School might seem an irrelevance if you are fleeing war and home is a camp with no water or electricity. But the children and teachers of Sudan know that education is the key to their country's future. Wendy Wallace joins a group of British teachers finding out the true meaning of 'challenging'
In a small thatched classroom in the desert outside the Sudanese capital Khartoum, Mile Michael Ali addresses his class. Today, they will be continuing with fractions, he tells the 87 grade 3 children squeezed on to metal benches before him. With the room full of chesty coughs - it is the season of dust-bearing winds - he writes the topic on the blackboard then uses a metre stick to shoo away a gaggle of curious children from the doorway. Teacher Pat Griffiths from Ysgol Llwyn yr Eos school in Aberystwyth sits at the side of the class and watches, fanning herself. She has already identified "the naughty boys at the back, and the self-appointed girls' spokeswoman". "It's universal, isn't it?" she says.
Tomorrow, Ms Griffiths will be teaching this group herself, in a lesson planned with Mr Ali. While most teachers had a brief rest over half-term, eight came to the Sudan with the British charity Education Action International (EAI), which works with people who have been denied an education by conflict or forced displacement. EAI's Insight programme has for the past four years been sending teachers from the UK to Sudan and Uganda, and there are plans to expand to Lebanon and Sierra Leone. The teachers get a whistle-stop tour of schools the charity supports in these war-afflicted countries - and the opportunity to work alongside colleagues in some of the most deprived and most sorely needed schools in the world.
"We're trying to make it something that's more than a visit, that's teacher to teacher," says EAI's education officer, Sally Hewlett.
In return, the British teachers undertake to raise pound;5,000 each for EAI's work in schools such as these. More importantly, perhaps, they are charged with increasing awareness in their own schools and communities. The teachers have come from state and private schools, primary and secondary; they include one head - Jane Davies, from the independent St Dunstan's college in south London -and a teacher of refugees from Dover immigration removal centre, Jill Montgomery.
Mile (pronounced Me-lay) Michael Ali divides an imaginary mango into halves, then quarters, on the board, and asks for written work. By now, Pat Griffiths is off her visitor's chair and prowling the narrow aisle between the boys' and the girls' sides of the room. "Where's your book?" she asks the monitor, a tall boy of 18, in a class that also includes eight-year-olds. His exercise book is duly handed down from its storage place in the wooden rafters. The children take pride in their books, she notes, despite having no desks to rest them on. Why doesn't Mr Ali divide a real mango, she wonders, then share it out as an incentive at the end? The answer will become clear later on, in the staffroom.
This school, Kimu Charitable Basic (primary), is in Soba Aradi camp, a vast and bleak squatter settlement outside Khartoum, inhabited mainly by southern Sudanese displaced during more than two decades of civil war. Soba Aradi, home to 750,000 people, was legalised by the government just two years ago; until then, residents faced being bulldozed out of their shelters. Much of the camp still lacks water or electricity and many families are desperately poor. "Some do not even have a coin to buy a bucket of water," says community activist Bruna Siricio. "The children don't value eating," says a Sudanese teacher, "because food is not there."
With men killed in the war or just absent, and women out trying to find work -or imprisoned for the spirit-brewing that is their main economic activity -many children have to fend for themselves.
Still, at the end of the day Kimu's staffroom is filled with intense conversations, punctuated by laughter. While dust blows in clouds through the windows, teacher Kennedy Lisi explains to David Morgan why he chose Jane Eyre to study with his grade 5 class of 83 mainly nine and 10-year-olds. It is a story about a child who has no parents, is mistreated and whose house catches fire, says Mr Lisi. Children here can relate to that. In their shared lesson tomorrow, he plans to shorten the abridged version he has, and write it on the board for the children to copy. Mr Morgan, head of English at the independent Bancroft's school in Essex, suggests that Mr Lisi could end the lesson by asking the children to write about a time when they have been afraid. "They can try," Mr Lisi decides.
Mile Michael Ali, angular in a pressed green shirt and red patterned tie, has not seen his own parents since he was 12 and fled southern Sudan for Uganda with his younger brother. Now 29, he decided at primary school that he wanted to be a teacher. "Me too," says Pat Griffiths. Teachers here earn less than pound;57 a month; Mr Ali doesn't have enough money to live on, let alone to buy resources such as mangoes.
The pair agree that Ms Griffiths's lesson will be on fractions. Soon, they are discussing the three-part lesson plan. Mr Ali is hungry for the professional exchange. Like most here, he is not a trained teacher; after secondary school, he attended just a couple of short teacher training sessions. All around the staffroom, the British teachers are proposing group work, pairing up pupils, coming to the board, anticipating the end of stories, acting out sounds and sums. This is mainly unfamiliar to teachers here; although EAI is sponsoring child-centred teacher training from its Khartoum office, most learning is still by rote. By the end of the afternoon, there is an atmosphere of camaraderie; Kennedy Lisi tells David Morgan he feels as if he has always known him. Pat Griffiths organises a game of I-Spy.
The following day, four of the British teachers take classes at Kimu. Mandy King, an ethnic minority achievement advisory teacher for Bromley, works hard to involve the class, as she reads Eileen Browne's picture book, Handa's Surprise, with them. "Can someone tell me, which fruit do you like best?" "How many fruits does Handa have left?" The responses gradually become more confident as the children relax; they laugh at the picture of the zebra taking an orange.
In another classroom, David Morgan has Kennedy Lisi's pupils acting out the noises from a passage of Jane Eyre - a low moan, a clock striking two, a door creaking open and then shut - with what could almost be described as gusto. There is a loose, excited atmosphere in grade 3, where Pat Griffiths has children coming to the front to make fractions, and laughing at her chalkboard stick figures of smiling girls and scowling boys, footballs attached to their toes. She ends the lesson as she began it, by singing "Five Little Chickens", hastily adapted from "Five Little Ducks", doing a comedy walk up and down in front of the board. Risking your dignity is also not part of the Sudanese teaching style.
Afterwards, with the teachers gathered once more in the staffroom, the playground rings with the sound of "quack, quack, quack". Ahmed Sehbit, who has promised Mandy King feedback on her lesson, comments that "reward is better than punishment, isn't it?" Mile Michael Ali says he is impatient to put some of Pat Griffiths's methods into practice.
The UK teachers have learned too. Ms Griffiths comments on the difficulty of making eye contact with nearly 90 children, of working in the heat and cramped conditions. "I'd like to do more," says Mandy King. "I'd like to go back and work with that class, get them just a little bit more active, thinking for themselves."
In another part of Khartoum, the rest of the British group work in a secondary school. Founded in 1994 by a group of southern Sudanese, Kinetti serves 200-plus displaced students. Aged up to 40, they are predominantly male; many are former child soldiers. Teaching is to classes of up to 100, teacher-led, and blackboard-centred. Student Kwithoy Tap, 22, explains the motivation of many when he says: "We need to benefit from education, to rebuild our country. There are no doctors, no engineers. Southern people want to go back home but the conditions cannot allow it."
"We have never taken the gun. We have been working hard with our chalk,"
says acting co-ordinator Andu Zakaria Wani.
The teachers and students throw an impromptu party for their UK colleagues; they make presents of necklaces and feed them with fruit and sandwiches, students and teachers working easily and good-humouredly together.
Sandy Callacher, a science teacher from Sydenham school in Lewisham, south London, says: "We have a very insular view. We say things like, 'My son's doing this, what's your daughter doing?' Here, they're thinking of the bigger picture all the time, about building the community."
Back at Kimu, the British teachers have brought as many resources and gifts for their colleagues as they could cram into their suitcases. Wendy Packer, head of English at Blue Coats prep school in Edgbaston, Birmingham (see box), has brought 100 knitted teddies from a local church group, among other things. Mandy King, on the advice of a Rwandan refugee she knows at home, has brought scores of pairs of girls' knickers. "They only ever get second-hand things. But no one gives second-hand knickers." Pat Griffiths, whose father is blind, has brought a Braille snakes and ladders game.
But, while grateful for the resources, what the Sudanese really want is moral support. The visit, says teacher Emmanuel Mawa, "encourages us to have that feeling that education is something we should value. We don't have financial assistance, but we feel morally obliged to help the community. We have that hope that one day things will improve."
Hamid Abyad Hussein, EAI's Sudan programme manager for the past 19 years, says the visit sends an important message. "They felt, 'Now people recognise that we are here and we exist'," he says. "It's a kind of support."
The British teachers say they feel humbled, "by how much they can do without anything", says Clare Victor, a languages teacher from John Beddoes secondary school in Presteigne, Wales. "And in comparison to how little we do, with so much."
At the end of the week, the British teachers take fabric, instruments and toothbrushes made of sticks to use as resources back home. They also take a new understanding of the longing for home felt by displaced people, and the high regard they have for education. They have exchanged email addresses with their colleagues and hope, in the words of David Morgan, to maintain "continuing human exchange, as well as institutional support through EA...".
Education Action International plans further Insight visits for teachers.
Open days will be held in London and Edinburgh at the end of March. For more information, to apply or to make a donation, visit: www.education-action.org or telephone 020 7426 5800
* Sudan is the largest country in Africa, with almost one million square miles of territory. Once a British colony, it became independent in 1956.
While the north is mainly Muslim, the south is predominantly Christian and animist.
A 21-year war between the Islamist northern government and southern rebels led by Dr John Garang ended in January 2005, with the signing of a peace agreement.
Conflict continues in Darfur in western Sudan, where the government is accused of sponsoring a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
'IT'S GOT THE CHILDREN THINKING GLOBALLY'
Wendy Packer had exceeded the pound;5,000 fundraising target set by EAI before she left Birmingham for Sudan. As assistant fundraising co-ordinator for Blue Coats prep school, she raised pound;3,000 through a Spelling for Sudan competition; some children and their families made more than 1,100 words out of the 16 letters that make up the phrase "Spelling for Sudan".
Toy and book sales, a "mufti" day and a generous individual donor took the fund to nearly pound;6,000.
Ms Packer talked with her Year 4 class in citizenship lessons about the reasons for raising the money, and got them writing photo letters to their Sudanese peers in the refugee camps. "I explained that the classrooms wouldn't have the same furniture, or displays. At their age, the physical differences really brings it home," she says. EAI education officer Sally Hewlett visited the school to give an assembly; she found the children well informed on refugee issues in general and Sudan in particular.
On returning to Blue Coats, Ms Packer will have much more to say about Sudan's displaced children and their teachers. "Now, I can talk about the personalities, how people think and feel, the dignity, unity and sense of community - and the fact that teachers are put on pedestals. It's making the children aware of citizenship, and got them thinking globally." She intends to use her local network to spread what she has learned beyond the school. "I will go into the community, to the Lions, the Rotary Club, cubs and scouts. I will carry on."
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