Friday, 28 December 2012

23rd December – Ed Damer Archaeological Museum

On my way between the Ed Damer schools and home I pass an archaeology museum, part of the local university archaeology department, which I have wanted to visit, but never seen open. 

Today I arrived at my girls’ school in Ed Damer to find that they were taking exams and there would be no English lessons.  I decided to go back home.  On my way home, as I passed by the museum, I saw a man come out of the gate to the archaeology department.  I seized my chance and asked with gestures if I could visit the museum.  He beckoned me inside to an office where I sat and waited.  After a while a woman who spoke some English came and explained that the museum was being cleaned but would be open very soon.  We talked about Sudanese archaeological sites for a while.  Then we went into the museum, where she acted as guide.  Like most museums in Khartoum, there is no entrance fee.
Neolithic bowl
The museum is small, consisting of two rooms, although apparently there are plans for a larger museum.  The museum turned out to be very well organised by chronological age from the Neolithic to early Christian.  Prehistory in Sudan is a great deal earlier than in Europe.  One only has to remember that Stonehenge (built in Britain’s Neolithic/early Bronze ages) was contemporary with Ancient Egypt to get an idea of this.  The museum contains artifacts from the whole of Sudan rather than the local area. 

Napatan incense burner
Pots from the Egyptian New Kingdom era

I was told that the main visitors to the museum are school groups and tourists.  Tourists?  What tourists?  I think that, like statements I hear about passenger trains and postal services, this is a figment of a wished-for Sudan, rather than the reality.  This is a great shame as there is so much to see, whether it is camel markets, the River Nile in its unspoilt loveliness, deserts, and of course, the wonderful archaeological sites.  Not to mention meeting the people themselves, who are the soul of hospitality.
Christian tomb inscription (a very moving prayer which is given in translation below).

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

11th December – music making in Atbora

I have always played music and knew that it was the thing I would miss most in Sudan if I didn’t bring an instrument with me.  A friend in the UK kindly lent me an instrument ‘that didn’t matter’ in case of problems with climate, air cargo damage or any other problems in Sudan.  I brought some solo viola music with me because I thought it unlikely that I would find anyone to play with.  However, I also had a small hope that I might find people who could teach me Sudanese music.  Up until three weeks ago, this seemed to be a wish too far.  Then Jonathan, a fellow volunteer based in Atbara, told me about a local band he has joined.  Jonathan is a keen amateur jazz player.

Sudanese music is pentatonic-based and has an Arabic flavour, although it is definitely its own genre.  There is usually a solo singer, male or female.  The songs (like many folk songs around the world) are generally about unhappy love.  Sudanese bands tend to consist of an assortment of western instruments, usually rather battered and broken looking.  In the Atbara band there are saxophones, electric keyboards, electric guitars, accordions, violins, a flute, clarinet and several drums.  Now they have a viola too.  The band uses the sol fa system which is vaguely familiar for me, but worse for Jonathan who hasn’t experienced it before as it isn’t used in the US.
Only a few members of the band speak any English at all, but music is the most international language of all, so we get on fine without a common spoken language.  The players are local people including rickshaw drivers, a bus driver and a tea lady.  We have two singers, both excellent.  I frequently want to stop just to listen to them.  The male singer is a very dignified looking elderly man who wears prayer cap and jelabia (traditional white tunic).  He looks so incongruous in the middle of the band, who are mainly quite young.  The female singer is a young woman. 

We play by ear on the whole although the band leader (Ali) teaches them to use standard notation.  Playing by ear is easy for the rest of the band, who have grown up listening to Sudanese folk music, but very difficult for me as the music is still very foreign to me.  Sometimes Ali asks me to play something European for the band to improvise an accompaniment to.  Trial and error has shown me that British folk music works best.  The most successful so far has been the Foggy Foggy Dew.  They are all very good at improvising.
The band meets three times a week, although I am only able to attend twice a week.  Yesterday evening I arrived early and there were only a few other players there.  We started to play.  Then the band leader arrived.  He told me that we were going somewhere else ‘to a dance’.  We all packed up and got into Mohammed (a saxophonist)’s bus.  Some of the band sang and played the drums on our way.  When we arrived, we found a stage and many seats for an audience.  It turned out that the ‘dance’ was in fact a wedding celebration.  We were shown to a room where we sat and watched Tom and Jerry on TV for a while.  Then we went on stage. 

To my horror as a complete Sudanese-music-novice, everyone had a microphone right beside their instrument so there was no chance of sinking into anonymity when things got difficult.  I was very worried that I would let the band down badly.  In fact I managed to keep reasonably well in with the band and made no glaring mistakes, although plenty of minor ‘coverable’ ones. 
As I have seen on previous similar occasions when I was in the audience, the men sat on one side of the stage, the women on the other.  The men got up and came dancing towards our singer and stood swaying and clicking their fingers at him as he sang.  Later the women did the same. Towards the end, both men and women were on the floor together.  They seemed very happy with the band’s performance.

Afterwards, Mohammed gave me a bus ride all the way to my front door in Ed Damer.  He lives locally to me, so he does this regularly after rehearsals too.  It was particularly welcome on this occasion as it was so late, I was exhausted and I had an early start for work in the morning.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

5th December – possible breakthrough in a hard case

My experience so far in both my boys schools is that the boys are very bored by the uninspiring curriculum.  The teachers are very strict and make use of the rod even for minor offences such as lack of homework.  In both my schools and Kate’s, the boys schools employ ex-soldiers whose specific role is to inflict physical punishment – hardly a positive inducement to study. 

I think the negativity of the school approach is responsible for the low standards and dislike of studying.  This is coupled with the lack of interesting resources and large classes.  It is common for the boys to be unable to put two words together after six years of learning English. 
Last week was my first week in front of a class in one of these schools and it was very difficult, particularly with the oldest boys.  In the final year class a tall boy (really a young man) sitting at the back simply refused to participate in my group activity.  He said, ‘Arabic not English’, and that was that!  I said, ‘You can like Arabic AND English too,’ but to no avail.  Imagine my surprise yesterday when during the breakfast break he and a group of his friends came up to me.  He pointed at me and said, ‘Are you crazy?’  I said, ‘Yes!’  He was clearly taken by surprise by my answer.  He then pointed at my slightly hairy chin and said, ‘Ugly’.  Then he pointed at his new beard and said, ‘Beautiful’ and pointed at me and said, ‘Ugly’ again.  I was laughing by this stage.  I pointed at him and said ‘Handsome for men, beautiful for women.’  The ice was completely broken and we shook hands. 

I think he must have spent the entire week working out rude things to say to me in English.  Yes, he was doing his best to be insulting, but at least he had spent that time and effort.  I was delighted.  I think it was also great that his friends were listening.  Hopefully they will all relax and start to enjoy learning English now, which is what I am trying to achieve.  This has been my greatest success so far and I feel like celebrating.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

28th November - water in Sudan

I see from the news and from a friend’s email that England is suffering a deluge at the moment.  By contrast, living in a desert country, rain is exceedingly rare here.  The whole of the northern part of the country relies on river water which has had a long journey from the south.

Sudanese plumbing systems are frequently problematic.  Even at the SVP flat in Khartoum, the water sometimes cuts off without notice, usually for a few hours, but sometimes for several days at a time.  Opinions vary as to whether this is due to the owner of the building not paying the water bill, or a water pressure problem (the flat is on the third floor).  Either way, sudden absence of water comes as a shock for volunteers newly arrived in an extremely hot country, who have often had no experience of dealing with water problems before. 
Here is Ed Damer, although water is on tap, it only works for a limited time each day and sometimes not at all.  Like every other home I have visited in the area, our home caters for this by having a large water butt and a bucket next to the toilet and shower.  It is necessary to keep a constant eye on the water level in the water butt and rush to replenish it whenever possible.  ‘Showers’ are taken by pouring water from the bucket over ourselves.  Even when the mains water is working, the water pressure is so weak that it is unusual for the ‘official’ shower to work. 

Water quality is another issue.  The water quality in Khartoum is reasonable because it goes through a water purification process and is chlorinated. However, in streets throughout the country there are ‘zeer’ (large traditional earthenware pots) for passers-by to help themselves from, using a communal mug which is never washed.  The zeer are often uncovered so that dirt can fall in.  They are definitely worth avoiding.
In Ed Damer, muddy water comes directly from the Nile and is not purified in any way.  When I first arrived I made the mistake of trying to drink the same water as the locals and was very unwell the next day.  The same thing has happened to Kate.  We now stick to bottled water.  I have been told that a water purification plant is being built.  Roll on that day.  Hopefully it will solve the water pressure problem too, although that may be a dream too far.

Monday, 19 November 2012

18th November - communication in the paperless office

A few years ago I worked in a local authority education department.  I can vouch for the vast amount of official paperwork, phone calls and emails necessary in communicating with local schools and other government departments.  I should emphasise that I am not referring to unnecessary ‘paper-pushing’ but really essential communication. 

By contrast, here in Sudan, there is no functioning postal system, so letters are redundant.  There are also no landlines.  The local ministries are poorly funded and cannot afford many computers or even email access for their employees.  Mobile phones are therefore the only long-distance means of communication.  On my visits to the ministry, I see very little paper to the point where the wastepaper basket is invariably empty.  On the face of it, this is wonderful.  The reality is somewhat different.

How do officials manage?  By long-distance transport across Sudan it seems, taking advantage of local relatives’ homes to stay overnight.  Below I give an account of my experience of the last few days:
The local official at the Ministry of Education, Esam has been wonderful since I returned to Ed Damer two weeks ago.  He (like every other official I have met including the Minister for Education herself) is very enthusiastic about the programme and really wants to help to improve Sudanese children’s spoken English.  Nobody could fault their intentions. 

Esam organised a timetable for me to visit schools across River Nile State with the aim of broadcasting my help as far as possible.  I was delighted about this.  He also organised transport to take me to the more far-flung areas.  Additionally, he has phoned me regularly to make sure that I am alright, which is very thoughtful of him. 
On Saturday I had a call from Rami (the SVP employee) to let me know that he and an official from the central Ministry of Education called Najmaldin were on their way to see Kate and me and would arrive that evening.  This was completely out of the blue.  When they arrived, Najmaldin told me that he had come to check my timetable, check our accommodation and to organise bank accounts for Kate and me.  This entailed a four hour car drive each way from Khartoum to Ed Damer!  Both he and Rami had relatives in the area and would be able to stay the night quite easily.  Najmaldin later told us that this is usual for him.  He makes trips all over Sudan as a regular part of his work.  Please bear in mind that Sudan is a huge country.
I told Najmaldin that I already had a timetable and he asked to see it.  Once he had read it he said that he was not happy that I would be travelling all over the state and said that I should teach in two schools only.  By the time he and Rami left, I was stewing with rage.  It seemed to me that after a very inactive first term, I should not be messing around with revising timetables.  I somehow managed to stay outwardly calm and gave my point of view without physically attacking him.
He said that he would be going to the ministry the next day (Sunday) to discuss the timetable with the local Director of Education.  I was also due at the ministry that morning to start the timetable created by Esam.  Who would win?  Would I be able to start teaching as planned, or would I be stuck again, waiting for ministry officials to get their act together?  My fellow-volunteer was also in a quandary, not knowing what to do and with very mixed messages as to whether she should even go to the ministry or not.
On Sunday morning, still fuming, I rushed to the ministry intending to make sure my views were taken into account.  Esam listened to me and suggested that we change the timetable for that day to a closer school so that I could attend the meeting at 12 noon.  It seemed to me very strange that we could change schools with no notice as it would be very inconvenient for the schools.  It turned out that there had been no communication between ministry and schools and we would just turn up!  Another instance of lack of planning and communication. 

I rushed from the school to the ministry in time for the meeting and then waited and waited.  Eventually Najmaldin came into the room, having had the meeting without either our or Esam’s involvement.  He announced that there would be a new timetable for four schools each in the Ed Damer and Atbara areas!  Esam hand-wrote timetables for us at once ready to start work the next day.  These were agreed and he then photocopied a copy each.  All this was done without consulting the schools in question! 

The next morning Kate and I went to our respective Atbara schools, stopping at the Atbara Directorate of Education en route.  It turned out that the Head of the Directorate had not been informed about us either and needed to give ‘permission’.  I asked Esam what would have happened if she said ‘no’.  He replied that the ministry was in charge and had the final say!

Kate and I then attended our two schools in Atbara.  The headteachers were clearly well used to sudden announcements of plans from ‘higher up’ as they were remarkably unfazed by a sudden need to call all English teachers together in school-time, which must have considerably upset the schools’ own lesson planning. 

After the teaching day, a taxi was sent to take us back to the ministry due to a sudden urgent need to see us both again before tomorrow.  We arrived to be told that they wanted to change the timetable again to schools in Ed Damer only, as the ministry car had broken down!  I immediately said (very firmly) that this would be a very bad idea as we had made plans with our Atbara schools.  It would be very disappointing for both staff and pupils.  I said that Kate and I were quite capable of finding our own ways to the schools by public transport as I had already travelled to Atbara once by myself and found it an easy journey.  After some discussion it was agreed to stick to the timetable. 
Najmaldin has now returned to Khartoum.  He did not organise the bank accounts for us.  Esam tells me that he has been asked to do so instead.  I ask: could this not all have been left to Esam in the first place? 

Grumble over.  Hopefully things will become calmer now and we will be able to get on and actually help the schools as intended.  I had been warned before I came to Sudan that dealing with the ministries could be very frustrating.  However, I had not realised that it would take this particular form. 

Friday, 9 November 2012

9th November – a place to call our own

Our own front door
After two and a half months of living out of suitcases and a very difficult accommodation situation when I was in Ed Damer last term, I am finally in a beautiful, comfortable, permanent home.  Griselda has very generously allowed me and my fellow volunteer Kate to use her second home in Ed Damer for the rest of our stay.  I arrived yesterday, ahead of Kate, whose paperwork is still being processed.  It felt wonderful to unpack. 

It is a traditional Sudanese apartment, similar to the village homes where I have stayed as a guest.  As in the villages it is part of a larger family compound, home to Griselda’s husband’s relatives.  The family consists of three generations, from grandmother to three young children ranging from 2 months old to about 4 years old.  They spent yesterday and today feeding me up.  In true Sudanese fashion, they are completely perplexed that I would want to have my own sleeping space.  Yesterday evening they asked me several times, ‘aren’t you scared to sleep on your own?’ clearly unable to believe my answer.
Kate and I have one bedroom, with a kitchen area and a shower/toilet room leading off it.  There is also a separate sitting room.  Both rooms lead off a large veranda, where I slept last night with great contentment. 
The apartment is a short walk from the local grocers’ shop (which sells many necessities but not fresh food) and a slightly longer walk from the area where all the town schools are situated.  To my joy, there is also a small archaeological museum close by which I will investigate as soon as possible.
I was introduced to the local greengrocer this morning, who comes every Friday and Saturday.  He comes to the door using a donkey and cart and sells a good range of vegetables and fruit, all very fresh.  As Kate and I will probably be working on Friday mornings, we will have to buy from him on Saturdays.  There is also a ‘women’s’ souq on Saturdays, so we will be able to take our pick.  Saturdays are definitely shopping day.

This evening I went out shortly before dusk to look around the area.  I followed the railway track which goes through the town.  Some boys were playing there who were very keen to be photographed.  I also saw the Coptic church and was invited in by some of the congregation.  I was told that this week is the feast of St George, which lasts for several days.  I talked to a family who have come all the way from Brighton where their father is a taxi driver to join the celebrations. 


Tuesday, 6 November 2012

5th and 6th November – Debates in Khartoum

My volunteer colleagues from El Obeid, Tim and Christine, have come back to Khartoum to help their state’s debating team in the national championships.  I decided to tag along and watch.  The debates are funded by Petronas, a major petrol company in Sudan in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and are aimed at secondary age children.  I watched several teams compete before we broke for breakfast. 

During the break a woman came to introduce herself to me.  She told me her name is Sumayah and she is a teacher from Atbara in River Nile State, just across the river from Ed Damer.  When I told her that I taught in Ed Damer, she knew who I was at once.  Apparently the local Ministry of Education department had told her about me but not passed on contact details.  If I had been put in touch I would have been able to help train the team for the debate.  To make up for this, we agreed that I would come back to the student accommodation and do some last minute coaching. 
There are three students, two aged 16 and one aged 14.  They have been given three topics to debate on succeeding days.  Their first session was on Tuesday on the subject of corporal punishment.  They did very well indeed.  Afterwards many people came to congratulate them which I hope will give them a confidence boost for Wednesday and Thursday.  If they make the finals, they will be given more topics. 

Sumayah’s students are from a school in Atbara which has opportunities for English Conversation as an extra-curricular subject (exactly what we SVP volunteers are supposed to be promoting).  I am very glad to have made contact with her.
Sumayah and I have agreed to stay in contact once we have returned for the new term.  She has also offered to teach me Arabic.  Together with the new accommodation and having a fellow volunteer, I think the new term will be very different from my experience of Ed Damer so far.

Teenage fashion statement
I was amused when we went back to the student housing when the girls immediately changed out of uniform.  They had clearly pulled out all the stops for their trip to the big city and brought their most fashionable clothes, as imported from Saudi Arabia.  When they were told that they had to wear school uniform for the debates, there was an audible groan from all three of them!  At last I see something in common between Sudanese and UK teenagers.
Tomorrow is the last session I will be able to attend as I go back to Ed Damer on Thursday.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

26th – 29th October – Eid visit to Bagrawiyah

It is now the Islamic festival of Eid, which celebrates the sacrifice of Abraham.  Muslims celebrate this by sacrificing a sheep each year. 

In the Bible we are told that the intended victim was Isaac, the ancestor of the Jewish people.  According to Islam however, it was Abraham’s older son by a slave woman, Ishmael, who is the ancestor of the Arabs.  Without access to a time machine, I am not in a position to say who is correct, and in any case I have no intention of taking sides.  All I can say is, it looks as though the root of Arab/Jewish problems is an extreme case of sibling rivalry.  ‘My father loved me better than you!’  Perhaps it is time, after several thousand years, to bury the hatchet.  Both sides agree that God, seeing that Abraham was willing to sacrifice a much-loved son for Him, then supplied a sheep as a substitute.  A lot of lives would be saved if everyone could focus on that.  In my opinion the sacrifice of Abraham would gain a far more powerful meaning if as a result of Isaac/Ishmael’s life being saved, people in our own time stopped killing each other (more saved lives).  I know this is a vast over-simplification, but perhaps those in the hot seats could give this some thought.
I have been told that in the run-up to Eid, Sudan has had a shortage of sheep due to exports to other Islamic countries.  This has led to extremely high prices for sheep but doesn’t seem to have got in the way of buying a sheep.  On our journey out of Khartoum just before Eid, we saw numerous ad-hoc sheep sellers with their flocks by the roadside.  Over the past few days I have seen bizarre sights, such as a police vehicle in the centre of Khartoum with uniformed officers clutching a sheep between them.  On another occasion I saw a vendor trying to sell stuffed toy sheep to stationary cars at the traffic lights.  A similarity with Christmas gimmicks such as toy Father Christmas’ comes to mind. 

As happens in the western world at Christmas time, everything closes down for Eid.  Also like Christmas, it is a time for family.  Sudanese families invite people living on their own to come and join them.  Rami invited all SVP volunteers to visit his village, Bagrawiyah, to join the Eid celebrations there.  Unlike last time when there were only a small number of us, we were divided into male and female and housed separately.  Based on my previous stay in the village and also at Ed Damer, I suggested that we sleep outdoors.  Everyone enjoyed the refreshing cool and watching the stars after the extreme heat of daylight hours.
One of many Eid meals
On our first full day we were invited to witness the slaughter of a sheep and have sheep for breakfast.  Surprisingly, given the religious origins of this feast, the whole event was very down-to-earth with no religious aspects at all as far as I could see.  The sheep was killed just before we arrived in the courtyard.  I thought it might be a problem for the squeamish, but in fact there was remarkably little blood.  A professional butcher arrived and within a short space of time the corpse had been skinned, jointed and prepared ready for the kitchen.  Again, very rapidly, we were invited to eat.  The sheep was served in three forms; a broth, raw innards and chopped (cooked) meat.  Over the next two days, we continued to eat the sheep at every meal.  The Sudanese don’t generally eat a lot of meat as it is very expensive, so Eid meals are exceptional.  One of the volunteers is a vegetarian so bean stew, salad, cheese and egg were also provided. 
In the evening we 'girls' went by donkey cart to see a village football match between Khartoum and Bagrawiyah.  Some of the 'boys' were on the Khartoum team and let the side down very badly! 
On our second day we visited the Royal City of Meroe, which had been flooded on my last visit.  My guidebook had prepared me for seeing very little, but in fact there is quite a lot above ground, including a very well preserved bathhouse and plunge pool.  In the afternoon we visited the pyramids, some of us for a second time.  In the evening some of the volunteers returned to camp overnight and look at the quarry where the stone for the pyramids was sourced. 
On our third day we walked to the Nile through the village’s farmland.  It was a lovely walk, refreshingly green after the desert conditions of the village itself.  It felt almost like going on a Ramblers walk in England. Rami took us to a part of the Nile where it is possible to swim, although there was a strong undertow.  The water is very shallow, even quite far out.  It was also surprisingly cool so it was a very refreshing dip.  By the time we walked back it was dusk.  The perfect end to our stay.
Yesterday we set off back to Khartoum, stopping in Shendi for a fish breakfast.  In true Sudanese style, throughout our stay Rami has paid for all eleven of us, again and again, refusing to let us contribute in spite of the fact that we know he is on quite a low wage and has to contribute money to family members.  We all signed a card in gratitude for his extreme generosity. 
On our return to Khartoum, all the shops were still shut and there were far fewer street traders than usual.  We are all very glad that we were able to join in and be a part of a Sudanese Eid celebration.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

23rd October 2012 – visit to the Ministry of Education

A new volunteer, Kate, has arrived in Sudan who will be partnered with me in Ed Damer.  Much to my relief SVP has helped to find a much more suitable place for the two of us to live in, courtesy of Griselda Tayib, who I have mentioned in a previous post.  This still needs to be formally agreed by the Ministry of Education.  Separate accommodation will make a huge difference to our day to day lives in Ed Damer. 

Yesterday evening Kate and I were told that we should go to the Ministry of Education today to discuss our placement and accommodation at Ed Damer.  After meeting with Aifa, the original brains behind SVP sending volunteers to schools (they had previously been to universities only), she took us upstairs to ‘meet the Minister of Education’.  The Minister was at a meeting of the Council of Ministers but was due back shortly.  While we waited we were taken to a conference room where a comedy act was in progress on stage, accompanied by Sudanese music.  Kate and I were very bemused – it seemed such an unlikely thing to find in a government ministry.  Following the music and comedy, there were speeches and a presentation to a young man called Ahmed who has serious physical disabilities.  He was being honoured for his achievements in gaining a Masters degree and for his assistance to other disabled students.  Once the presentation was over, the music started again.  Everyone got up and danced in the Sudanese style, with plenty of finger clicking, clapping and linking of arms.  We all joined in.  It was lovely to see the Ministry’s recognition of his achievements done in such a human way.  No cold commendation or medal, but a real Sudanese-style knees up.  Ahmed and his mother looked completely over the moon. 
Aifa then took us to the Minister’s very plush suite of offices to await her arrival.  We waited in the boardroom.  While we were waiting a group of people from UNICEF arrived to set up a presentation for the Minister.  Kate and I both felt very small and insignificant by contrast to this vast NGO.  However when the Minister arrived, and before she did anything else, she took us into a smaller office and talked to us very enthusiastically about the importance of our work in helping Sudanese teachers learn modern teaching methods and students to improve their spoken English.  As with Ahmed’s presentation, the personal touch was very clear.  The Minister even said that if we faced any difficulties she would be happy to speak directly to people!  The whole experience made a refreshing change from the multi-layer bureaucracy we all know so well in the UK.

Friday, 19 October 2012

19th October – Nuba wrestling

Today, I went with Becca (the SVP coordinator) and her sister to see Nuba wrestling.  The Nuba people live in the Nuba Mountains in the south of the Republic of Sudan (not South Sudan).  Wrestling is a very important part of their culture. 

We arrived early enough to have proper seats close to the arena.  A solitary drummer walked around the arena keeping a steady beat, which he continued throughout the event.  There were a lot of contestants, all wearing shorts and t-shirts.  According to my guidebook, in the Nuba Mountains the wrestlers would be semi-naked, but dress in Khartoum to comply with Islamic expectations.  At the start, they all processed around the arena, before competing against each other.  The aim is to knock your opponent to the ground.  The wrestlers start very cautiously, circling and dusting themselves with sand from the ground until they see an opportunity to latch onto the other.  There was clearly a lot of skill involved so it was quite fascinating to watch.  Some of the bouts ended with very dramatic flinging of opponents to the ground, and standing ovations from the audience. 
I hadn’t put Nuba wrestling very high in my priority list of ‘things to see’ because I found it hard to imagine enjoying any form of wrestling.  How wrong I was. 

Sunday, 14 October 2012

A break in Khartoum – whirling dervishes

I said in a previous post on my blog that I would have a full timetable directly after the school exams.  This turned out to be a misunderstanding.  After the exams, it will be the long Eid holiday which lasts until 11th November.  As I am therefore at a loose end, I decided to return to Khartoum for a break.  So last Thursday (11th October) Osman drove me to the bus station, and off I went, on the four hour trip to Khartoum.  Suzanna and Tanya, two volunteers based in Khartoum kindly agreed to let me stay with them as the SVP flat is full at the moment.

Baby camels
Adult camels feed from an old boat
The next day I decided to visit the new volunteers in the SVP flat.  I timed it beautifully, as some of them were about to go to Omdurman to see the camel market and the whirling dervishes at the Sufi shrine.  Both the whirling dervishes and the camel market are events which always take place on a Friday.  For one reason or another I had not managed to see them when I was in Khartoum previously.  We were a bit late for the camel market, but did see some camels including babies (see photos).  Then we took a bus to see the Sufi dancing.  This was the first time I have been anywhere where there were other tourists.  I met a Sudanese man and his son who told me that they come to the shrine every Friday just for the opportunity to practise their English with the tourists.  According to the internet, a lot of these events are ‘choreographed’ for tourists, however this one certainly felt very spontaneous.
Dervishes in procession
The Sufi version of Islam takes a far more emotional and mystical approach than is usual in Islam.  This includes ‘whirling’ dances to drums and cymbals.  Adherents follow the teachings of Shaykh Hamdu Niil (whose shrine it is), and the dancing is called ‘dhikr’. Dhikr is a ritual, where techniques are used to bring participants out of their ordinary life, and into a sphere of existence where the truths of reality can be experienced, and closer contact with God is made possible. I think the nearest equivalent would be meditation.  There is a distinctly African quality to it, both in the dancing and singing.  I enjoyed it very much.
Interior of Buren Temple
Exterior of Kumma Temple
Yesterday (13th) I went to the National Museum for a second visit as I was aware that I hadn’t done it justice last time.  There are several temples which have been moved from the north of Sudan to rescue them from the flooding caused by the building of the Nasser Dam.  They have been re-erected in large sheds to protect them from the elements. 
Wall carving from Semna Temple
As I have almost a month until I go back to Ed Damer, I am planning to book myself onto a holiday tour and see something of the country.  Many places beckon.  I think in the end price will be the determining factor.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

11th October – beauty treatments Sudanese style

As you may know from previous postings, I have had my hands and feet hennaed twice in the short time I have been in Sudan.  I have since been told that this is only ever done for married women and is considered very beautiful.  I have been complimented frequently on my henna and told enthusiastically that I am now a ‘Sudanese lady’.  The simpler henna process that I have experienced takes around 2 – 2 ½ hours from start to finish.  Some women have very complicated henna designs on their arms and legs which have particular meanings and undoubtedly take considerably longer to do.

Generally, women in Sudan wear Islamic dress, but the face and hands are not covered.  However, I have seen some women who do cover completely so that you can only see their eyes.  At first I was under the impression that this type of dress was due to passionate religious feeling.  Not necessarily so.  The reason is often to allow the skin to become paler in advance of the woman’s wedding, when she will use creams to make it even whiter. 
What started me on this train of thought?

Yesterday evening my friend Huida was sitting over an incense burner, with smoke billowing around her and sweat trickling down her face.  I was completely mystified.  Then she took me out into the courtyard and showed me a large sack which she told me contained a special type of rather expensive wood.  To my even greater bafflement she then showed me a pit in the ground where a charcoal fire was still burning.  She told me that this is a traditional way for Sudanese women to make themselves attractive for their husbands.  Women take off their clothes, cover themselves in a large blanket and sit directly over the charcoal pit so that they get the full effect of the smoke and heat for as long as they can stand it (up to an hour for the hardiest).  Apparently the smoke from this type of wood colours the skin very beautifully.  Additionally the heat makes the woman sweat profusely which is supposed to increase the appetite, causing her to eat much more than usual.  Fat, as in many non-western countries, is considered beautiful.  Once the smoking process outside is finished, she dresses, comes inside and sits over the incense burner to add its fragrance.  Huida told me that this is common practice across the whole of Sudan.  Remember that this is all done in what are already extremely hot conditions. 

As anyone who knows me will already be aware, I have never been one for beauty treatments of any kind, so I am not looking at this from a personal point of view, whether I am considering UK treatments or Sudanese ones.  Strange as they may seem, looked at objectively I am not sure that Sudanese treatments are any more outlandish (and considerably less harmful) than botox, tatoos, tanning salons and cosmetic surgery.  Henna I can cope with.  If anyone suggests I smoke myself I think the answer will be a decided 'no' though.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

2 - 4 October - visit to Timerab

At the school I share the single teacher’s accommodation with Esan and Waheeda.  Ever since I arrived Esan has been talking about taking me to visit her village, Timerab.  I have been told that Timerab is on the banks of the Nile and is most famous as the birthplace of a scholar called Abdullah Tayib, who is extremely famous throughout the Arabic-speaking world.  Abdullah Tayib’s widow is an English woman called Griselda.  They married in the 1940s.  She now lives in Khartoum, and frequently visits the village and Ed Damer still.  Griselda is coincidentally a supporter of the Sudan Volunteer Programme.

I have been told that until three years ago there was no electricity here or in most other villages in the area.  Following the building of a major hydro-electric dam on the Nile, the Government has now provided electricity across the whole state.  People have taken advantage of this to have TV and lights, but on the whole haven’t gone as far as fridges or freezers, so things are still very basic.  The Nile provides the water, but it is much cleaner than in Ed Damer.  It is as clear as tap water in London.  As far as I can see, the only local transport is by donkey or donkey cart.
We left for Timerab on Tuesday afternoon by pick-up truck, which is also the local taxi, bus service and home-school transport between the country and Ed Damer (see photo of the school run).  Once we had crossed the Nile, the road quickly became something which in England would be classed as a rural footpath.  We stopped to let people on and off all the way.  Esan and I were dropped right at her front door.

Home-school transport
The Village
The village looks as though it is a very elaborate set of sandcastles, which is pretty much what it is.  When she isn’t at the school, Esan lives at home with her widowed mother, younger sister and three brothers.  As is standard practice in Sudan, there are separate sides of the compound for men and women, so I saw very little of her brothers, who even eat separately.  I noticed that they also wash their own clothes, so apart from the actual cooking the men-folk are largely self-sufficient.  The toilet facilities are by far the best I have seen in the area: very clean even though it is still the basic 'hole in the ground' type. 
The whole family and all their neighbours made me very welcome, although we had no language in common beyond my very basic Arabic greetings.  A succession of neighbours came to say hello to me throughout my stay (see photo on right).
That evening I experienced my first rain in Sudan.  It started with distant thunder which became nearer and almost continuous.  Then the first raindrops, which were beautifully cool on the skin.  After a while the rain intensified to a major downpour, at which point we took shelter.  The sand underfoot becomes very slippery and boggy in places in the rain. 
After the rain stopped we put the beds outside for the night.  It wasn’t until the morning that I realised that my face had been eaten alive by mosquitoes.  I have never been bitten on such a scale before, although fortunately they are not particularly itchy.  Esan and her family were very concerned and unearthed a mosquito net for me for the next night.  Although I have a mosquito net and used it in Khartoum, I hadn’t thought of bringing it with me.  I haven’t used it in Ed Damer as there are no mosquitoes at the school.  I do take anti-malarial tablets every day.
On Wednesday, Esan took me on a tour of the village to visit her neighbours, who are all one extended family.  Due to the lack of a common language, I have no idea of the exact relationships.  For some reason, although I make full use of mime to try to make myself understood, there seems to be a general aversion to doing this in the Ed Damer area, so I remain deeply puzzled about a lot of things!
On the third day, I awoke to find that (in spite of the net and liberally applied repellent) the mosquitoes had decided to feast on my hands.  A neighbour came and re-hennaed my hands and feet, which provided a morning’s activity (see photo of the end result). 

My re-hennaed hand
After some discussion with Esan, I decided that I would like to return to Ed Damer.  Although it has been interesting to see village life and I have been made very welcome, it has been very difficult due to the language barrier.  Once you have seen the village, it is not possible to go further afield due to the heat, so there is only a limited amount to see and nothing to do.  I was also becoming increasingly conscious of the need for online/computer preparation for my lessons in the next week when I have been told I will have a full timetable.  This was impossible to do at Esan’s house due to the constant social calls.  The real clincher though was the thought of yet more mosquitoes overnight.  I recall a quote from The Lord of the Rings, when journeying through the Midgewater Swamp: ‘What do they eat when they can’t get Hobbit?’
So, after we had had lunch, Esan called the pick-up truck.  As before the pick-up truck picked up a full load of passengers on the way back to Ed Damer.  Then, much to my alarm, the driver ended the route in the middle of town, far from the school.  I phoned Osman, who explained that the driver had called him and told him where to pick me up.  This is the thoughtful way things work here.  Where in London would you find a bus driver who didn’t just casually abandon foreign passengers in the middle of nowhere?

Monday, 1 October 2012

Monday 1st October – the difficulties the school faces

Yesterday evening as we teachers sat outside the classrooms, supervising the boarders’ study time as we do every evening, Osman told me about the difficulties the school faces.  I had mentioned the lack of scientific equipment and computers to him.  He said that, yes, this was a major problem.  However, the worst is the constant struggle to keep the students physically healthy.  He said that if there is any way I can find of getting outside help it would be greatly appreciated.

When Osman became headteacher the school expected to send around 10 students a day to hospital due to malaria, drinking contaminated water or eating bad food.  There was no plumbing for waste water (including the toilets) so that it all drained into the ground making for wet and insanitary conditions, ideal for mosquitoes to breed.  The kitchens were old, dirty, unventilated and had no fans.  The dining tables were filthy. 
Zeer in their new contamination free shed
All these problems have been rectified.  The ‘zeer’ (traditional earthenware pots containing water) are now in a covered area to avoid contamination, with pipes leading to drinking water taps.  The water still comes direct from the Nile, but this is a problem which is expected to change soon because the government is currently building a water treatment plant for the town.  Even so, it is now much rarer to send students to hospital for this reason.  The kitchens have been re-decorated, fans installed and new dining tables (regularly cleaned) purchased.
Girls drink at the drinking water taps
The next headache is that there is insufficient water for the size of the school.  Osman has found that the work needed to increase the water supply will cost S£20,000 (UK£2,800 or US$4,534) which is a very daunting amount in a rural third world town such as Ed Damer. 

Because of the political relationships with the outside world including US sanctions, and the relentlessly bad press Sudan receives in the western media, there are difficulties getting outside help.  However, no matter what a country’s politics, it is deeply unjust that the children should suffer. 
The girls at Ed Damer High School work in bare classrooms sitting on uncomfortable broken chairs at rickety desks, often three students to a small desk.  As I said before, there is no scientific equipment or access to computers.  All work is therefore textbook or blackboard-based. 
Yet in spite of all the problems of their environment, students here are incredibly positive, cheerful and hardworking.  It is rare to see a glum face.  Again and again they tell me how they want to become doctors or travel abroad and see the world. 
Today, the English exam was in progress.  There is one blind girl at the school.  In order for her to sit her exams, a teacher has to read out the questions and scribe the answers for her in a room with constant interruptions.  In a just world this girl should have the same access to Braille resources as her UK peers, and of course the same opportunities.
I think the school does a terrific and very conscientious job under difficult circumstances.  Time for some help from elsewhere, don’t you think?

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Saturday 29th September – feeling more at home

I have had several emails from friends concerned about my various difficulties here in Ed Damer, particularly the water situation and lack of privacy.  I am glad to say that after a couple of weeks, I am feeling far more settled.  Guida, the headmaster’s wife, cadged an excellent plastic urn with a filter from a relative which now has pride of place in the teachers’ accommodation specially for my use.  I have a large supply of plastic bottles that I carry around with me full of (easily replenished) filtered water.  Privacy is still an issue, but I do realise that this is a cultural difference that I just have to adjust to. 

In spite of the language barrier, I feel a rapport with the two teachers who share the accommodation, Esan and Waheeda.  We get by with signs and telling each other Arabic and English words.  The students are still wildly excited whenever they spot me and some descend into giggles if I speak to them. I wonder how long it will take for me to seem normal to them.
I have spent the last two nights staying with the headteacher.  Yesterday Guida and I went to visit a relative of Osman’s who is about to leave on the annual Haj pilgrimage to Mecca.  This is a once in a lifetime event, so is celebrated with a big meal.  The house was Osman’s family home and is built in the local style (single storey, mud-built, flat roofs with several rooms separated by courtyards).  It is permanent home to several branches of the family, who all live together as a small community.  The relative who is going to Mecca is a woman, so this was a women-only party.  There were several babies, all being breastfed as we ate and lots of slightly older children, many of whom spent their time peeping through the windows at me and disappearing whenever I looked at them.  As everywhere, the food was very good.  I am getting quite accomplished at eating with my right hand now.
As next week is exam week, the students and many teachers came into school today for revision lessons even though it is the weekend.  This morning I had a revision class sprung on me with only ten minutes notice.  The exams are completely written, with no oral section.  My role was therefore purely to jog their memories about vocabulary.  I used my strategy of getting the silent majority of the class to contribute as much as possible.  In spite of the rather uninspiring nature of the lesson, the students still behaved afterwards as though I was the best thing ever.
Once the exams are over, I want to tackle the struggling students in a more focused way.  I am therefore reading materials for inspiration.  I keep coming up against the major hurdle of lack of general knowledge about subjects outside the immediate area.  There is a limit to how many times I want to discuss their families and locality with them.  I would love to get them inventing stories around the class, but suspect this will fall flat due to lack of understanding.  Any suggestions gratefully received.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Wednesday 26th September – ups and downs

I woke today after a very bad night’s sleep.  One of the drawbacks for a westerner living in Sudanese teacher accommodation is the constant invasion of privacy.  In the UK we take for granted the fact that, even in a shared flat, once you close your bedroom door you have some time to yourself.  This is not the case here.  Everyone feels free to wander in, teacher or student.  Last night was a particularly bad incidence: long after I had fallen asleep, the gate to the school area (directly behind my bed) opened and troops of girls came through on their way to their neighbouring courtyard, some shaking me awake to say ‘Hello’.  There is a genuine lack of understanding of a culture which is not ‘all one big family’.  I am hoping that SVP can help me find a suitable place to live off site, but realise that they will also battle against local attitudes to do this.  If a woman on her own in the market is unheard of, imagine a woman living alone.  If the second volunteer materialises in November, perhaps we will be in a better position as two women together.

Once I had gone into school, things looked up.  I was invited to lunch in a different subject office.  Up till now I have eaten with the English Department (pictured) and apparently all the other departments want a chance.  We had deep fried fish and ful (bean stew).  Afterwards they were very insistent that I stay and help them speak English, which I did. 
By request I was asked to do the ‘Old woman who swallowed a fly’ lesson for a class later in the day, so it clearly wasn’t the flop that I felt it had been.  As I get more practice I am definitely getting better at teaching, which is very reassuring.  Yesterday I gave a lesson using two teams to do a vocabulary test, which went well too.  I am greatly helped by the fact that my students, no matter how little they can say, are bursting with smiles and general enthusiasm.  It is very infectious and brings out the best in me in class so that I am able to give some very lively lessons.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Monday 24th September – my first class

In the morning the headmaster, Osman, took me to the souk with him to help me buy anything I need.  I was in desperate need of bottled water as the water in Ed Damer is 50% mud.  Facilities in the teachers’ accommodation do not allow for storing boiled water as the kettle and fridge are tiny and much used by all.  I have been using my water bottle which has a water filter.  Unfortunately the filter is not reusable and has clogged rapidly, which only allows me a trickle, when I am desperate for a decent amount.  I only have one spare filter.  I do have water purification tablets, but not an adequate supply for the time I am in Ed Damer.  Advice to future volunteers: bring a large supply of filters/water purification tablets. 

The souk is a men-only place.  It is composed of very traditional mud-built buildings and an area of cloth-covered stalls.  I was the only woman, let alone the only westerner.  As the headmaster is the only male staff member, he has to shop for the school catering staff as well as for his family.  Later I was told that there is a souk for women which operates on Saturdays.  Otherwise, it is impossible for women to shop by themselves.  We filled the car with large quantities of oil, vegetables, meat etc.  Osman also bought a watermelon and two types of tea (mint and karkaday, a local herb which tastes rather like blackcurrant) and a large pack of bottles of water for me.  He and I had had a conversation in advance in which he was very firm that I was not allowed to pay for anything as I am a guest.  In the time I have been in Ed Damer I have spent absolutely nothing. 
Today was a red letter day for me as I gave my very first lesson ever.  I asked the Head of English for a teaching timetable and was given several classes instantly.  My lesson was an attempt to teach the year 2 class the rhyme ‘There was an old woman who swallowed a fly’.  The purpose was to get the students to enjoy speaking aloud, without reading from text and without hesitation.  After going through the rhyme with miming actions a couple of times (earning some laughs as planned), I asked the class to divide into groups and attempt to reconstruct the poem between them using only English.  As noticed previously, those at the front latched on immediately while those at the back struggled.  I am going to use a better group system next time to have a mix of abilities working together.  At each part of the lesson I tried to get the class to speak together, copying the words.  They found this very difficult indeed, which I hadn't expected. The next lesson I give will be to a different class in same year group.  I already know from their teacher that they need help with particular vocabulary, so I am going to do vocabulary games with them.