The students

The reason I actually ended up in South Sudan was because of an enquiry about work in the North – a place I’d always been fascinated with since reading Theroux’s ‘Dark Star Safari’. I imagined whirling sufis, dusty cattle markets and pyramids minus the hordes of tourists. However, it turned out the South had the jobs. Knowing very little about the place beyond grisly images I’d seen on the news, I thought I’d better do some reading in between shovelling eggs florentine and boozing it up in Nairobi. I chose a book written by the former US head of USAID and US envoy to South Sudan appropriately titled ” South Sudan: What you need to know”. The author’s annoying selfaggrandizing aside, it gave a decent roundup of the last 2 centuries of  Sudanese history – bloody and complicated.

Teaching English basically involves hanging a language focus off some universally engaging and accessible topic like ‘food’ or ‘family’ (unless it’s a ‘me’ day, in which case they get to design the perfect music festival, or plan a trip for me and my family who happen to be visiting next week). This is even more so the case when you’re teaching exam preparation, which I am, and which I hate. Mostly because both exam and published teaching materials are insipidly aimed at some idealised universal student (read ‘from a developed country’) and fairly mind numbing to teach. With every turn of the page, I became more alarmed at the thought of what my students would be like, and what would be ‘safe’ topics for lessons.

One bit that really shocked me when reading was that because of the tradition of ‘bride-price’ (an inverted dowry paid by the family of the groom), in times of extreme hardship  young boys were shed by a family to fend for themselves. During the war, heading for the borders to escape the fighting and find a way to survive, these boys would often be picked up as recruits by the of the SPLA (Sudan Peoples Liberation Army) with a promise of an education. It was this same army, or former members of, that we would be teaching. Crap, I better avoid ‘family’ then.

Also, South Sudan’s recent seccesion comes after 22 years of civil war, and that one hot on the heels of a previous conflict (not to be confused with the much-reported Darfur situation, which is in a separate area of Sudan and ongoing). Whole populations were  displaced and many fled the country – interrupting education and any sense of normal life. Furthermore one of the main issues precipitating the fighting between North and South was the Islamic North’s wilful neglect and chronic underdevelopment of the South, whilst siphoning off oil and profit. The rapid development of Juba, the new capital, from small Nile outpost to a metropolis, is clear evidence of this need to catch up now they are autonomous.  With so little development in the South and so much strife, so many things we take for granted would probably be alien. Would I sound spoilt, or taunting even, for talking about things they might have been denied? Maybe better to avoid ‘holidays’, ‘sports and recreation’ and ‘childhood memories’ too then.

I needn’t have worried though. I discovered pretty fast how disarmingly honest and unabashed people they are. Sure enough a student did tell me in class that they’d begun an SPLA sponsored education at age 10 over the border in Ethiopia – one year of school before going into military training. He spoke frankly about his experience, why should I be embarrassed into skirting around it in class? Just as another student had no compunction about asking what exactly the BC’s role was in South Sudan, and playfully calling me a ‘British apologist’ 5 minutes into my first lesson (Sudan was a British colony until 1956, and was effectively administered as separate countries, North and South). And why not? The UK Border Agency and MOD are funding these courses. I’d wondered myself.

So its been equally humbling and humourous getting to know these guys. They are tremendously politicized, and embarrassingly know way more about British politics than I do. Whilst I’m heavily impressed by this social engagement, I get the impression they’d exchange it for a bit of the political apathy I described in the UK. They are proud of their new found independence, but they don’t think the present situation is perfect either, and hope for the growth of opposition parties to end one-party-rule (the SPLA). They far from agree though, and love a bit of an argument about everything from the free market to what constitutes ‘civilized’. Eak! Jump behind convenient mask of ‘neutral teacher’. Now who’s ignorant and uninformed? This has all made me realise it’s far too easy to view people as homogenously screwed-up and ‘other’ having survived a recent history like South Sudan’s, and to feel uncomfortable about how to approach communication in this context.

What’s been really interesting is discovering the sheer diversity of backgrounds these students have, and what mad challenges they present in class. They have wildly different stories – Some were able to attend Univeristy in Khartoum, or get an education abroad in neighbouring countries like Uganda. Others stayed in Sudan. Some haven’t had such a solid education. What’s more, because of the North’s policy of forced islamisation, most Sudanese schools taught in Arabic. Not all can read and write it, but most speak regional Arabic creoles. South Sudan is also a mixture of different tribal groups. I teach Dinka, Moru, Cholok and Nur, all with their own distinct oral languages. Language is an oral tradition here so it follows that literacy is a challenge, again not something I’ve had to focus on to this extent before. A simple thing, but I thought it fascinating that people don’t really write shopping lists etc because of this. And actually I have noticed my students’ seem to have pretty prodigious memories.

Pronunciation is another source of wonder and confusion. The sounds /p/ and /f/ are a challenge to some but not to others, as are /d/ and /t/, or /z/. Pronunciation drills are kind of tricky for the Dinka who’ve had their lower teeth removed as part of tribal tradition. NOT something I’ve had to bear in mind before (apart from the occasional geriatric student with badly fitting dentures in Japan). Basically NO two students are alike, it really keeps you on your toes.

The one thing they do all have in common is an incredible keeness to learn, brought about by independence. English is now the official language of business and education in South Sudan – A pain in the ass for a people who’ve been learning in Arabic a lot of their lives. I can’t say I’ve taught my best lessons – its been a very steep learning curve – but really satisfying nonetheless. It’s a shame the course is so short as I feel I’m only just getting to know them all – I’m leaving in just over a week!

Anyway, if you’re not a tefl teacher and you’re STILL reading, I commend you. I hope you appreciate the geek in me. Right, I better go sort out those end of term tests, yuck (I’m not that much of a geek I look forward to this bit).

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