The only thing he can’t do is find your car-keys.
Saw this on the side of the road on the way into work. What was it? A fossilised ancient creature or what? If so, what do you think the creature would have been called?
Answers on a comment, please.
There’s a classic children’s party game called ‘Fruit Bowl’. For those of you who don’t know it, this is how it works.
You arrange all the chairs in a circle, ensuring that one child, who stands in the middle, does not have a chair. You then give each child in turn the name of a fruit; apple, banana, grapefruit, mango, apple, banana, grapefruit, mango, until every child is named.
The child in the middle then calls out the name of a fruit, and all the children with that name have to rush to change seats. During the ensuing confusion, the child without a seat tries to get one of the vacant seats, thereby leaving another child in the middle and so it goes on.
If the child in the middle calls out “Fruit Bowl !”, all of the participants have to change seats and chaos reigns until everyone, except one, finds a seat.
So why am I telling you all this? Well, last week, Linda and I were helping to run a training course, for about 30 Headteachers and School Inspectors, on the principles of a “Child-Friendly School”. Many schools in South Sudan are incredibly overcrowded, with very poor facilities and poorly trained, or indeed completely untrained, staff. The schools are often not very nice places to be and kids tend to vote with their feet and run away. Hence the workshop on making schools ‘Child-Friendly’.
In any workshop, people get tired. You can almost see the energy of the group draining away, especially after lunch and especially when it’s hot. People start to lounge back in their seats, eyes glaze over and an air of somnolence pervades the room. It’s time for “an energiser” to wake people up.
We decided to play ‘Fruit Bowl’. Remember that we were working with Headmasters and Inspectors whose first language was not English. In some cases English was their third language. I gave them the names of Mango, Banana, Paw-Paw and Pineapple and explained the ‘Fruit Bowl !” rule.
A couple of problems arose. Firstly, nobody knew the word ‘bowl’, so we decided to replace the cry of ‘Fruit Bowl !’ with ‘All The Fruits !’ Then came the fact that many South Sudanese have difficulties distinguishing between a ‘p’ and an ‘f’, so we ended up with a couple of extra fruits called ‘Faw-Faws’ and ‘Fineapples’. No matter. The game went ahead and great fun was had by all. The whole meeting woke up and we could continue with our work with renewed energy.
The following day, we decided to refine the game and make it easier to play. Instead of using the names of fruits we decided to use the names of cows, which are so central to Dinka culture. So we had Majok, Mabur, Marial and Machar, the names of different colours of cows, and the cry of ‘All the Cows!’ to make everyone move.
‘Marial’ cows, and particularly Marial bulls, are the best, the rarest and by far the most expensive, so, naturally, Linda insisted that she should be a Marial.
There were thirty Headteachers and Inspectors, one other facilitator, Linda and me. Linda was the only woman. The game was one of the funniest things I have seen in a long while. As I’ve mentioned before, Dinka men are very tall and have very long legs.
Imagine thirty of them in an enclosed circle of chairs, leaping from their seats and rushing across the circle to secure a vacant chair on the opposite side. Some of them could cover the distance in two strides, but if two Headmasters arrived at the same chair at the same time, there was an almighty flurry of arms and legs, as one or other of them had to come to a screeching halt, do a quick U-turn and find a chair somewhere else. The effect was hilarious with everyone helpless with laughter.
Linda was, as you might expect, in the thick of it. If she had harboured any idea that there might have been concessions made to her status, her gender or her more mature years, she was soon disabused of the thought. Dinka men, apart from being tall and gangly, are also fiercely competitive.
On one occasion Linda was heading confidently for a vacant chair when she was suddenly intercepted by a flying Headmaster, who came out of nowhere and, unceremoniously barged her out of the way. She ended up in the middle of the circle, nursing her bruised arm and her wounded pride, as a roomful of Headmasters fell about laughing.
Being a nice person and a sympathetic kind of husband, I think I hit just the right tone in showing my concern and empathy with her suffering.
I think my words were “Well, if you will play with the big boys!”
I think what my colleague at the Ministry meant to say was “Welcome back, Robert. You are looking really well after your holiday in England.” I can only assume that her command of English was not good enough to deal with the full subtleties of the language!
If, on the other hand, she was correct in her observations, then I have to blame the wonderful hospitality that we received, during our home leave, in such diverse places as Nottingham, London, Minehead in Somerset and Lewes in Sussex.
We had a great time catching up with friends and family and the only thing that slightly marred our visit was the four dental appointments that kept me travelling back and forth to Northampton over the space of about a month.
It was a few days before we left South Sudan that I first became aware that the crown on one of my teeth was coming loose. When I mentioned this to my dentist, he put his latex-gloved fingers into my mouth and then smugly said, “Did you mean this one?” as he proudly presented me with the crown. I had felt nothing. I think the wretched crown was being held in place by gravity and not much more.
Anyway, the upshot was that I needed a root canal to be re-excavated and filled with antiseptic for a week, then the tooth needed to be ‘rebuilt’, before a new crown could be fitted.
I have never been a great fan of dentists and I was singularly unimpressed when this onesaid that he gave me about a 50/50 chance that the repair on my tooth would work. His parting words were “If you have problems with it when you get back to Africa, just get someone to take it out.” After all that!
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that our nearest proper dentist is 800 miles away. The Dinka can remove teeth with a spear if necessary, but, call me a wimp, I think I’ll pass on that. I have a big bag of pain killers, just in case.
So, we finally got back a few weeks later than planned and people have been very welcoming. I think they were a bit surprised that we actually came back at all and now we can’t walk down the street without being warmly greeted by someone or other.
The trouble is that, as the only eccentric, grey-haired, bicycling, white couple in town, everybody knows us. Unfortunately, this state of affairs is not always reciprocated. The following scene takes place on a regular basis.
Random Person: Hallo Robert, hallo Madame Linda. How are you?
Linda and I: We’re fine. Thank you. How are you?
Random Person: I’m fine. How was England?
Linda and I: England was fine. Cold and wet when we left.
Random Person: How was your family?
Linda and I: They’re fine. Everyone was fine.
Random Person: How was your daughter?
Linda and I: She’s fine, thanks.
Random Person: Welcome back to Rumbek. Bye!
Linda and I: Thank you. It’s good to be back. Bye!
Linda: Who was that?
Me: Not a clue.
During the weekend immediately prior to our departure back to South Sudan, we visited Hampton Court, with its famous maze.
We suddenly became immersed in a world of royal intrigue, short-lived queens, obsequious courtiers, opulent banquets, fine tapestries, and unimaginable wealth, all set within beautifully tended, formal gardens with manicured lawns. In fact about as far away from South Sudan as it is possible to get.
Three days later we were in a world of long-horned cows, marabou storks, big holes in the roads, dust and sweat. Amazing what air-travel can do to you!
I’m going to try and convince some of my work colleagues that this is actually a picture of my house near London. I doubt it’ll fool anyone, but it might be fun trying.