By Skye Wheeler
JUBA, Sudan (Reuters) - Sudan has been at peace for four years but school principal Alex Esau still has some daunting problems, from massively swollen classrooms to undertrained staff and pupils who riot when their teachers have not been paid.
The struggle to educate children has become more meaningful as southern Sudan implements a new school syllabus that reflects its culture and heritage.
A large cultural gap between the Arab-oriented, Islamic north and the black, mostly Christian south was central to Sudan's conflict. Southern insurgents complained that Khartoum, the capital, suppressed their African identity.
Most countries in Africa have been responsible for their own education since they were freed from colonialism in the mid 20th century. Semi-independent from the north since a 2005 peace deal ended 50 years of on-off insurgency, southern Sudan is trying to catch up.
An English-language south-specific primary school syllabus was introduced in 2007 and last year secondary schools were given their own curriculum for some subjects.
"Our new syllabus reflects the identity of the south. That is a very important thing," Esau said.
Before the new syllabus, Esau taught from English translations of Sudan's Arabic-language national curriculum, but students struggled. Names, behavior and settings from the arid, Arab-focused north were mysterious.
"They'd never even seen a camel," Esau laughed.
Less than 2 percent of references in the national curriculum mention southerners, estimated at one third of the population, Undersecretary of the south's Education Ministry William Ater told a conference in the southern capital, Juba.
Under British colonial rule, which lasted until 1956, the south was ruled separately from the Islamic north. Christian missionaries set up the first schools in the south until they were asked to leave in the 1960s.
Islamic schools were set up in the south and their spread intensified when former President Jaffer Nimeri declared that Shariah -- Islamic law -- would cover all of Sudan, including the south, in 1983. By then, the south's insurgency had begun.
"They were feeding poor children in schools to try and encourage conversion," Adelino Paterno, another school headmaster said of practices in Khartoum's garrison towns. What pupils learned reflected Khartoum's policy, he said.
Mathematics calculations included examples assuming pupils prayed five times a day as required by Islam, Ater said. A map used in southern schools missed out half of the south.
The 2005 peace accord provided the south with its own government and oil revenues, but most importantly for many southerners, a vote in 2011 when they can choose to secede or remain in their current state of semi-autonomy.
They are not waiting three years to change what their children learn. "This transformation ... is part of the peace, of secularization," Ater said.
Both the southern government and the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) are campaigning to get millions more children into schools, while acknowledging those already in school have too few resources.
Many schools are little more than a tree and a few benches. Books, pens and chalk, despite large-scale UNICEF donations, are scarce. The south still does not have a single functioning school laboratory.
Southern rebels began writing a curriculum specifically designed for southern children in 1992. The textbooks were distributed to areas under the control of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, where teachers were mostly volunteers.
After the peace deal, representatives from all the south's numerous tribal cultures gathered to improve the rebel syllabus and include representation for all the south's 60-plus tribes. Christian and Islamic studies will also be included.
"Students will study marriage systems, traditional celebrations," syllabus-writer Lubang Scopas said. History will include 18th-century slavery and the black rebel heroes of their parents' and grandparents' generations.
Many are hoping large areas of water-fed land will soon form an alternative to southern dependency on oil cash, especially with food prices rising. Agriculture lessons will start as soon as children can safely use a hoe, Scopas said.
Much of the syllabus was borrowed from English-speaking Kenya and Uganda, bringing the south closer to east Africa and further away from northern Sudan, said Paul Mitchell of Britain's Windle Trust, an education charity.
In the past, education officials in former garrison towns advocated against the introduction of the Windle Trust's English-language teacher training, Mitchell said.
Southern officials say many in the north feel the south is moving too fast.
Although the new syllabus is a source of tension, especially over examinations for entry to Sudanese universities, education is a minor issue when compared with oil-sharing and disputes on the location of the border.
Sibeso Luswata, head of education in south Sudan for UNICEF, said people are willing to walk, wade and canoe to get their children learning the new syllabus.
In reality, many books still lie in cupboards, unused as undertrained teachers struggle with the novelty and with the language shift.
"It's not known how many teachers need the courses, but it's thousands more than the original estimate of 9,000," the Windle Trust's Mitchell said of its teacher training.
Trainees are often keen to try new methods the next day. "But class sizes are so big, they slip back," he said. Teachers sometimes must cope with 180 pupils at a time.
(Reporting by Skye Wheeler; Editing by Eddie Evans)