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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

September 15th: Rumbek

On September 15th 1980, I was in Rumbek.  It was a Monday and the first day of the first full week of teaching at the school.

I was having a siesta on my bed in the afternoon after classes had finished.  The teaching day started early and finished at 1.30 when the temperatures were at their hottest - I think this was standard practice in the South.  As I dozed I started to feel itchy as if things walking over me. What I discovered were huge caterpillars, perhaps the larvae of some sort of beetle, a couple of inches long and furry black. They had been in the leather twists which formed the base of my rather fine bed and were now emerging and eating the leather.  I had to kill them by spraying with some noxious stuff, then remove the dead bodies, and at some point find a new mattress from the souk.

After the long wait in Khartoum and the journey from Wau, it was a relief to get teaching at last, a week after arriving, on the Thursday. In the meantime I'd been struggling with working out the timetable for the English Department - no-one else was going to do it. We taught both grammar and literature and I was not sure exactly who all the teachers would be.
The English Department on a Quiet Day (My Picture)

One of the main difficulties before the start was finding keys for the English Department office and the library.  There were rumoured to be text-books around and I put the word out that I was looking for the keys.  One day a drunk man on a bicycle wobbled up to me in the school and waved a key in front of my face, and then rode away again still holding the key high in the air.  This turned out to be a teacher who had recently been transferred; he had spent much of last year in jail and as well as being a kleptomaniac was also an alcoholic, and his absence was probably a blessing. The day before teaching started, the key to the library turned up and I went in to a large and airy room which stank of bats.  Sure enough there were loads of text-books but they had been stacked in piles in sets.  Each pile had been eaten in beautiful geometric patterns which left each copy useless as a big chunk of each page was missing.  There were few sets that went anywhere near the 30 or so students we expected in each class.  For one class I had to choose Kidnapped and I knew straightaway that this was likely to present problems for people who had never seen the sea.  In the event they had little concept of the sea - Dinka friends often talked of walking their cattle across the sea to Europe.  The library had a number of general books in English, including the edition of Peter Matthiessen's The Tree Where Man Was Born with photographs by Eliot Porter.  I worked my way through many of these books.

The school was primarily a boarding school and had been built in the British period after the end of the Second World War.  It was a boys secondary school and the "boys" ranged in age from 12 to mid-thirties, some of them married with wives and children back at home; there were also one or two girls though not in any of my classes. The school had four groups in each of the three years, which with thirty in each class would have made a total of 360 in all.  But some of my classes had 120 names and more on the register and there were many others on the school's list who did not seem to get on the register. At the beginning teachers had to spend a lot of time compiling lists of genuine students, and attempts were even made to move truck-loads of unqualified students out. But political issues were at stake, and most returned even if they spoke no English and never attended classes.

There were four of us British teachers in the end, as well as two young American missionaries who largely kept themselves to themselves.  There was a Zairean Zande who taught French, an optional subject with only a handful of students.  At one time there was an Arabic teacher, I think Egyptian, who arrived in the middle of the year and only stayed a few weeks, wracked with paranoid anxiety; everyone believed he carried a pistol with him in class, and finally he produced it, threatened the students and left in a hurry never to return.  There were also a number of Sudanese teachers, all Southerners, maybe ten or so, it varied as teachers were transferred in and out: only graduates could teach in secondary school and it was very difficult for any Southerner to become a graduate; most of the teachers had graduated in East Africa as refugees, others just claimed to be graduates and their qualifications were never checked.  Several of these teachers spent a lot of the time drinking and either missed their classes or were incomprehensible.  Others, of course, tried hard.

Education for most of the students was a deeply mystifying process.  I remember one student, a good student in his twenties, who used to sit in the quad outside class times staring at a book; "I am looking for enlightenment;" he told me, "that is why you come here, to bring us out of the darkness."  Furthermore, there were no opportunities for people afterwards; one bright student, who like many had been to primary school in Kenya or Uganda as a refugee, was planning to go to University in Nigeria as the Sudanese Universities including the one in Juba were believed to accept only students from schools in the north.

There were plenty of cultural problems with the teaching. I decided early on, influenced by the session of Ken Cripwell from the Institute of Education at Farnham Castle, to do a lesson on comparatives; unfortunately I chose to base it on the idea "a lorry is bigger than a car" and so on. This produced blank looks and it took me some time to work out why. Firstly, Southern Sudanese only used one word for a vehicle: "arabiyya" and so they were not used to distinguishing types of vehicle. But they were not used to the idea of a car at all; in fact during all those months in Rumbek I only saw two vehicles I would call a car, one was a black Mercedes parked deep in the State Governor's compound and never used, one of a number said to have been given to each Governor during some international do; the other was an old Renault Dauphine driven through by an aid agency worker in the height of the dry season when the roads were passable by such a small vehicle; otherwise the students only saw the 4x4s driven by NGOs and so on and the trucks used by the Arab traders.

The school had a quadrangle layout and the single story buildings were of reasonable if decayed standard. There were some desks in each classroom, mostly the property of students who took the precaution to padlock them in.  Others, particularly in the first year, sat on the floor.  There were deeply rutted blackboards and I had bought some pieces of chalk from England, but they were not of much use. 

The Teachers House in Rumbek (My Picture)

I shared a house with Andy and Nikki, a house which had been built in similar style to the school.  Andy had been there the year before and had three useful things to improve our standard of living: a shortwave radio which allowed us to listen to the World Service as well as the local news in English from Radio Juba, a pressure cooker which made cooking easier and wire netting which allowed us to use the open veranda as a living room and sit out in the evening.  There was very rarely any electricity, but the radio could be powered by the weak batteries you could buy in the souk; whenever the electricity did come on for an hour or two in the evening perhaps once a week, we made good use of it with our cassette players.  The house had a shower, though the water had to be put in the tank by hand from the well.  The toilet was a bucket which was emptied every morning - the night soil system; we had a panic once when the bucket got stolen until we could obtain a new one (made from an old oilcan) in the souk.

Andy and Nikki in the Teachers House

Cooking was by charcoal on a stove called a kanun, also made from a tin can, and this was efficient.  We were given meat, beans and bread everyday as a ration from school.  The pressure cooker made the cooking of the meat and beans practical.  We ate the brown beans (ful) with onions and tomatoes, when available, during the breakfast break - mid morning.  The bread was round and flat; it got more and more filled with weevils as the dry season progressed, except when the school got a consignment of American Aid wheat, which made the bread much better for a few days.  In the evening we ate stewed meat, with spices if possible, and bread.  Some vegetables, mainly tomatoes and okra, were available in the souk while the wet season lasted, perhaps into November.  There was also some fruit, almost unbearably sharp oranges and some grapefruit, occasionally guavas, and again these declined as the dry season progressed.  It was not a healthy diet.  When I went to Juba in January the most popular thing I brought back for the others in the house was potatoes.  Later in the year we tried to cook some of the green mangoes which grew in profusion on the huge trees all around us.  We drank Arab style tea, black and sweet, but we had to get sugar on the black market and it came solid in a huge sack.  There was a coffee stall in the souk, but you couldn't get roasted beans.  I tried a few times to roast coffee beans and grind them in a mortar, but it was never satisfactory.

We had Mathiang who came into the house for a while everyday to act as a sort of servant.  He was a doberow (I don't know the spelling), a prisoner on day release.  The doberow received a small fixed salary from us and did things around the house like clean the kanun and fill the shower tank.  All the prisoners were let out on a daily basis, whatever their crimes.  Mathiang was a Dinka from Tonj, not a local Agar, and I think his issue was that he did not have the cattle to pay for a marital dispute.  For many Dinka to have killed a man, traditionally a Nuer, in a tribal dispute was a source of pride, and this was a common reason to be in prison; however such a prisoner would have been too proud to be a doberow.

Michael Griffin, who taught at the school the year before me, and was one of the people who gave me the idea to come to Sudan, also borrowed books from this library and used this as a theme for an article after the end of the Civil War.

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