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. 

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