Archive for the month “February, 2014”

I’m Not At Liberty to Say!

Well, this is starting to get exciting again.  

When we were evacuated from South Sudan, our judgement was that VSO would not be in a position to re-open the programme in the foreseeable future so we asked to be redeployed for the rest of our contract.

Looking at the news from the world’s newest nation, it is beginning to look as if we were right.  Despite a so-called cease-fire, the killing has continued on both sides and there seems to be no end  in sight to the hostilities.  The international staff from the VSO office are still working out of Kampala in Uganda and the local staff are still at home waiting for the office to re-open.  Very frustrating for everyone concerned, but VSO will not put staff or volunteers’ lives at risk by going back into the country until the political situation has stabilised enough to ensure that people will be safe.  Sadly, that day still seems a long way off.

In the meantime, our request for redeployment seems to be moving ahead. 

I would tell you where it is likely to be, but that might be tempting fate, so it’s on a ‘need-to-know’ basis for the time being.  Watch this space for more news!!!!!!!  


Saying It The Way It Is.

I have mentioned before in this blog the fact that South Sudan adopted English as the national language when it became independent two years ago.  It was a decision that was fraught with difficulties, but was probably the only decision the country could have taken in the interests of national cohesion.

The major problem that arose, of course, was that there was simply not enough knowledge of English in the country to make this policy work effectively.  Added to that, there was a general lack of understanding or acceptance at Central Government (and Donor) level about just how poor English language skills were, once you ventured outside the capital.

Although in Juba you could find well educated South Sudanese who spoke beautiful, cultured English, learned in Britain or Kenya or in the United States, this layer of the population was very thin and often these people were writing the policies, the guidelines and the teaching or training manuals that were then passed on to others whose English was just not strong enough to deal with highly formal and often over-erudite English texts.

Linda and I spent a lot of our time re-writing training materials and handbooks that had been written centrally but that were of no use in Rumbek because they just couldn’t be understood.  Indeed, it was one of the major criticisms we had with the way that VSO had designed its Education programme in South Sudan that they had concentrated on ‘Capacity Building’ at Ministerial and County levels and had almost entirely ignored the fact that the real need, at this early stage in the country’s development, was for basic English language skills.

All of the textbooks in Primary schools, most of them funded by the British Government, were written in English.  Without reasonable English, children could not access the information in those books.  Many of the teachers in those schools, however, did not have good enough English to use these books effectively and to prepare the next generation to take over a country where everything would be in English.  In Lakes State, where we were, many of the teachers, and even some of the headteachers, had not completed their own Primary education and they were charged with the job of teaching English.

In my view, VSO’s contribution to South Sudan’s development would have been far greater if they had recruited experienced teachers to work as mentors, model teachers and teacher trainers in the larger primary schools.  These teachers would then have been able to act as English language resource people within those schools and thereby help to improve local teachers’ abilities in English.

Even some of the foreign NGOs had little understanding of how difficult it was for many people to read and understand English. As I have mentioned before, T-shirts were a favourite way of getting messages across, but sometimes you had to ask yourself just who was expected to understand the message being carried on the T-Shirts.  The following two pictures are an example of this.

The three pictures that follow the T-Shirts are further examples of how little the decision makers at the centre understood  about the weakness in English skills further down the line. (In this case, it was clear that even the printers had no idea what they were being asked to type-set).

These state-of-the-art retractable display boards were produced in Juba and sent out to the various State Education Ministries to be used to give examples of the adult literacy work being done around the country.  And you will notice, no-one was available to check the English or, indeed, to proof-read the texts before they were printed.

With the recent fighting that has torn many parts of the country apart, South Sudan has just taken a huge step backwards.  However, as the ancient proverb says, “This too will pass,” and eventually the country will settle itself and start again on its road to development.  When it does, English will still be at the forefront of its needs, as it takes its place as part of the East African community with Kenya and Tanzania. 

Let’s hope they find the teachers.



How Many Years of French or Spanish…

How Many Years of French or Spanish...

… would you need to have under your belt before you would be able to understand a sentence like this?

This was just another example of how the highly educated people, who designed programmes such as this, had great difficulty in translating their sophisticated ideas into a language that could be understood by people for whom English might have been a third or fourth language.

Advertising the Alternative Education System.

Advertising the Alternative Education System.

The Alternative Education System was designed to give opportunities to all those whose education had been disrupted by the war.

Thousands of adults across the country were enrolled in classes, many of which took place in existing schools after the children had gone home.

An Important Part of the Education System.

An Important Part of the Education System.

Educating adults, especially those in the military and security forces, was a vital part of South Sudan’s effort to make the transition from a country embroiled in an endless, destructive civil war to a modern nation.

Many thousands of adults simply missed out on schooling during the war and huge efforts were being made to help people to ‘catch up’ with their education.

As you can see, even at Central level, English language skills were in short supply.

Oh Dear!

Oh Dear!

I am not sure that this was the message that the author wanted to convey.

What Limbo Feels Like.

What Limbo Feels Like.

We are still in the state of limbo that started on 22nd December last year.

We keep in touch with the news from South Sudan, but there is nothing that gives us any confidence that the VSO programme will be able to open for a long while yet.

The search is on to find alternative placements for us, but, so far, nothing has materialised. It’s all very frustrating.

(The photo comes from a larger sculpture that we saw at St Pancras Station.)

The Joy of Blogging.

Blogging is fun.  It just is.  

I’ve mentioned before that when you write a blog, the ‘Blog host’, in my case WordPress, feeds back information to you about how many people have read your blog and where those people logged in from.

There are all sorts of tricks that you can employ, apparently, to get your blog ‘out there’ and to increase the number of readers. Facebook and Twitter to name but two. I haven’t explored these too much because, sitting in Rumbek, I did not want to attract the attention of too many people, unless the ‘powers that be’, or ‘security’ as we called them, started to take an interest and found something to object to in what I wrote.  Such attention could have been unhealthy for me and for VSO in the country.

But even at the level of my modest, but faithful, readership, it is always fun to see that my few followers in German took some time yesterday to catch up with the blog, or that the person in the USA, who hasn’t been around for a while, has finally checked in.

But the most intriguing thing is trying to guess who some of the readers are.  Most of my most faithful readers are in the UK, Germany, USA, Belgium, Australia and Austria.  (I expect Austria to drop off the list now, because the person who was in Vienna, and who used to check the blog regularly, has now moved.  I hope to be adding Jordan to my ‘regulars’ list, when she moves there shortly.

Then occasionally I will see that Egypt, India or Italy have logged in again, and it’s a bit like getting an unexpected postcard from an old friend.

But who, on earth, are the people in Singapore, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Hungary, Poland, Albania and Madagasgar?  Who knows?

I just hope they enjoyed what they logged into.  Come again soon, whoever you are..

Waste Not…

It’s beginning to look increasing unlikely that we will be going back to South Sudan.  Despite the cease-fire that was signed recently, the political situation seems far from settled and I suspect that VSO will not want to risk sending volunteers back to the country until they can have a bit more confidence that everyone will be safe.  They will also want to be sure that partners will be in a position to work productively with volunteers, without being distracted by the extremely delicate security situation.

Linda and I are in discussion with VSO about being redeployed, and we have said that if new placements can be found for us elsewhere in the world, we would extend our period of service to enable us to offer a full year in the new posting.  Discussions are at a very early stage at this point, but if and when we get any concrete news, the blog will be the first to know. Well, the third to know after me and Linda.

The idea of not going back to South Sudan leaves me with the dilemma of what to do with the last few sets of photos that were ready for inclusion in the blog, but have been overtaken by events. 

Oh, to Hell with it.  They are all part of the story, so I am going to include them anyway.

The set that follows this piece are all to do with cows, which form the very basis of Dinka society and permeate life at all levels.

Cows are a sign of wealth and a source of prestige.   They are at the root of the ‘bride price’ system and they are the cause of much of the fighting and insecurity that has plagued South Sudan for centuries and which continues today.

In terms of a source of wealth, cows are unbeatable.  I have an ISA with the Nationwide.  It pays 1.6% interest per year.  If I had £1000 in my ISA today, I would have £1016 in a year’s time.  On the other hand, if I had ten cows, the chances are that this time next year I would have twenty cows.  That’s 100% interest, a pretty impressive return in exchange for a few veterinary drugs and the need to be nice to your second cousin who lives in a cattle camp.

The other good thing about keeping your wealth in beef is that it is not difficult to pull the wool, (or the cow-hide), over the taxman’s eyes.  “Those 500 cows over there?  No they are not mine.  I don’t know who they belong to.  I am a poor man.  I only have these two scrawny cows here, the black one and the white one.”

The problem with cows is that they need to eat and drink, which means it is necessary to move them to new pastures and new water sources from time to time, and that is when the fighting starts.  When men from different tribes, or even from different sections of the same tribe, are in competition for dwindling water and pasture resources, it can turn very ugly.  And once the killing starts, then a whole tribal tradition of revenge comes in to play.

In Rumbek recently a Headteacher and one of his teachers were gunned down in front of their students at a school sports day.  There had been conflict between two clans in the same area and some members of one clan had been killed.  The young men from that clan went looking for members of the opposing group to exact revenge.  The perpetrators themselves had long since disappeared so the revenge-seekers just went looking for anyone from the other clan.  Finding two educated members of the other clan was a bonus and so two completely innocent educators died.

The other source of conflict is the need to pay ‘bride-price’ in order to get married.

Apparently, the 20 years of civil war that ended in 2005 caused serious inflation in the level of bride price.  Before the war, it was common for a man to have to pay four or five cows to the family of his prospective bride in order to gain their permission for the marriage.  These days, bride prices of 30-50 cows are quite common and it is not unusual for the price to go over 100.  When my counterpart in the County Education Office got married last year, he was expected to pay 300 cows, 150 as a down-payment and 150 to follow, in order to marry the daughter of a former National Government Minister.

Which begs the question “What is the bride’s role in all this?”  Well, the short answer is “None.”  Indeed, not even the bride’s parents have much of a say in the whole affair.  Dinka society believes that the girls’ parents are too close to their daughter to be objective in deciding what is good for the tribe or clan when it comes to marriage.  It is the uncles who will decide whether a proposal of marriage should be accepted and, if so, how many cows should change hands.

But South Sudan wants to move from being a war-riven, tribally-divided and completely under-developed country into a modern nation state. So, on the one hand you have this very traditional, male dominated society where the role of women is limited to keeping house for men and bearing children for the clan.  On the other hand the Government of South Sudan has signed up to all of the international conventions relating to women’s rights and gender equality.

Girl’s education is a major priority for the education system according to all of the policy documents.  Women’s rights to equal treatment are enshrined in law at all levels, and there is no shortage of donor money for projects geared towards improving the situation regarding women in society.

The problem is that for the vast majority of the male decision makers in Dinka-land at least, and they are almost all male, the idea of equal rights for women just does not make any sense.  Why would you educate a girl when there are not enough school places to accommodate the boys?  Why would you want to get women into the work place when there are so many men without jobs?  And if you do educate girls, they will just become dissatisfied with their lot, have different ideas, and where will that lead?

And in any case, if a girl goes to school, that might delay her being married, which might, in turn, put off the day when cows will come into the family to enable her brothers to be married.

So talking to people about gender equity and the rights of the girl-child can be challenging at times and it is clear that change will be a long time a-coming.  We shouldn’t forget that the kinds of attitudes that we met in Rumbek were not at all uncommon in Britain not so very many years ago, and you would not have to go very far to hear men expressing them even today. 

Of course, if you are living in a cattle camp and you do not have enough cows to get married, then one easy option is to get together with a gang of young men from your clan and launch a raid on a cattle camp in a neighbouring state and steal some cows.  And so the cycle of violence will start off again.

So, cows are central to any understanding of Dinka culture and thinking.  They were our constant companions while we were in Rumbek.  We had to ride around them, past them or through them on our bikes on a daily basis.  Cows and the Governors motorcade, had automatic right of way on the road and since I didn’t dare take photos of the motorcade  the cows have to have their place in this blog. I hope you like the pictures.

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