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.