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.