Juba Day Class
We are going to visit a school where they teach Bari.
According to the Ministry of Education’s language strategy, all children should be educated in their mother tongue for the first three years of primary school before transitioning into English as medium of instruction in primary four. In fact, since the education act was passed by parliament in August, this is now the law.
And since Central Equatoria, where Juba lies, is a predominantly Bari-speaking region, it is Bari which will be taught in schools here.
For the past few days in Juba, the Bari Society and the Central Equatoria State Ministry of Education have been holding a series of workshops to help the development of teaching and learning materials for the Bari Language and to produce Bari textbooks for maths and science.
In keeping with our commitment outlined at the Language in Education Conference that was held in Juba in March, and because we believe in linguistic equity and that all languages must be protected, respected and developed, the British Council has supported a scholar of South Sudanese languages from Edinburgh University to take part in the workshops.
In return, I have asked the proponents of the Bari language to take me and my companion from Oxford University Press, who is also visiting Juba (we’re hoping he might be tempted to think about publishing readers in local languages), to see Bari teaching in action.
So it is, in the company of these venerable elders, that we pass Kator Cathedral and bounce off the tarmac road headed for Lologo. Thanks to their presence, we get a bit of Bari listening practice in on the way.
As we leave Juba behind, the ubiquitous huge piles of rubbish, blue-tinged with plastic bottle tops, begin to disappear. The air blowing in through the open window is fresher and everything gleams in the bright morning sunshine; the leaves, the grass, the chrome on the motorbikes being washed in the stream we drive across, and the droplets of water on the naked bodies of the cattle boys as they scrub their cows in the shallows. Modern buildings become fewer. Groups of tukels – traditional houses – nestle together amid clumps of banana and papaya tress.
At one point near the old borstal school, we come across a brass band resting under a large tree after their practice. An upturned gold tuba shines brightly against the olive drab uniforms as the passengers discuss who they might be: Police? Army? No, prison service actually.
Eventually we reach the school. It is set amid grassland dotted with trees stretching towards low hills in the distance. It is a beautiful location for the three long stone buildings arranged around a square. On the fourth end is a large white UNICEF tent that provides extra classroom space.
After a quick meeting with the headmaster, we are finally taken into the Bari class. The teacher stands at the blackboard upon which he has copied, in beautiful handwriting, two pages from the tattered old book he holds in his hand. One half of the board has the letter w in combination with the six Bari vowels and words that contain these combinations, and on the other side are some sentences. As he points to the letters with a large board ruler, the kids repeat after him.
Some of the pupils are from Bari-speaking homes, but many are not. There are Dinka, Nuer and Acholi in the class, but because this is Bari country, they are all studying that language as their indigenous tongue. The teacher checks comprehension through the medium of Juba Arabic, which all the kids speak.
Our dignitaries say a few words to the class, in Juba Arabic, not in Bari, before we all readjourn in the headmaster’s office. We inspect the book more closely. It is falling to pieces, despite being lovingly covered with a sheet of paper and brown tape. It was originally published in Dublin in the 1950s, but this particular edition dates from the ’70s. Apart from a Bible in the language, it is the only Bari text book in the entire school. It is retained in the possession of the Bari teacher who, every lesson, copies two pages onto the board.
We discuss the donor-funded textbook project. Twelve million textbooks are being printed and will be distributed around the country in November. Each primary school pupil from primary one to primary four will receive five textbooks: maths, science, religion, social studies and English. There is also a series for the alternative education system, which teaches those citizens who missed out on education due to the decades of war, as well as teachers’ guides for each subject and level. But guess what? They’re in English. Most children and teachers won’t be able to read them.
This is a bit like the children of England, having been deprived of decent textbooks for years, suddenly finding themselves in possession of a spanking new set in Icelandic.
As we pile back into the car, the kids wave goodbye. Like all the school kids I have met here, they are polite and well-behaved. They are incredibly tolerant of the basic conditions of their school, of the poor pedagogy and limited interaction. But they are thirsty for knowledge, and some of them are learning.
As we head back to Juba, there is less conversation in the car than there was on the way out, each one lost in their own thoughts. As I watch the kids we pass, and realise how many are not in school, I can only wonder at how lucky those with the Bari book really are.