Graduation day in Bor, South Sudan.

Graduation day in Bor, South Sudan.

Graduation day in Bor, South Sudan.

Tony Calderbank, Country Director in the newly fledged South Sudan, blogs about the unique challenges of teaching English in this place, to generations who have known only war.

‘What’s the best weapon in the world?’ the young man asks his colleagues. It seems it’s a rhetorical question, as he continues immediately: ‘I think you all know. It’s the AK47.’

He goes on to describe its history and distinguishing features. Invented in 1947 by Mikhail Kalashnikov, light, versatile, firing single rounds or bursts, reliable in combat situations.

It’s clear he’s talking from personal experience.

He is one of 20 students in the class, members of the South Sudanese Police Service, being taught English by a British Council teacher in Bor, capital of Jonglei State. It is the final day of the three month course and each student is delivering a presentation to the class. Those who do well may be chosen to train as English teachers.

There are men and women here in their mid thirties who have twenty years combat experience, and others, senior officers in their fifties and sixties, who have fought in both of Sudan’s 20-year civil wars. Their eyes are permanently affected by cordite and some still carry shrapnel fragments in their bodies. Their stories are beyond my comprehension.

Although many of them have never attended school or taken part in formal education they are able to read and write English, and some speak incredibly well. They are very highly motivated.

One talks in his presentation about his time in the SPLA and the long struggle for liberation. ‘Before, we were living in the cattle camp speaking Dinka,’ he explains. ‘Now I’m speaking English. Now we are free, in charge of our own destiny.’

Teaching here is very challenging; knowledge of the world outside is limited and the standard reference points of the TEFL text book – New York, the Eiffel Tower, Microsoft, what you do in your free time, holidays, celebrities – are unknown and irrelevant to these students.

One student, much to the bewilderment of his colleagues, chooses to talk about Madonna and Michael Jackson. ‘Who’s Michael Jackson?’ they ask. ‘Is he dead or alive? What was his greatest achievement?’

It takes a special kind of teacher to work in a place like this: no colleagues, sporadic electricity, a weak trickle of water for a shower, limited or no connectivity, evening after evening with nowhere to go but the hotel bar and the company of the same handful of expats, and those locals who can afford the price of a beer or soda.

Torrential downpours turn the landscape into seas of mud. There are unexpected mix ups, classes cancelled without notice and students disappearing for weeks on end, some never seen again. The police brass band practices outside the classroom, and the deafening fall of rain on the tin roof renders the softly spoken students inaudible for hours. Cattle come to graze on the land just outside and the classroom fills with the huge flies that follow them around. The temperature soars, the air-conditioning doesn’t work, the fans break down.

I learn that Alexander Kalashnikov was once asked whether he regretted his invention and responded that he wished he’d never bothered. Apparently 30 million people have died as a result. For the young man presenting to this class, though, it is an instrument of liberation, and he is full of enthusiasm and gratitude to Mr Kalashnikov.

I am impressed when he tells me that he is doing a degree in economics in the evenings at the newly established Dr John Garang University in Bor.

‘Education,’ he assures me, ‘is the new weapon we shall carry.’


Total 12 Comments Add your comment

Name*brendan o'shea, 22

Posted on March 30th, 2012 Report abuse

hi, is it possible to teach voluntarily in south sudan i really have this need to want to help them after the strife they’ve been through.

Name*Rosemary Arnott

Posted on April 2nd, 2012 Report abuse

Hi there Tony. It all sounds fascinating. Keep up the fab work! I’d be there with you if Bangladesh weren’t such a great posting!

Name*Dominic Newbould

Posted on April 2nd, 2012 Report abuse

Keep doing the great work – and writing about it. How will South Sudan celebrate its first anniversary in July? That will be something to see!

Name*Mpagi Nelson

Posted on April 9th, 2012 Report abuse

yours Tony is a great experience.. I am the head of the English prog at YMCA Kampala and we have hundreds of south sudanese students and we seem to be having the same challenges. Ours are more managable coz they hv to survive in a foreign country at all cost but to be honest with you, teaching one who has never stepped into a class is the hardest thing to do..But with experience it is now easy..i love your experiences..Hw i wish we could share more.


Posted on April 16th, 2012 Report abuse

The great work of these guys congratulations …


Posted on May 12th, 2012 Report abuse

Tony, I’m glad that you have been honest in your blog. I want to teach in South Sudan but I can’t seem to find organizations that are hiring. Where do I look?
About the challenges you face, maybe this is the time you need to start to write that novel/book that has been on your mind for years.
All the best, Laura


Posted on May 17th, 2012 Report abuse

Hi Tony that pretty much sounds like South Sudan, am in the same region, but i was only doing site visits in most places, but it is good to know that there are people appreciating the work you are doing, Am in Juba, teaching soldiers.
And the challenges i guess have never failed to make the job even more exciting. J.B

teach english online

Posted on May 22nd, 2012 Report abuse

This could be a nice experience for you tony as great personalities and who don’t know English,teaching them will not be easier this challenge you accept and do good things in teaching is nice..Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

Godwin Chirisa

Posted on June 2nd, 2012 Report abuse

Good work once a teacher, always one. I would lv to join yu. Hw do l go abt. Qualified in Zimbabwe.

Name*David Kibuuka

Posted on June 20th, 2012 Report abuse

Yes education is the weapon eveyone needs if Africa is to progress!

Name* Geoff Farr

Posted on August 30th, 2012 Report abuse

Good Luck with the ‘new’ job old friend. I think of you often as I sit in my classroom teaching rich expat kids in Beijing.

Name*Vk ka Ntwana

Posted on October 29th, 2012 Report abuse

Hey greetings from South Africa. If things go well I should be teaching in South Sudan by next year.