Archive for the month “March, 2014”

The Fall and Fall of Brighton’s West Pier

The Fall and Fall of Brighton's West Pier

Before we left Brighton to take up our jobs in Northampton, nearly ten years ago, we actually went on a guided tour of the crumbling ruin that was the West Pier.

In hard hats and high-viz jackets we tottered along metal walkways that had been set up to enable nosey paying guests like us to satisfy our curiosity and simultaneously to contribute to the West Pier Restoration Fund.

There was not much left of the original pier, but the main part of the building was the remains of the old theatre and concert hall, long since abandoned to the ravages of wind, rain and the droppings of a million starlings. It was all quite atmospheric and not a little spookey.

Then, a few weeks a later the whole edifice mysteriously burned down and all efforts to restore the pier had to be abandoned.

I wonder what happened to the funds that had been raised for the restoration.


The Winter Storms Have Not Been Kind.

The Winter Storms Have Not Been Kind.

With our impending departure to Papua New Guinea in the forefront of our minds, it was quite poignant to see the latest damage to the remains of the West Pier.

Will there be anything left at all when we come back to Brighton?

Stand By For An Important Announcement!

OK, enough of this tantalising and teasing!  An old friend of ours, who follows the blog from the wild reaches of the Gower Peninsular, suggested that I should launch a competition, challenging readers to guess where nichollsretirementproject.wordpress,com will be written from in future.  However, not having a suitable keyring-cum-bottle opener to offer as a priceless prize, I have decided not to take up this suggestion, but rather to just spill the beans.

We got an email from VSO last week asking if 14th April would be suitable for us as departure date.  We replied by return of e-post that it would be very suitable for us, so the London office is now busy organising our flights on that date to … Singapore .  After a day in Singapore, where we have to pick up our visas, we fly on to Papua New Guinea to take up our new placements!

We are very excited!  

Our placements will be at the Divine Word University in the town of Madang on the north side of the island.  

We have a lot of work to do to get ourselves briefed about the country, its culture and the kind of work we will be doing.

One amazing fact that we have discovered is that Papua New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse country in the world.  It has a population of less than sevenmillion and over 840, yes 840, distinct languages, some of which only have a few dozen native speakers!

More news as we get it!

So What Was All That About?

Some people have asked us, and indeed we have sometimes asked ourselves, if we felt that we had achieved anything during our time in Rumbek.  The question is not as straightforward as it sounds.

We were sent to Rumbek to work with the Ministry of Education as Advisers.  Our brief was not well defined and our placement was only sketchily prepared.  VSO’s programme in South Sudan was set up in a great rush in the euphoria of post-independence and under pressure from the British Department for International Development and too little work went into the negotiation and preparation of some of the placements, including ours.

With a few exceptions, staff in the Ministry where Linda worked and at the County Office where I was based, were friendly and welcoming, but, owing to their backgrounds and the effects of the decades of civil war, they were very inexperienced and in many cases, completely under-qualified to do the jobs that they held.  As a result, they had little idea about how to use our services and it was left to us to decide how we could best make a contribution to the work of the Ministry.  So we did.

Did we save the world?  No, we didn’t.  There is an awful lot of world still left and it is still in need of some serious saving.  

Did we transform the education and the lives of thousands of children in Lakes State?  No, we didn’t.  The challenges facing the education system in South Sudan are going to take decades of ‘small steps and little pushes’ forward and there will need to be some fundamental changes in attitude and practice before it will change substantially.

So what did we do?  Another good question!   Well, these are a few examples.

At the request of the Minister of Education, who was shortly afterwards replaced, Linda spent a couple of months guiding and shepherding the various departmental Directors at the Ministry through a protracted exercise to draw up a policy framework governing all of the work of the Ministry in Lakes State. 

I tried to explain and introduce a school inspection framework that was aimed at giving education managers the necessary tools to carry out school inspections against an agreed set of quality standards. 

Linda acted as the link person between the Director of Alternative Education and Save the Children in trying to improve the way SCFs funds were being used to support the education of thousands of over-aged ‘learners’ who, because of the civil war had missed out on their education when they were children. 

I visited numerous schools with the County School Inspectors, discussing questions of school management, in particular trying to convince teachers that being observed during their teaching in the classroom could be a developmental tool and not a career threatening imposition.

Together we critiqued and corrected all sorts of government and NGO training materials and, working with Ministry exam-setters, corrected and redrafted examination papers.  We contributed to the training of a large number of un-trained teachers in primary Science, (Linda) and English, (me) and we ran seminars for headteachers and education managers on gender issues and school management.

But probably our biggest contribution was in just being there.  South Sudan has been isolated and insulated from the rest of the world for the last hundred years.  Many of our colleagues had no experience of life outside of Rumbek, let alone outside the country.

Our day-to-day working practice was often a revelation to those with whom we worked.  Being in the office first thing in the morning and still there in the afternoon was quite unusual in itself.  The fact that we were a married couple working together was just mind-boggling.  In particular the fact that, before running training sessions or seminars we could be seen doing the initial planning together and then sharing the facilitation of the workshops was an insight into how women and men can work together that was difficult for some colleagues to fathom. 

Often, Linda was the only woman taking part in any of the training courses and the fact that she led many of the sessions was a revelation.  She was particularly impressed when one of the senior men in the Ministry, with whom she had been working for a couple of hours correcting exam papers, sat back, looked at her and said “You may be an old woman, but you are as intelligent as me!”  She didn’t know whether to be flattered or to thump him.  She didn’t thump him.

Our marital situation was a constant source of comment and enquiry with colleagues and trainees during coffee breaks at seminars.  “What?  Only one wife?  And married for over 31 years?  And why do you only have two children?”  What kind of a man are you?  And you didn’t have to pay any cows for Linda?  What kind of a woman is she?

In so many ways, we were a window on an outside world about which colleagues knew little or nothing.  Our job was to show that there were schools and ministries beyond the borders of South Sudan where people had different ideas and had found different solutions to familiar problems; that other counties thought differently about how society should be organised and about how men and women, boys and girls should behave and be treated.

Did it make any difference?  Who knows?  It could be that the waters will have closed over as soon as we left and if that is the case, so be it.  But there is just a chance that we have started a few trains of thought chuffing through the minds of a few people, that we have challenged a few stereotypes.  We hope that we encouraged some people to explore some different ways of thinking about things, and if that’s all there is, maybe it’s as much as we could expect in sixteen months.

Are we glad we went?  You bet we are!  We wouldn’t have missed it for the world!  Living in Rumbek was not easy, and in the hot season, the climate was vicious.  It introduced us to a whole new dimension of sweat.  There were no supermarkets, no tarmac and nothing to do in the evenings most of the time.  There were cows, dust, ‘tukuls’ and AK47s all over the place.  But for us it was an absolute privilege to have been able to see a part of Africa that is at a stage of develop that much of the rest of the continent passed fifty years ago.

What is going on in South Sudan is just tragic.  After all of the hope and optimism of Independence three years ago, it is really sad to see the country tearing itself apart, but even with all of the trouble going on at the moment, South Sudan will develop.  It has everything that it needs to become a prosperous country.  It has land, it has water and sunshine and plenty of manpower.  Once the fighting stops and peace is achieved, foreign investment will follow, oil will continue to be exported and development will happen.  At that point, people’s living standards will start to improve and before long Starbucks and McDonalds will be there. 

We were lucky to see a snapshot of a fascinating society. It will soon disappear.  

We are very sad to have had to leave South Sudan in the state it is in.  For the next few years, the work of the aid agencies will have to be re-geared towards humanitarian relief and disaster aid rather than development, so there won’t be a role for VSO until the security situation settles down. 

We just consider ourselves very lucky to have been given the chance to live in South Sudan and, for the sake of all of the people we met and got to know, we just hope that peace will come soon.  

OK. It’s finally official. VSO South Sudan is no more.

We are not going back to Rumbek.  The British Government, which funded the VSO programme in South Sudan, has decided that the priority for their funding, for the foreseeable future, has to be humanitarian aid for those displaced by the fighting and not skills transfer, so the whole VSO programme has been suspended indefinitely.

This is very sad news because it means that all of the work that the 60 or so volunteers were doing in various parts of the country in Education, Health and Governance will have stopped in its tracks and South Sudan will be taking a huge step backwards in its development as the political struggles continue, the fighting goes on and the bitterness between tribes and communities grows.

On a personal level it means that we have now become separated from all of the people who were our colleagues and friends over the sixteen months that we lived in Rumbek.  In many cases we didn’t even have time to say goodbye as we scrambled to pack our things and get ourselves to the airstrip for the evacuation.

For the VSO volunteers thenselves, the suspension of the programme  means that their lives have been disrupted and they have all had to re-think their future plans, and in some cases, their career options.  For the VSO staff, it means unemployment.  Not a happy prospect.

On a practical level, VSO have said that there is nothing they can do about the personal belongings that volunteers were forced to abandon during the evacuation, nor indeed any money that volunteers might have had left in their bank accounts.

When we were originally sent to South Sudan in August 2013, we were allowed 43kg of luggage each.  Given that we were, at that time, expecting to be away for two full years without a break, we took a lot of stuff with us.   I think, when we first arrived at Juba Airport, we had just over 80 kg.

We left with 25kg between us!

So what happened to the rest? Well, it sat in a storeroom at our accommodation awaiting news from VSO about when, or if, they would be trying to retrieve our personal effects for us.  The following photo shows exactly what we left behind, including the splendid bookcase that we had had made by a local craftsmen to hold the books that we gradually accumulated.  Then came the news that VSO would not be able to help us get any of our things back.

In addition to this, we had three bank accounts in Rumbek; two Sudanese pound accounts which were set up to receive our monthly allowances from VSO, and one dollar account that we set up to keep some money that we asked our daughter to bring with her when she came to visit us last February.  Then came the news that VSO could not help us to get hold of any of this money, which was a bit of a blow because we had been saving as much of Linda’s allowances as we could to help fund our planned holiday to Ethiopia early in 2014.

Losing the personal belongings was no big deal.  They are what we might call ‘stuff’, and by the time you get to our age, gathering ‘stuff’ really does become less of an issue.  What really upset me, however, was the idea to the funds held in our various accounts were likely to remain in the hands of bankers, who would have liked nothing more than for us to abandon the accounts and let our money be absorbed into the bank’s cash flow.

Drastic situations demand drastic actions.

Faithful followers of the blog might remember the couple of entries that talked about the Loreto School in Rumbek, which, against all the odds, is managing to provide a quality secondary education to about two dozen young women each year.  We were privileged to be able to attend two graduation ceremonies at the school during our sixteen months in Rumbek. The school is run by an impressive Irish sister called Orla.

We had already been in touch with Orla and had asked her if she would pick up our “stuff” and either use it in the school, give it away or dump it, as she saw fit.  This she kindly agreed to do.

Encouraged by our success in getting rid of the “stuff”, we asked Orla if she would mind going to see the bank manager of our bank in Rumbek, to see if there was any way we could arrange to get the money from our accounts transferred to the Loreto school account.  We produced a letter of authority, signed it, scanned it and emailed it to Orla in Rumbek.

Success again.  Our blocked funds, made up mainly of money that came originally from the British government via VSO, will now be paying the school fees of a young woman in Rumbek, whose family would otherwise have struggled to keep her in school.  A nice little parting gift at the end of our short stay in South Sudan.

So what happens now?  Well, we are now just waiting for our visas to be issued and we will be off on our next VSO adventure.  All very exciting.  More news as we get it, but rest assured, the blog will continue.  It won’t have long-horned cows or seven foot tall Dinkas or scarred foreheads or tukuls or storks, but I am sure I’ll find something interesting to write about.  Birds of paradise, perhaps.



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