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.