Home | News    Saturday 13 December 2003

A Language Barrier to Peace


Central Sudan City Eschews Arabic for English in Schools

By Emily Wax , The Washington Post

KUDI, Sudan, Dec 13, 2003 — At dawn, the children began their hike down the bushy hills of the Nuba Mountains. Some "went footing," as they call it here, for 40 minutes, others for a good two hours. But all made the journey because they wanted to get to school. Inside one of the dark mud huts, they squatted on straw stools and were greeted with the word "Ethnicity," written on the blackboard.

What was surprising was not the political nature of the lesson, which used a textbook written by the country’s main rebel group. It was the language of instruction: English.

As the Sudan’s Arabic-speaking northerners and black African southerners come close to signing a peace accord after a long-running civil war, what language to speak in the center of the country is one of the obstacles to a deal.

The people of Nuba, through centuries of slave trading and forced migration, speak Arabic, the official language of Sudan. But they say they are closer ethnically and culturally to the south, where English became commonly used when the region was under British control. Sudan became independent in 1956.

So the community voted two years ago to make English the lingua franca for the more than 25,000 students in areas of the Nuba Mountains held by southern rebels, a golden, sun-swept and fertile region in central Sudan.

"Is it risky? No. In Nuba, Sudan, you know that we are Africans, not Arabs. This will be the new Sudan, and we will decide our fate," said Simon Kalo, regional director of education for schools in the Nuba Mountains. "All of the Nuba people really wanted this shift."

Few other areas of Sudan show as clearly how the largest country in Africa sits uneasily between black sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa’s largely Arab and Muslim populations. Civil war has been a near constant since independence. The current round began in 1983 when then President Jaafar Nimeri decided to end the south’s autonomous status and enforce Islamic law.

An interim agreement signed in July 2002 in Machakos, Kenya, outlines a plan for Sudan in which the south would vote for unity with the north or independence after a six-year period under a transition government.

Talks were held last weekend in the Kenyan resort town of Naivasha between John Garang, head of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and Ali Osman Taha, Sudan’s vice president. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who visited in October to reinforce U.S. desire for an agreement, called these next few weeks "a moment of opportunity that must not be lost." He called on the warring parties to conclude a deal by the end of December.

But the last phase of negotiations contains some of the war’s most heated issues, including how to share the country’ vast oil reserves, which are mostly in the south but are under the control of the north. Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese in south and central regions have been moved off the land since 1999 in a government campaign to obtain oil, according to local officials and a recent 754-page report by Human Rights Watch.

Another obstacle is the status of three areas in the center of the country — the Nuba Mountains, a region called Blue Nile just east of the Nuba Mountains, and Abyei, west of Nuba. People in the contested regions want to vote on their future status. Under British rule they were considered administratively part of the north, and the government in Khartoum does not want to set a precedent for self-determination in the territory it controls.

The Nuba Mountains are divided between a rebel-held side with a population estimated at 400,000 and a government side with a population of more than 1 million. Human rights groups say that the government prevents people from leaving its territory.

"We want peace. But don’t trust these people," said Abulaziz Adam Alhilu, the governor of the rebel-held part of Nuba, referring to the government in Khartoum. Posters on the wall of his office tallied the number of displaced — 30,000 — in his region of central Sudan by construction of an oil pipeline.

From the straw-roofed tea and brew houses to the mud-walled classrooms, Nuba’s citizens said they see switching to English as the first step in defining their new role in Sudan as separate from the north.

"Please, teacher?" called Sanwell Aliadalian, 16, an enthusiastic student who wore a maroon suit vest over a torn T-shirt. "The words, I want to know what they mean."

"I wake up too early and go to bed too late. I just keep reading my English letters," boasted Amna Ismail, 18, looking down at her cracked bare feet. She, like Sanwell, had recently journeyed home from Khartoum, where they fled a decade ago to escape the fighting.

They survived the war, but they were forced to convert to Islam in one of the many camps run by the government for southern refugees. In the camps, Ismail was teased as an abed — an Arabic word that can mean black or slave.

"Myself, I love learning English too much," she said as she played with a loose thread from a faded green dress. "It hurts to speak Arabic. It’s not my tongue."

"It’s perfectly understandable that the change to English would happen at this moment in their history," said Alex de Waal, director of Justice Africa and author of the book, "Facing Genocide: The Nuba of Sudan."

De Waal said the people of Nuba were victims of a program that "can only be described as systematic ethnic cleansing. The whole experience of jihad and particularly of mass relocation affected people in a profoundly negative way and is seared into the consciousness."

An estimated 20 percent of the population in Nuba are Muslims. But they oppose the strict form of Islam that Sudan’s government pushed during the 1990s.

Imam Adam Atrun said the north bombed his mosque in Kauda, a central town in the Nuba Mountains. His claims have been documented by human rights groups. "But we are black. So the north, they can oppress us," he said, adding his children will learn English for speaking and Arabic for praying. "The North, they are not good Muslims. So now I want my children to learn English."

A cease-fire in the Nuba Mountains has held since January 2002, allowing health and food aid to arrive. But many said they were willing to return to fighting if they did not get a chance to vote on whether to join the north or the south.

At a military training camp in the central town of Chowery, 30 fresh recruits for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) jogged in a line across the sweeping valley to join 300 other soldiers. "Nuba, SPLA. Sudan is ours," they sang.

"Our fighters are strong like mountains," shouted the scores of sweaty men and women as they rolled, jumped and practiced marching, wooden sticks in their hands as practice weapons, flip-flops covering their worn feet. "We are lions ready to fight and defend."

Stones laid out on the grassy entrance of the camp spelled out SPLA in Arabic and English.

"We are here to defend our people," said Ashia Mahmoud, 24, who had just returned from a Khartoum peace camp and joined the SPLA after one day of rest. "We want a chance to vote, we want to speak English. Otherwise we can go right back to war. We have been fighting so long already."

But even without a vote, the switch to English is making a powerful political statement. A print shop, the first ever in Nuba, is churning out photocopies of books for science and civics in English. UNICEF is handing out school supplies and funding a school to help teachers get up to speed in English.

There are 60 teachers attending the school. All are enthusiastic. But few know any English. So English-speaking teachers from Kenya and Uganda are sent here to teach reading, health, math and civics.

"I feel like a missionary, teaching English," said Redento Laroko, a retired Ugandan headmaster who came to help educate a new generation of Nuba teachers. "But in every way, I think it’s good. It’s what people want so much."

Comments on the Sudan Tribune website must abide by the following rules. Contravention of these rules will lead to the user losing their Sudan Tribune account with immediate effect.

- No inciting violence
- No inappropriate or offensive language
- No racism, tribalism or sectarianism
- No inappropriate or derogatory remarks
- No deviation from the topic of the article
- No advertising, spamming or links
- No incomprehensible comments

Due to the unprecedented amount of racist and offensive language on the site, Sudan Tribune tries to vet all comments on the site.

There is now also a limit of 400 words per comment. If you want to express yourself in more detail than this allows, please e-mail your comment as an article to comment@sudantribune.com

Kind regards,

The Sudan Tribune editorial team.

Comment on this article

The following ads are provided by Google. SudanTribune has no authority on it.

Sudan Tribune

Promote your Page too

Latest Comments & Analysis

Pragmatic patriarchy of Sudan over South Sudan 2018-09-22 09:28:17 James Okuk, PhD “We honour the human capacity to manage our collective lives with peace and even, at times, dignity” – Barbour & Wright The political process of Sudan and South Sudan has (...)

Salient features of South Sudan latest peace deal 2018-09-21 05:36:06 By Roger Alfred Yoron Modi Last week, the government of South Sudan under President Salva Kiir, various armed and unarmed opposition groups and other parties, including the SPLM/A-IO led by Dr (...)

Open letter to South Sudan Civil Aviation Authority 2018-09-19 04:05:10 By Telar Ring Deng On the cold morning of 9th September 2018, we were all in utter shock and bewilderment at the very tragic accident that occurred in Eastern Lakes State when a Plane crashed (...)


Latest Press Releases

Unity State community in Kenya supports Khartoum peace agreement 2018-08-17 08:33:21 PRESS STATMENT 14th Aug, 2018 Re: We shall Rally behind Khartoum Peace Agreement The Unity State Community Association in Kenya was established in 2010 to organize and mobilize the people of (...)

The Suspension of Hurriyat Online Newspaper 2018-04-29 07:04:37 Sudan Democracy First Group 28 April 2018 The Sudanese civil and political circles and those concerned with Sudan were shocked by the news that the management of Hurriyat online newspaper has (...)

Petition on the Deteriorating Human Rights and Humanitarian Situation in Sudan 2018-04-22 10:01:20 UN Secretary-General, New York African Union Commission, Addis Ababa UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva Petition on the Deteriorating Human Rights and Humanitarian Situation in Sudan (...)


Copyright © 2003-2018 SudanTribune - All rights reserved.