girls’ childhood education, because they feel the only thing a girl is supposed to do is get married. That is what they do best,” she explains.

In 2016, around when she finished her Primary 7 (an equivalent of seventh grade in the U.S.), she got her first period, signifying her as a marriable woman in the eyes of the Dinka. She was deeply frustrated, though not necessarily surprised, that her father wanted to keep her back from school and find a suitable suitor for her to marry.

“You feel dictated with your plans—at any time, anybody can come up and terminate your plans, your goals, whatever you’ve set up for your future,” Mary says. “You feel like you’re being made property, to be given out in time. You feel like less of a human being, you feel like you’ll be sold at any time. You have less stamina to stand by what you want to do.”

But with some helpful advice from her mother, she convinced her father that getting her full education would be valuable—in her eyes, for her own well-being, and in his, to make her a more attractive and valuable bride. He reluctantly agreed, and Mary finished Primary 8 before successfully applying to start secondary school at Loreto Rumbek School, an MCC partner in the area.

Students at Loreto Rumbek School enjoy a meal made with MCC canned turkey. Many of the students in the area around Loreto Rumbek School only irregularly eat meat at home. And most primary school-aged children will eat their only full meal in a day at school. Through this project, 1,000 cartons of canned turkey are distributed to Loreto and other schools in the Diocese of Rumbek every year. This allows Loreto and other schools to provide nutritious meat to students for part of the year, while using the broth from the canned turkey to fortify the rice and beans that are the staple food most other days.

Loreto Rumbek: An oasis, a school and a bastion

Loreto Rumbek School, near Rumbek, South Sudan, is made up of a primary school, a girls’ secondary school and a health care facility. A long-serving MCC partner in the country, Loreto is one of the most successful schools in the state, focused heavily on creating a supportive environment for all students, particularly the girls of the secondary school.

MCC has supported a variety of programs at Loreto over the years, including school feeding programs, canned meat, dignity kit and school kit distribution, a child vaccination program, greenhouse and garden infrastructure, fruit trees and many others. These programs supplement the amazing work of the teachers and staff of Loreto, who create a space for young women like Mary to grow, learn and express themselves in a safe and supportive environment.

When Mary arrived at Loreto, she was shocked. Many of the girls in the years above her seemed so free and happy. The nuns teaching them spoke often to them about understanding their power as women and knowing how to use their voice—in many ways the opposite of what Mary had heard her whole life. Her first year was transformative. Having control of her own life had once felt impossible, but it began to feel like something she was being empowered to do.

Then, in August, she went home for a holiday and everything she was working towards was threatened.

A flight for her life

With a weeklong break from school on the calendar, Mary made the 90 km (56 miles) journey home near the village of Malueth, only to find her family acting cagey around her. Whenever she asked what was going on, she got evasive non-answers, until she pressed a family member enough to learn what was really going on. It was bad news. Her father had accepted a dowry of cattle from a local man for Mary’s hand in marriage, and she would not be allowed to return to school after this break.

Furious, Mary confronted her father, making it very clear she did not want this for herself. He remained unmoved, reminding her the cattle had been paid and the deal was done. She’d learned so much from the women and girls at Loreto, and she had no intentions of giving up the future she believed she could have to marry a man she didn’t love, or even know. So, she crafted a plan to get herself back to Loreto where she could decide what was best for herself.

She came back to her father, pretending to have a change of heart about the marriage to calm things down at home. That bought her a few days. She told her family she was feeling ill, and then, when night fell, she stole out of their encampment into the darkness, committed to making her way back to the support and safety of Loreto at any cost.

“I moved only at night and during the day I would climb a tree and hide in it,” Mary says. “I made sure I didn’t pass through anyone else’s property so that no one could tell anyone they’d seen me. If I saw someone on the road ahead, I would go to the bush on the side of the road. I would join a group if no one recognized me.”

For three days and three nights, Mary navigated her way back to Loreto, staying out of sight and avoiding danger, sometimes narrowly.

“At night I could hear the hyenas making noise, but I did not cry,” she says. ”I was very strong. I felt that whatever happens, happens. If a lion eats me, no problem, I did not care. I was moving with all my energy. But once I saw the gates of the school, I fell to my knees and started crying.”

The sewing class at Loreto Rumbek School sew together the base units for reusable menstrual pads. For the female students at Loreto Rumbek, dignity kits are incredibly valuable. Store-bought menstrual pads are prohibitively expensive and often hard to access, but the reusable and washable pads in the kits mean girls and women don’t have to waste money on unsustainable solutions. The other items included in the dignity kit, like the soap and comb, are valuable personal hygiene items that are also expensive and hard to find. Even the bucket the kit comes in becomes a valuable storage container, a washing implement, or a comfortable stool.

The realities, risks and rewards of educating girls in Rumbek

That was in September 2018. With the support of the school, teachers and classmates, Mary didn’t leave the walled grounds of the school again for her own safety until she graduated in 2022. But that didn’t mean her family had given up on trying to find her. Shortly after she returned, a group of her uncles arrived at the school, hoping to catch her where they believed she’d fled.

But Mary wasn’t the first girl to experience circumstances like this at Loreto. On first sight of the group, Mary and five other girls in similar situations were quickly ushered into a safe place on the school grounds and the word was sent out to everyone at Loreto: Mary hasn’t been here, she left for holidays and that was the last we’ve seen of her. No number of threats of violence from her uncles could budge the commitment to girls’ safety from the staff and students at Loreto, so before long, they left.

When cases like Mary’s come up at Loreto and the safety of students and staff could be at risk, the school’s leadership looks to their relationships with members of the community to resolve disputes safely. The staff at Loreto might call upon the local chief or elders to step in, or if need be, the gender and education ministers of the state who have more political power, says Sister Orla Treacy, Loreto’s principal.

Treacy says supporting the safety of their students is an essential part of their approach to education.

“It helps in showing the commitment that we have towards girls’ education by helping the girls stay in school and shielding her from the physical and emotional trauma that comes with this,” Treacy says. “It also strengthens our collaboration with the local leadership who, to a great extent, support the operation, safety and programs at Loret.”

Mary made the best out of her situation, committing to her studies for the next three years. Her friends rallied a community around her, with more than one of her friends’ families making it clear that she was part of their family now. Mary didn’t know it then, but even though she would reconcile with her mother, she would never see her father again.

Left to right, Mary Laat, Racheal Piath, and Jolamb Masereka wait to begin assisting in vaccinating babies at the Mary Ward Primary Health Care Centre’s vaccination clinic. The mothers who participated in the vaccination clinic were given an MCC infant care kit, which was an additional incentive to attend. The Mary Ward Primary Health Care Centre was built on the campus of Loreto Rumbek School in 2020 and provides a wide variety of health care services to students around 24,000 people in seven villages in the region. The center’s services include a full staff of doctors and nurses, mental health counselling, a pharmacy, a vaccine clinic and available hospital beds.

The thrill of graduation, the shock of heartbreak

Much to the surprise of Mary and Loreto staff, Akuach showed up to Loreto’s graduation ceremony. But Mary’s thrill at being reunited with her mother was tempered by the shocking news of the death of her father, Mabor. One of Mary’s uncles had made a power play, seeking the chief’s seat by paying someone a small herd of cattle to assassinate him in his home.

Mourning her father’s death while celebrating her mother’s reconciliation, Mary’s life was fully under her control now. With secondary school behind her, she had only to choose what her next step would be. Loreto had been so pivotal to her freedom until now, that she decided to stay a little longer and signed on to Loreto’s post-secondary school internship.

The program is designed to give young women the chance to participate in every part of Loreto’s operations—the clinic, the kitchen, the classroom and many parts of its administration. Over two years, the interns, all young women, can build a resume of experience far greater than anything else they could do over the same period.

Once graduated from the internship, Mary hopes she’ll be one of the handful of girls Loreto sponsors for a full university education in Kenya. If she succeeds in her educational goals, she hopes to teach one day at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi, Kenya.

The result of MCC’s partnership with Loreto is far more than the sum of its parts for Mary. She received food, dignity kits and all kinds of other support as the result of MCC funding while she was at Loreto. But those things don’t lead to the kind of freedom and peace she now has on their own. Food addresses hunger, but it takes a peacebuilder to build peace.

*Loreto’s school policy prohibits sharing the full names of students’ parents.

Jason Dueck is a communications specialist for MCC Canada.


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