Language is a political issue in Sudan's Nuba Mountains region

by Anthony Morland
KUDI, Sudan
Nov 29 (AFP)

In a thatched-roof classroom with walls of mud and brick in a rebel-held area of Sudan's Nuba Mountains region, a young Ugandan teacher helps 71 children with simple English words such as "bat", "cat," and "hat."

"They are too eager to learn," enthuses the teacher, Jib James, 25, during a break, explaining that his charges, aged from five to 10, whose lingua franca is Arabic, have already mastered the basics of the English alphabet since starting clases a few weeks ago.

"When the people heard we were teaching English, they sent so many" to learn, he added.

More than 560 pupils are enrolled at various levels at Kudi primary school and like all schools in rebel-controlled areas of the central Nuba Mountains region, the language of instruction has, since a local government decision in 2001, switched from Arabic to English.

For the region's administration, which joined the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army rebellion against the hardline Islamist regime in Khartoum after civil war flared up again in 1983, the move was political.

"Education in Sudan (was traditionally) just based on the Arabisation and Islamisation of the people of Nuba Mountains" by the government, the region's Director of Education, Simon Kalo, told a small group of journalists visiting the region.

When he was a student himself, explained Kalo, he had been forced to replace his first name with the more Islamic Ismael.

"If you did not change your name or religion, they stopped your school advancement," he said.

This is just one of a long litany of woes suffered by the people of the Nuba Mountains, an area roughly the size of Austria.

During the war, the region was attacked from the air and the ground, homes and property were burned and looted, its people repeatedly forced to flee their villages, often to closed camps. Many others were killed and raped and humanitarian relief was kept out for years, prompting several famines.

"Schools were closed since the war broke out and now people are rushing to learn. Not just children, but adults too," explained Kalo.

But there are not enough local teachers to meet the demand released following a regional ceasefire reached in January 2002.

So dozens of Ugandans and Kenyans have been brought in to fill the gap and to train a new generation of local teachers keen to participate in the linguistic revolution.

"We don't want Arabic anymore. It's the mother tongue for Arabs, not us," Daniel Kukumande, a 26-year-old prospective teacher whose house was torched three times during the war, told AFP during a preliminary training course set up with the help of UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Teaching English is "okay because it is spoken by the whole world. You can communicate with everybody," he added.

Of the 60 people studying with Kukumande hoping to become teachers, only about half have themselves progressed beyond a primary level education, and in some informal "bush schools" in the Nuba Mountains, pupils have reached the same level as their teachers.

Arabic is now taught as a second language in the region, where civics is also on the syllabus.

Students in such a class at the school in Kudi are learning about the "gross misinterpretation about the reality of Sudan" often portrayed in the media: that the north belongs to Muslim Arabs and the south to Christian Africans.

When the teacher, who is using an SPLA textbook as his source, was asked whether such issues might be too political for primary level classroom, he retorted: "Of course it's political, that's why they call it civics."