Teaching English in Sudan

We were making our way back from the Trocaire Office to the centre of Khartoum when a woman came running across the street to greet us. Her name was Karak Mayik Nyoy and she had a proposition: would we like to teach English while we were in Khartoum?

This enterprising young woman of Southern Sudan fled the war in the Nuba Mountains when she was a teenager and lives today in a camp on the edge of Khartoum. She worked her way through university by working as a literacy teacher and since graduating Karak has been training hundreds of women in legal rights, business management, health and leadership. In 2004, she was awarded the Van Heuven Goedhard Prize for her work and she donated the $50,000 prize to peace-building between the Nuba and Denka tribes of her homeland. Karak is also the executive director of FACT (Friendship Agency for Community Training). FACT was originally part-funded by Trocaire and has just become a formally recognised NGO. Karak is the epitome of empowerment, in my mind, and is an inspiration to Sudanese women struggling to survive the harsh realities of life here.

Karak has set up three centres in the suburbs of Khartoum near the IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps. Between the three centres, her volunteers reach up to three hundred beneficiaries every day. We agreed to teach her own volunteers at the head office as well as women displaced by the conflict in Darfur at the Mayo II Centre, thirty five minutes from the centre of Khartoum. The IDP camp at Mayo is said to house between 100,000 and 200,000 people and mud brick dwellings stretch as far as the eye can see.

The following day we arrived at the head office to be greeted by a dozen eager faces ready to learn. I was nervous. Yes, I do have teaching experience but I’ve never taught English and I’ve never had to deal with such a language barrier. We were shown to the classroom, a humble affair of mud and straw with a blackboard, chalk and chairs. The volunteers already had a certain level of English and we soon settled into the lesson. We covered verbs and possessive pronouns and structuring sentences, conducting question and answer sessions. Curious children from the neighbourhood came to join the lesson and surprised us all with their firm grasp of the English language. We wrapped up and had lunch before taking a rickshaw to the second centre to meet the women of Darfur.

The second classroom was as basic as the first. We were early and waited for the women to arrive. We greeted them in English and they replied in Arabic, “Salaam Aleikum”. With the assistance of Anwar Bashir Mohammad, coordinator and volunteer, We taught basic greetings and useful words and phrases to the women. They were interested and eager to participate and the interaction between us all was quite something. We have so little Arabic and they have so little English and still I feel that we were able to cross language and cultural divides. The women were greatly amused by my attempts to learn Arabic colours and complimented my pronunciation. We thoroughly enjoyed the experience and agreed to return the following day. Sadly, this was not possible as the rains arrived during the night and it was no longer feasible for us to teach.

Just as in Wad El-Bashir IDP camp a week ago, I found myself imagining the hardship these women endured at home in Darfur and I thought about the difficulties they encountered as IDPs in Khartoum. IDPs often lack self-sufficiency, are without land and livestock and must cope with the rains in the summer and the cold of winter. They must also worry about the threat of camp demolitions and forced relocation. A few weeks ago, at least 30 people were killed in clashes over forced relocation at the Soba Eradi camp here in Khartoum. Karak told us that conditions in these camps are often such that IDPs will voluntarily return home, war or no war, landmines or no landmines. “They just can’t stand it anymore,” she said.

– Written by Niamh O Riordan and published in The Imokilly People

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