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.’