Saturday, 16 March 2013

15 March – transferring between cultures and climates

After a very emotional couple of weeks of parties and partings, I finally left Sudan yesterday on a 6.30am flight. I was driven to the airport by Griselda’s driver and was immediately pounced on by a porter who helped me carry my large amount of luggage into the airport building.  He asked where I was going and then delivered me to the correct window.  I checked in my luggage, including my viola and then sat in the very drab waiting area.  Various staff came at intervals to ensure I got to the right departure gate.  The departures lounge is old and shabby with no duty free area although there is a small cafe. 

What Sudan lacks in modern efficiency and comfort they certainly make up in individual care.  As I have found travelling elsewhere in Sudan, although all signs are in Arabic and people speak little English, there is almost always plenty of help available.  I do think they are missing a trick not having shops at the airport though, as it would be a great place to catch travellers who want to buy Sudanese gifts for relatives at home while waiting for their flights. 
I had booked a window seat on the plane and was very glad I did, as I kept bursting into tears each time I thought about my new Sudanese friends, left behind in Sudan.  I was able to turn away and look out of the window so at least I was saved from making a complete spectacle of myself.

I transferred planes at Amman.  The airport is newly built and very modern.  After Ed Damer and Atbara, and even after Khartoum Airport, it seemed like a different world.  However, the duty free prices were also in a different world and all thoughts of buying small gifts for my grandchildren were quickly dashed. The announcements were made in very good English as well as Arabic, which felt very strange too.
Then I took my second plane onward to London.  In spite of travelling at the most civilised time of day (leaving Amman at midday and arriving in the mid-afternoon UK time) it was the emptiest plane I have ever taken.  Most of the rear seats were vacant and even towards the front where I was sitting, I had an empty seat next to me.

Once I arrived at Heathrow I went to reclaim my luggage, only to find that my viola had been lost.  I went to report it.  The member of staff handed me a form to fill in, checked my luggage receipts for the number, and told me that she would check with Khartoum and Amman immediately.  When found, it would be put on the next flight to Heathrow and I could expect a phone call at 3pm tomorrow.  She asked for an address so it could be delivered to me.  She was very apologetic for the inconvenience, which (as I pointed out to her) was not her fault at all.  In the event, the phone call came at 8.30am today to tell me that my viola had been found at Amman.  What efficiency!  The word ‘inshallah’ (God willing) was not mentioned once in the whole conversation!  A timeframe was given without me having to ask.  What a contrast with Sudan where even the English teachers struggle with telling the time and the chances of getting a definite time for any event are very slim.
As I had no winter clothing with me, I had asked my daughter-in-law Amelia to come to the airport to fetch me bringing winter clothes.  I knew that she would be a couple of hours late as she was on a course during the day, so I settled down with my mobile in the warmly heated airport and called various friends to tell them that I was back.  It was fantastic to have my Blackberry fully functioning after so many months in which it has refused to provide any internet features at all. 

Amelia arrived with a bag of my own winter clothes and warm boots.  Then we took my luggage on the Underground to their new flat, which I hadn’t seen before.  It was raining slightly and the temperature was about 10oC, which felt very cold indeed to me.  Everything looked so grey and drab after the bright sun of Sudan.  Even our fellow passengers' winter clothing was dark and dull.  It all looked very bleak.  Roll on the spring and summer which are so necessary here!
The flat is above a shop in Hammersmith, close to a parish church which I used to attend years ago.  It will be nice to see people there again after so long.  It feels so strange to have limitless hot and cold water and heating.  I soaked in a hot bath, which felt luxurious after my cold water showers in Sudan, and after the rather grim journey through London. 
Griselda has very kindly offered me her flat in London as a base, so I will be moving there in a few days and will be able to leave my son and his wife in peace.

What next? I don’t know.  I need to plan my next phase and will spend the next few weeks looking at what I am going to do.  ‘Inshallah’ it will be something similar to what I did in Sudan.  This is the last post in this blog, as I move on to a new phase.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

9 March – El Carava

Last Tuesday, my Sudanese band held a goodbye ‘celebration’ for me.  We had a lovely time, playing together in between speeches from various members of the band, with whispered translations from Hisham (the regular violinist) who’s English turned out to be a lot better than I had previously realised.  It is extraordinary that Hisham and I, have been playing together for several months, been very friendly, but used only the musical language!  At the end of the evening I was presented with a framed certificate.  Somebody videoed the whole occasion and I am hoping to be able to upload it on this blog once I have a copy.

The Sardine Tin
The next day I went on a much anticipated trip to a village in the north of River Nile State called El Carava.  I haven’t managed to find it on a map.  Like most habitable places in Sudan it is next to the Nile, but in a much rockier, hillier area than any I have been to before.  Sumaya, the teacher who had invited me, and her mother met me in Atbara and we took a very crowded bus which also contained numerous sacks and containers of provisions.  We sat on sacks of flour, large barrels of petrol and many other essentials.  This gave quite a flavour of how remote El Carava would be, which was confirmed when Sumaya told me that there are no shops apart from a pharmacy.  The journey took three hours in which we felt like sardines in a tin (the bare metal of the roof and sides also gave this impression).  Some passengers had to sit on the roof.  In spite of the discomfort of being unable to move, everyone was very cheerful, even the children.  The vast majority of passengers were members of the same tribe and were making the journey to attend the funeral of a young relative who had died of cancer.  I can only assume that she can’t have been a very close relative, they were such a happy bunch of people! The bus driver was a cousin of Sumaya’s.

We arrived and walked the remaining distance along the barely operational railway track, which is also used as the main street.  Traffic consists of the occasional boy or man on a donkey, or people walking.  The original intention had been to stay at the family home.  However it had been left empty for quite some time and it was decided that we would stay with cousins instead. 

The extended family owns quite a lot of farmland beside the Nile.  The household of Sumaya's cousins consists of a very old lady, two middle aged women and a live-in servant.  As far as I could tell there are no men in the household, but I may be wrong.  I have found many times that Islamic segregation of men and women in River Nile State is often so strict that you would never know that both sexes lived in the same house.  The village has no electricity and relies on individual private generators. The family’s generator is only used for a couple of hours after dark. 
On our first day, Sumaya took me down to the river.  On our way she introduced me to a local type of insect repellent – a crown of leaves which she swears works very effectively (pictured).  She also explained various local medicinal herbs, including a useful twig which makes an excellent toothbrush complete with toothpaste!

I slept very badly, partly due to the large number of rather noisy sleepers sleeping right next to me, but also because I had a very bad cold.  The next morning Sumaya, her mother and I walked to their own home, taking in another part of the village (pictured with the mosque in the foreground).  We tried unsuccessfully to buy some fish, although we were given some corn on the cob instead. 
Sumaya’s childhood home is a very impressive house on a hill with fantastic views.  It looks like an Arab style castle, hanging above the Nile in a way very reminiscent of castles along the Rhine.  We cooked a simple meal on charcoal.  It was fascinating to watch Sumaya’s minimalist approach due to the scarcity of charcoal.  I was expecting to cook the corn still in its leaves to preserve the moisture, but was told that this would use too much heat.  Instead we striped the corn and had it rather burnt and dry.
We walked back to the cousins’ house across the hillside.  On our way Sumaya pointed out a very ancient graveyard, barely visible among the stones.  It has been investigated by archaeologists, who found pottery buried with the dead.  Frustratingly, Sumaya was unable to tell me anything more about the site.

Sumaya decided we should return to Atbara in a more luxurious fashion the next day.  A local taxi driver took us across the desert  to the nearest road, half an hour’s drive across a moonscape of dark rocks (see picture).  We came to a small shelter next to the completely empty road.  Sumaya had hoped that we could flag down a bus.  However, there was a car parked there, and the driver was having a drink at the zeer (pottery water pots).  We were very lucky that he was wanting to take passengers.  As promised by Sumaya, the journey was far more comfortable and also a bit quicker.  The cost was S£30 (UK £6) each, compared to S£15 in the sardine tin. 

It was certainly an interesting trip, if an uncomfortable one.  It really made me appreciate the home comforts of Ed Damer, where Kate and I have been able to adjust the arrangements to suit our western tastes (sleeping privately for example).  Here we have reliable electricity, piped water (even if it is muddy and only works for a limited time a day), a large market and very cheap, fast and frequent public transport to Atbara where I can go to church and play in the band. 
What El Carava has, which Ed Damer lacks, are the spectacular views and amazing contrasts between the black rock desert and the beautiful riverside farms.  Sumaya has a brother who lives in London and visits with his family each year.  His wife has suggested that El Carava would be a wonderful tourist resort.  The river has sandy beaches and cataracts close by.  Unfortunately it wasn’t possible for me to visit these, but clearly they would be a draw.

Friday, 22 February 2013

22nd February – reflections as the end approaches

Break time at school
Things are winding down here as it is final exam time in schools.  The first and second year students have annual exams.  The third years have their final exams before leaving school, in some cases for university.  The term ends in mid-March.  This is only a rough date because the teachers and schools are incredibly vague about everything time-related, like everyone in Sudan.  My flight leaves on 15th March, so at least I have a firm date, even if nobody else does.
I have said some goodbyes already.  There are more tearful goodbyes to come, which I am not looking forward to, but hopefully I have gained many lasting international friendships.  Many people are keen to visit Britain if they ever get the opportunity.  You never know, some of my new Sudanese friends may eventually manage it. 

Jamal at the Sufi shrine
On my last day at the technical school, Jamal, the English teacher, who is a Sufi Muslim, decided to take me to the local, very historical, Sufi shrine called Sheikh El Maizoo Jelal Adeen.  The shrine is the tomb of a holy man who founded Ed Damer 700 years ago.  I have been told many times that it is a major place of pilgrimage for Sufis, although I have been unable to find a reference on the internet.  I have met local people who claim descent from him.  My visit was a very moving occasion.  We went into the shrine itself, where my friend’s fellow worshippers asked me what I would like to pray for.  As a Christian I decided it would be a wonderful opportunity to pray for a breaking of barriers and peace between Christians and Muslims.  We prayed together for this.  I saw tears in the eyes of the Sheikh (Sufi leader).  It was clearly something he also wishes for.

Now that I have more free time, I am able to accept the various offers of trips which haven’t been possible up until now.  This Saturday Kate and I are invited to visit another local Sufi Sheikh at his village, in the company of the same English teacher.

Next week is reserved for practical things.  I return to Khartoum for a few days to organise my exit visa and leave some of my luggage at the SVP flat.  While I am there I will give feedback to the Ministry of Education on my teaching experiences.

When I come back to Ed Damer I have been invited by an English teacher from another school to stay for a few days at her family’s village.  According to her description it is unusual in being built on a hill.  There are very few hills in this part of Sudan.  The Nile flooded a few years ago completely devastating the village, hence the sensible idea to rebuild on high ground.  As the north of Sudan is largely desert, Sudanese homes are not designed to withstand water.  They just collapse back into the mud they were built from.

There are various places I intended to visit as a tourist, but I have been too busy to do so.  I am unlikely to be able to go now as I am counting the pennies.  These will have to wait for another opportunity.  Places such as Karima, Suakin Island and Kassala are very enticing and fellow volunteers who have visited thoroughly recommend them. 

Quite apart from the largely untrodden tourist route, Sudan is a wonderful country and well worth visiting for a different, much simpler perspective on life. 

One of the most impressive qualities is the way that families support each other.  This can lead to a very claustrophobic atmosphere, but also means that when in need, people can rely on practical help; this is literally vital in a country without Social Security where so many live in poverty.  In spite of so much poverty, there are very few beggars, so you know that if somebody is begging they are in very serious need, for whatever reason.

Another quality is that Sudan is a deeply religious country whether Muslim or Christian.  At times, this can be difficult, particularly when individuals take a hard line and build barriers (hence my prayer at the Sufi shrine).  At its best, I have found many common values. 

From the point of view of a foreigner, one of the things which has made visiting Sudan very easy is that Sudanese people take hospitality extremely seriously.  They smile and laugh extremely easily.  It is impossible to go out without people greeting you and wanting to have a conversation, even if their English is very limited.  I have sometimes had my fare paid on the bus or found that the tea lady refuses payment either because a passer-by has paid for me, or because she simply wants to be hospitable.  You are unlikely to be overcharged in the souk (at least outside Khartoum), as I have discovered when buying groceries and struggling to bargain.  In fact once the price is agreed the stall holders have a tendency to keep adding additional, unpaid-for items to my bag, probably in pity for my poor bargaining skills. 

Coming to Sudan has been a very good experience, to be highly recommended.  I will miss the country and its people.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

14th February – Endearing and sometimes frustrating Sudanese tendencies

Before I came to Sudan, I was fortunate to have a chance to learn a few useful Sudanese Arabic phrases.  Possibly due to advancing age and brain cell deterioration, in spite of my best efforts and because of limited time, my progress since then has been definitely slow although I have made some progress.  Those original phrases have stood me in very good stead however.  They are the cause of great admiration and astonishment on a daily basis, even when it is such ubiquitous phrases as ‘Salaam Alekum’ (literally ‘Peace be with you’) which is the regular polite thing to say when meeting anyone.  Faces light up and everyone in very enthusiastic tone says ‘Wa Alekum A Salaam’, (‘and peace be with you too’) the corresponding phrase.  There are then often muttered conversations in which the words ‘Khawajia’ (Westerner), ‘Arabi’ (Arabic) and ‘tamaam’ (very good) feature hugely.  It doesn’t take much.  I should make it clear that Khawajia is not a racist term. 

There was one occasion when I needed to buy a mobile phone top up card (known locally as ‘Sudani scratch’).  I went to a small roadside stall and said ‘Fee (do you have) Sudani scratch?’  It was very comical to watch the stall holder almost collapse in his astonishment.  Every time I pass his stall now, he waves to me with great joy.
Walking down the street, people wave out of their cars and often shout out ‘Khawajia!’ at the tops of their voices.  Admittedly Kate and I are the only westerners for a very long distance, but even so, where else would this happen?  I think the nearest London equivalent would be if a unicorn was spotted walking down Oxford Street.

Another Sudanese (and I think more generally African) tendency is a complete bewilderment about the notion of time.  I have come across a saying ‘The Swiss make watches, the Africans make time’.  In true British fashion, even after six months here, I still catch myself asking teachers, ‘what time is the second period?’ only to be faced with long discussions between teachers who try unsuccessfully to work it out. 

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday and I asked somebody what time Mass was.  He claimed it was at 5pm.  I arrived at 5pm and waited all by myself for a long time.  I then called the parish priest who said it started at 6pm.  I came back at 6pm.  Mass started at 6.45.  Afterwards I spoke to my original informant who grinned widely and said, ‘This is Sudanese time.  Here everyone knows that if you say 5pm it means come at 7pm’.  As a ‘khawajia’ I find it hard to separate myself from my watch.  If I had come two hours late, I would have been having palpitations.

By far and away the most difficult aspect of lack of time awareness for me is caused by the many demands on my time and the lack of time awareness from those around me.  I lead quite a busy life, teaching every day and also playing music a couple of evenings a week.  When I am not at work or out playing, I am working on future lessons for my students, which I find a very time-consuming activity.  I also need to do the practical things such as cooking and washing.  This contrasts with the Sudanese pattern outside work which consists of lots of social calling and sitting (or more usually lying down) on people’s beds for hours.  I don’t want to give the impression that the Sudanese do not work because that is certainly not true.  Many people I know have more than one job to make ends meet.  However, they have a definite divide between work and leisure and (as described) time is very flexible indeed.  Leisure means lying down, ‘taking your rest’, not going out to play music for the vast majority of people.

Things came to a head last week when several teachers from private schools separately invited me to ‘visit’ their schools.  There were three schools in all.  I agreed to visit but explained that I was very busy and would not be able to come more than once as I had a lot of lesson planning to do at home.  ‘Yes, yes’, they said.  But in spite of my warning as soon as I arrived they were pressing me to teach, unprepared, and with no idea of student levels, classes I had no intention of continuing with.  I spent the week getting more and more stressed, aware that I was not able to give the necessary thought to the lesson plans for my existing classes.  I have now very firmly said to all three of these teachers that I am not returning to their schools.

I ask, why did this all happen so near the end of the school year?  I suspect the answer is the same unhurried approach that affects everyone here.  The teachers finally looked at their calendars (if such things exist here – I haven’t seen any) and realised that time was marching on.  Some schools have already finished teaching ahead of exams.  Perhaps that was what flagged it up to them. 

I can remember a few years ago, when a ‘time and motion’ expert came to an office where I was working and dissected all our working schedules to make sure we were working at optimal efficiency.  I wonder what would happen if a similar ‘time and motion’ expert came to Sudan.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

26th January – the band plays again

Last week Ali, the director of the Sudanese band I play with, said that we would be playing at a wedding this Saturday.  He went on to say something about an American, which I didn’t understand.  He asked me to arrive at our rehearsal room at 9am.  I have put this into full sentences, but in fact Ali and I have a massive language barrier which is broken almost entirely by music.  Bear in mind that the last time he told me about a band engagement, he casually said we were going to a ‘dance’ which turned out to be a full-on wedding dance.  On that occasion, there was no notice and I had turned up expecting our normal rehearsal.
As a result, this morning I dressed in my wedding best in case it really was a wedding, but was unsure of what to expect in reality.  I arrived at 9.30, knowing that 9am was too prompt for Sudanese people.  I found Sammy, a professional Sudanese violinist, teaching a Sudanese tune to the electric pianist so I joined the lesson.  I am gradually acquiring a repertoire of popular Sudanese tunes, and am getting better at remembering them from one rehearsal to the next, which is a relief to me, as I am often able to join in reasonably confidently now.  There is still a vast amount to learn though.

At 11am the rest of the band appeared and we all piled into Mohammed 's bus.  We stopped en route for ‘breakfast’ which the men ate in a cafe, while the women sat in the bus to eat (men and women almost always eat separately here).  Afterwards we drove to a large building which turned out to be a centre for disabled people.  We were welcomed by two gentlemen who spoke very good English.  They told us that Ali teaches the children music there.  The mystery of Ali’s unintelligible comment about an American was also solved: we were introduced to an American who is based with a charity in Juba (the capital of South Sudan) and is visiting the centre. 

We sat in a veranda facing rows of children and teenagers who clearly had learning difficulties of various kinds.  There were many women helpers who watched over them and were constantly on the look-out, ready to help them in one way or another.  It was lovely to watch children and helpers interact.  As we played, our audience came into the space in front of us, clicking their fingers in Sudanese style and beaming with pleasure.  As the concert progressed, this happened more and more.  Then towards the end, members of the band started to get up and circulate among the children, playing as they went.  It was a lovely experience, and much more fun than a wedding.  As an ex-special needs administrator, I had wondered about provision for children with serious special needs in Sudan.  Now I know that, at least in the Atbara area, it is well taken care of.
On the way back, the bus dropped off a lot of the instruments at Ali's house.  Up until then I hadn't realised that many band-members don't own their own instruments and rely on being able to borrow.  As mentioned in a previous blog post, the instruments are all in a very battered state.  Jonathan tells me that some of the keys on his borrowed saxophone need elastic bands to make them playable.  Reeds are made to last for many months, and sometimes repaired.  I have seen a violin g-string, which had been knotted where it had broken previously.  The nearest musical supply shop is in Khartoum, four hours away, which causes 'make do and mend' to be an essential skill for musicians here, even if they have the money.
The photos in this post are from one of our rehearsals, not today's event.


Friday, 11 January 2013

11th January – thoughts on schools

Since coming back to Ed Damer after the Eid break, I have had a packed timetable.  I go to several schools, both boys and girls and have been very struck by the contrasts between them.

Contrary to Western preconceptions, even though this is a strongly Islamic area, the standards in the two girls’ schools are very much higher than in the boys’ schools and the students are much more ambitious.  The teachers encourage their aspirations and are keen to help.  One school has had an English Society for extra conversation for several years and tries to make the curriculum as interesting as possible.  The other school is moving in the same direction.  The girls at both these schools are very forthright about their desire to go to university and have a career.  They consider speaking English to be an important aspect of this.  If they see me outside class, they ‘pounce’ so they can get a bit of extra English practice.
By contrast, boys’ schools tend to lack motivation.  The classes are dull and the students noticeably become less interested as they go through school.  In one school I was told that part of the problem is that many of the boys come from poor families and have to work after school every day.  In another school (where after-school work is less of a problem) the situation is similar, so this is not the whole picture.  By the last year, some boys have become quite oppositional. I think a lot of the problem is a teaching method that does not have any ‘kinaesthetic’ aspects.  The boys are made to sit for hours in the same overcrowded classroom, while the teacher drones on, reading without understanding from very boring textbooks (see my last blog post).  In the classes where I get them to do physical activities (for example, Simon Says) and catching a ball to answer a question, the boys cheer up and really start to participate.  When I have suggested starting an English club however, the teachers have claimed a lack of time.  I think this shows an attitude from the teachers, which bears a lot of the responsibility for the low morale of the boys.
Having come to this very negative opinion of Sudanese boys' school, I was invited to a boys' technical school.  I arrived with very low expectations.  Technical schools are at the bottom of the heap educationally as the boys all failed their end of basic school exams (the equivalent of the old ‘11 plus’ in the UK).  They have an academic timetable but also construction skills, carpentry, metal work etc.  Technical schools receive less funding from the Ministry of Education.  The expectation is that the boys will go into trades rather than university.  People are generally very dismissive both of the boys and of the technical schools.  However, at this particular school I found an English teacher who is very charismatic and is clearly a favourite with his pupils.  He uses a comic approach, and often interacts with the boys rather than just talking ‘at’ them.  He is very sensitive to whether they understand or not, and goes to great lengths to help them.  What a difference that makes!  The boys do have a lower level of English than at my girls’ schools, but really try hard.  Last week, they came to find me when they were having a building lesson, so I could tell them the names of their equipment in English.  To me, this shows motivation.  The teacher proudly told me that for the last four years, even if the boys failed their other academic subjects, they passed English.
As an SVP volunteer, my task is to make changes to the way English is taught in Sudan.  It is a massive task but it is great to see that it is possible.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Curse of the SPINE Books

English is taught in Sudan using the world’s most boring textbook, entitled SPINE.  It was seemingly produced to put the next generation off English and ensure that they will not have any speaking skills.  Teachers are expected to rush through the chapters within times set by ‘supervisors’ (school inspectors) from the Ministry of Education, regardless of whether the students have understood anything or not.  When I queried this with one of these supervisors, he looked at me with total lack of comprehension, as though actually 'learning English' was not an aim at all.  At the end of each term exams are set which basically test students’ memory of SPINE rather than expecting them to use the English language.  There is no oral section to the exams. 

The teaching method is basically ‘talk and chalk’.  Lessons are taught in bare classrooms, sitting at ancient broken desks on equally broken chairs, sometimes two pupils to a chair.  The walls are bare, with no displays of student work.  Pupils sit for many hours on the same uncomfortable seats as the schools are not organised by subject, but by year group.  There are no power points in the classrooms so that it is not possible to use any electronic teaching aids. Classes are generally large, from 40-70 in a class. 
Most of the teachers are keen to do more interesting things with their students and are extremely frustrated by the restrictions caused by the large classes, lack of resources and the necessity to stick to the rigid timetable imposed from on high.  Due to the bad economic situation in Sudan, many teachers have to work at other jobs after they leave school each day, which also makes it difficult for them to find time outside the school day to help their students. 
However, in spite of all this, school students here smile all the time and seem genuinely happy.  The teachers also seem similarly cheerful and very welcoming to me.  How do they do it?  It is one of the mysteries of the universe.