Former Head of Modern Foreign Languages Mr Robert Nicholls returned to Brooke Weston to speak about his voluntary work in Africa. Mr Nicholls gave a presentation to students in both assemblies about the daily life, culture and education system in South Sudan, which is the world’s newest country as it gained independence just two years ago. Mr Nicholls and his wife, Linda, are halfway through a two-year placement with VSO. They work as advisers to the Ministry of Education and conditions in the developing country are a stark contrast to UK schools.
There are scant resources, very few trained teachers and most of the classrooms are open spaces with just trees for shelter. Classes can number up to 120 students and each has to take along their own chair if they want to sit down. Torrential rain means that school often has to be cancelled until flooding subsides.
Mr and Mrs Nicholls live and work among the Dinka tribe. Cows are central to the economic system where wives are bought in exchange for livestock. Tribal customs, such as scarification with a razor blade and ritual removal of teeth with a spear, are commonplace, as is gun ownership. Primary students may be aged in their mid 20s as they missed out on education because of the raging civil war.
Mr Nicholls said: ‘We have seen fighting because people have lived for the last 50 years or so in a state of war and with little education. It is a pastoral society that revolves around cows. Young men are brought up to be warrior herders which means being hard is part of your persona. You have got to be tough. They become really hard men and have hard faces. We would put our hands out to shake and their faces would crack into the most amazing smiles and they are so friendly. Everybody that we have dealt with has been delightful.
‘It is a challenging place to get used to because of the lack of electricity and extreme heat. Temperatures over 40 are not unusual. The work is unbelievably varied and difficult to define because you never know what the need will be. We are supposed to be capacity building, which is very general because it means helping people to improve their skills in whatever way that we think. Linda has done things like helping the minister with strategic planning, we have both been doing training on gender issues because the position of women is a cause for concern. When the value of girls and women is measured in cows it is very difficult to champion women’s rights.
‘The point about training is you never know where the benefit comes. It may be two years later, it may be something we discussed in a gender seminar that someone a few years later thinks “actually there is an alternative way of looking at this”. People don’t change their attitudes and opinions straight away. We are going to be training head teachers because some of the head teachers haven’t completed their secondary education. Lots of people haven’t finished primary. You are asking a teacher to run a school and he has had no training. Their salaries are so minimal that they have got to be doing something else, like running a business on the side, to feed a family.
'All our work next year will be teaching on things like the child-friendly school. What they have really succeeded in doing over the past few years is getting kids into school. Enrolment is really high, but after the first and second years it dips enormously. Part of the reason is that girls get taken for brides. You are there to increase the size of the Dinka tribe, you are there to have babies, you are not there to have a career. It is gradually changing. It is like the scarring. That is gradually dying out but it is still very common.
‘The highlight of the last year has probably been the seminar that we did on gender issues because that really started to cause people to re-think. What people don’t know is there are laws in South Sudan against beating children for example, and yet corporal punishment in schools is normal because those laws have not filtered down. We printed out the law and gave it to the county directors and they read that if you beat a child you can go to jail. They had never seen it before. Gradually word will get through and, if you combine that with the whole idea that children run away from school in the fourth, fifth and sixth years, part of the reason is that schools are not friendly places to be.’
‘The UK government sent over a consignment of 10 million books. I was part of getting those books in, establishing a school and training people on how to use them. For many children it was the first time they had ever held a book and, if they had held a book before, it was the first time they had one that was written by someone from South Sudan. They want people to have a decent standard of living in South Sudan and where do you start developing a country? You start with education.’