14 MARCH 1958, Page 9

War of Nerves


ENJOYED teaching Sudanese boys, and it was

with considerable regret that I presented my letter of resignation after having served only eight Months of my three-year contract. The boys had gone on strike for the second time that month. Nerves in the staff-room were by now strained to breaking-point, while outside in the tropical sun the procession of students marched round and round the school shouting slogans about any- thing from religion and politics to food.

Such a situation is made more pitiful when one sees the care and the expense which the country lavishes on its education. The machinery We left them is potentially excellent. A govern- ment-controlled public-school system runs five secondary boarding schools of 560 boys each, from thirteen to eighteen years of age. The build- ings are modern, the playing fields extensive, the teaching facilities quite enviable and the salaries --by Burnham standards—princely. Englishmen and women, for there is one girls' school, teach either English, history or science, and there may be anything from two to ten of them in one school. No one could call the hours of work strenuous, as classes are from 7.15 to 1.30, and each teacher has between eighteen and twenty- four forty-minute periods per week.

The conditions appear most favourable, added to which the Englishman, respected as he still is, can sometimes make himself so indispensable to his headmaster that he can in fact wield con- siderable authority in the running of the school. Then, finally, there is the tremendous satisfac- tion derived from teaching these young African children, from watching them grasp with relative ease the complexities of spoken and written English, from seeing them laugh over Dickens and Animal Farm and from helping them probe into those little philosophies of life which writers are always stating and which the youttfful Arab Mind loves to savour and contemplate.

Against the advice of my friends, I sent in my letter of resignation. The strike was in its fourth day and there was a complete deadlock between the Ministry of Education, which was unable to take any stern measures, and the boys, who were now packing their books ready to take home. As usual, the root of the matter was politics, but mixed with that was the fear of approaching end- of-year examinations. The school was dead, and the boys wandered round aimlessly and thoroughly bored or stood in small groups while the braver and more fanatic rebels laughed and jeered in the discussions they were constantly having. Many of the boys did not want to go on strike at all, but their fear of the all-powerful ring- leaders forced them into it.

All of us knew the set-up. It is one of the first things a teacher becomes conscious of out there —the tiny machine of sabotage concealed within the school, a fraction of the monster plan. The wreckers know that their first step is to bring about the instability of all power-bodies, govern- ments and 'exploiters'; the second is to make them fall. Destruction comes easily to the Arabs; creation is not the work of Islam. The Umma Government, relatively pro-West, had just an- nounced a prolongation of Parliament, where- upon the forces of havoc were quick to go to work. They brought secondary education to a standstill within twenty-four hours.

Two months earlier a young 'trainee' who had been to a clandestine meeting in the town had defected and told us of another conspiracy. When the headmaster goes to Khartoum on Saturday, he said, there's going to be a strike.

'What about?' we asked.

'The food.'

'Who's organising it?'

'The committee.'

We knew who they were—a dozen of the worst boys in the school. We also knew the food to be better than anything 90 per cent. of them ever got at home.

'Who's putting you up to it?' we asked.

'A man in the town.'

No names, but we knew he was a railway worker, educated, and a member of a prominent social club in the town. We called the committee, told them what we knew and promised them one-way tickets home if anything occurred. It didn't, for we had succeeded in deflating them before they had had the chance to set themselves up as the champions of freedom and heroes of the school.

It was always the same story—a blind passion for destructive politics overlaid with a handful of pseudo-creative catch-phrases. These wormed their way into my weekly essays with arid monotony : 'imperialistic dictatorship and ex- ploitation,' equal distribution of labour and wages,' 'peaceful co-existence' and even 'Britain and USA are known the world widely [sic] for betraying and colonising.' Once I sent a pupil out of class for having sug- gested in writing that as 80 per cent. of the British had left the Sudan in 1954 it would now be a good thing if the remaining 20 per cent, followed suit, including myself. A few days earlier, when he had seen me reading The Times in the staff- room, he had approached and said with a malicious smile, 'You don't believe The Times, do you, sir?' The same boy, the term before, had struck a Sudanese teacher and had been dis- missed. Being a central force of anarchy in the school he was quick to take action, and next morning not a single boy would come into class. It was then that the headmaster lost his first and most decisive battle : he readmitted the offender and school went on as before. Only one thing was different : the tail was now strong enough to wag the dog. 'My wish is to be a father to my boys,' the headmaster had once told me. His desire to be popular and well loved had put us at the mercy of his irresponsible children.

Strikes, the Director of Education told me when I went to say goodbye to him in Khartoum, probably got into their stride a few years ago when the Minister of Education was defeated in Parliament. He was supporting the action of his strongest headmaster, whose memory is still cherished, who had dismissed about one hundred boys for, I believe, selling school books. Under terrific pressure in Parliament the Minister was forced to reconsider his decision and all but a very few of the boys were allowed back. What happened to those who were expelled finally and to the small number to whom it has happened since? They were offered free education in Cairo by the Egyptian Government. The powers of darkness take such opportunities with speed and relish.

The English teachers are slowly but surely drifting away. A recent letter from a friend still there tells of ten who will leave in 1958. The cost of living has risen and a teacher was better off five years ago on £800 than he is today on £1,500. The housing situation for government servants has become very bad; all Ministries and Depart- ments have swollen, partly through necessary expansion and partly through the excessive num- ber of university and secondary-school graduates who demand government jobs and have them invented. At the same time, the amount of red tape to be unwound and the number of signatures to be collected each time the meanest request is made increase month by month.

I was reluctant, but determined, to leave. I felt it to be the admission of overwhelming defeat —a humiliating collapse. Many of my friends told me not to take it so seriously. 'You get £4 a day anyway,' they said, 'and if the boys strike you get it for doing nothing.'

Faced by a dire shortage of graduate teachers, and now having to import them from the East, education in the Sudan has reached the cross- roads. If the teaching no longer appeals to the few remaining Englishmen, the salaries still retain their attraction. And now that the suggestion has been made to get teachers from Russia, in the same way they were offered the cotton after the West had refused it, the future of this part of Africa appears as interesting as that of the entire Middle East.