A Language Barrier to Peace

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."