Friday, 28 December 2012

23rd December – Ed Damer Archaeological Museum

On my way between the Ed Damer schools and home I pass an archaeology museum, part of the local university archaeology department, which I have wanted to visit, but never seen open. 

Today I arrived at my girls’ school in Ed Damer to find that they were taking exams and there would be no English lessons.  I decided to go back home.  On my way home, as I passed by the museum, I saw a man come out of the gate to the archaeology department.  I seized my chance and asked with gestures if I could visit the museum.  He beckoned me inside to an office where I sat and waited.  After a while a woman who spoke some English came and explained that the museum was being cleaned but would be open very soon.  We talked about Sudanese archaeological sites for a while.  Then we went into the museum, where she acted as guide.  Like most museums in Khartoum, there is no entrance fee.
Neolithic bowl
The museum is small, consisting of two rooms, although apparently there are plans for a larger museum.  The museum turned out to be very well organised by chronological age from the Neolithic to early Christian.  Prehistory in Sudan is a great deal earlier than in Europe.  One only has to remember that Stonehenge (built in Britain’s Neolithic/early Bronze ages) was contemporary with Ancient Egypt to get an idea of this.  The museum contains artifacts from the whole of Sudan rather than the local area. 

Napatan incense burner
Pots from the Egyptian New Kingdom era

I was told that the main visitors to the museum are school groups and tourists.  Tourists?  What tourists?  I think that, like statements I hear about passenger trains and postal services, this is a figment of a wished-for Sudan, rather than the reality.  This is a great shame as there is so much to see, whether it is camel markets, the River Nile in its unspoilt loveliness, deserts, and of course, the wonderful archaeological sites.  Not to mention meeting the people themselves, who are the soul of hospitality.
Christian tomb inscription (a very moving prayer which is given in translation below).

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

11th December – music making in Atbora

I have always played music and knew that it was the thing I would miss most in Sudan if I didn’t bring an instrument with me.  A friend in the UK kindly lent me an instrument ‘that didn’t matter’ in case of problems with climate, air cargo damage or any other problems in Sudan.  I brought some solo viola music with me because I thought it unlikely that I would find anyone to play with.  However, I also had a small hope that I might find people who could teach me Sudanese music.  Up until three weeks ago, this seemed to be a wish too far.  Then Jonathan, a fellow volunteer based in Atbara, told me about a local band he has joined.  Jonathan is a keen amateur jazz player.

Sudanese music is pentatonic-based and has an Arabic flavour, although it is definitely its own genre.  There is usually a solo singer, male or female.  The songs (like many folk songs around the world) are generally about unhappy love.  Sudanese bands tend to consist of an assortment of western instruments, usually rather battered and broken looking.  In the Atbara band there are saxophones, electric keyboards, electric guitars, accordions, violins, a flute, clarinet and several drums.  Now they have a viola too.  The band uses the sol fa system which is vaguely familiar for me, but worse for Jonathan who hasn’t experienced it before as it isn’t used in the US.
Only a few members of the band speak any English at all, but music is the most international language of all, so we get on fine without a common spoken language.  The players are local people including rickshaw drivers, a bus driver and a tea lady.  We have two singers, both excellent.  I frequently want to stop just to listen to them.  The male singer is a very dignified looking elderly man who wears prayer cap and jelabia (traditional white tunic).  He looks so incongruous in the middle of the band, who are mainly quite young.  The female singer is a young woman. 

We play by ear on the whole although the band leader (Ali) teaches them to use standard notation.  Playing by ear is easy for the rest of the band, who have grown up listening to Sudanese folk music, but very difficult for me as the music is still very foreign to me.  Sometimes Ali asks me to play something European for the band to improvise an accompaniment to.  Trial and error has shown me that British folk music works best.  The most successful so far has been the Foggy Foggy Dew.  They are all very good at improvising.
The band meets three times a week, although I am only able to attend twice a week.  Yesterday evening I arrived early and there were only a few other players there.  We started to play.  Then the band leader arrived.  He told me that we were going somewhere else ‘to a dance’.  We all packed up and got into Mohammed (a saxophonist)’s bus.  Some of the band sang and played the drums on our way.  When we arrived, we found a stage and many seats for an audience.  It turned out that the ‘dance’ was in fact a wedding celebration.  We were shown to a room where we sat and watched Tom and Jerry on TV for a while.  Then we went on stage. 

To my horror as a complete Sudanese-music-novice, everyone had a microphone right beside their instrument so there was no chance of sinking into anonymity when things got difficult.  I was very worried that I would let the band down badly.  In fact I managed to keep reasonably well in with the band and made no glaring mistakes, although plenty of minor ‘coverable’ ones. 
As I have seen on previous similar occasions when I was in the audience, the men sat on one side of the stage, the women on the other.  The men got up and came dancing towards our singer and stood swaying and clicking their fingers at him as he sang.  Later the women did the same. Towards the end, both men and women were on the floor together.  They seemed very happy with the band’s performance.

Afterwards, Mohammed gave me a bus ride all the way to my front door in Ed Damer.  He lives locally to me, so he does this regularly after rehearsals too.  It was particularly welcome on this occasion as it was so late, I was exhausted and I had an early start for work in the morning.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

5th December – possible breakthrough in a hard case

My experience so far in both my boys schools is that the boys are very bored by the uninspiring curriculum.  The teachers are very strict and make use of the rod even for minor offences such as lack of homework.  In both my schools and Kate’s, the boys schools employ ex-soldiers whose specific role is to inflict physical punishment – hardly a positive inducement to study. 

I think the negativity of the school approach is responsible for the low standards and dislike of studying.  This is coupled with the lack of interesting resources and large classes.  It is common for the boys to be unable to put two words together after six years of learning English. 
Last week was my first week in front of a class in one of these schools and it was very difficult, particularly with the oldest boys.  In the final year class a tall boy (really a young man) sitting at the back simply refused to participate in my group activity.  He said, ‘Arabic not English’, and that was that!  I said, ‘You can like Arabic AND English too,’ but to no avail.  Imagine my surprise yesterday when during the breakfast break he and a group of his friends came up to me.  He pointed at me and said, ‘Are you crazy?’  I said, ‘Yes!’  He was clearly taken by surprise by my answer.  He then pointed at my slightly hairy chin and said, ‘Ugly’.  Then he pointed at his new beard and said, ‘Beautiful’ and pointed at me and said, ‘Ugly’ again.  I was laughing by this stage.  I pointed at him and said ‘Handsome for men, beautiful for women.’  The ice was completely broken and we shook hands. 

I think he must have spent the entire week working out rude things to say to me in English.  Yes, he was doing his best to be insulting, but at least he had spent that time and effort.  I was delighted.  I think it was also great that his friends were listening.  Hopefully they will all relax and start to enjoy learning English now, which is what I am trying to achieve.  This has been my greatest success so far and I feel like celebrating.