A British Teacher in Newly Independent Sudan

Mr. G. R. Griffith

It was 1961, I was 29, married with two small daughters under two. I was teaching Geography in a secondary school in UK. I had had experience of Africa doing my national service and I felt the need for change. I started applying for posts overseas. Amongst my applications was one to Sudan and I was called for interview at the Sudan Embassy in London. I have no great memory of the interview but at the end I was told that they would let me know whether I had been successful, and sent me off for a medical examination at an address in Harley Street. The medical was held in most palatial premises; I was ushered into a commodious waiting room, equipped with a silk dressing gown and then shown into the surgery of an imposing elderly doctor.
After the medical he said, “Well, my boy, how do you feel about going to Sudan?”
“They haven’t accepted me yet,” I said.
He chuckled and said, “My boy, if they are paying my fees, they have accepted you.”
He was right and a few weeks later I took a Sudan Airways flight to Khartoum. No one met me at the airport so I took myself to the Grand Hotel and booked in. The Grand Hotel was grand in those days, wide corridors, verandas overlooking the Nile and, though it now seems hard to believe, the room and all meals cost two pounds and fifty piasters a day. The next day I had a long walk along the Nile to the Ministry of Education where I was told that I would be posted to Juba Commercial School in the south of the Sudan. By the time I returned the following day the Naib of Khor Taqqat had been in to the Ministry, exerted influence, and instead I was to go to Khor Taqqat.
The train journey to El Obeid was scheduled to take 16 hours. I doubt that this was ever achieved. It took me two days to travel to El Obeid, a long journey but the record for journeys to the school was held by Rod Usher, who arriving two years later, took a week to get from Khartoum to El Obeid. The facilities in sleeper class were most comfortable. What detracted from the comfort was the fact that one either had the windows open and received a cool breeze and was covered in dust, or kept the widows closed and sweated. The dining car served bland traditional English food. It suited me but as I was the only non-Sudanese in the dining car, I was the only one suited.
Khor Taqqat was the third of the major secondary schools that had been set up by the British. Each was located near an important centre of population but each was built a considerable distance from the centre of population to deter the students from engaging in political activities. Wadi Seidna was about eight miles outside Omdurman; Hantoub was the other side of the river from Wad Medani; and Khor Taqqat was about eight miles outside El Obeid. After the intermediate school s’ examinations were finalised, the top 600 boys from the whole of the Sudan were sent to these three schools: the boy who was first went to Wadi Seidna, the second to Hantoub, the third to Khor Taqqat, the fourth to Wadi Seidna and so on till all 600 were placed. This meant that the students in these three schools were the cream of the cream: all were highly intelligent. I subsequently taught in a British university but never after I left Khor Taqqat did I teach such intelligent pupils. In addition, almost all were hard working. They had to be. They had been taught English in intermediate school, but in secondary school all subjects apart from Religion, Arabic and History were taught through the medium of English. It could be argued, and doubtless was, that it was not right that the language of instruction should be a foreign language, but it certainly resulted in the level of English of educated Sudanese at that period being exceptionally high. Certainly when a few years later the language of instruction in secondary schools switched to Arabic, there was an immediate drop in the standard of English.
I was a Geography teacher but I found that in addition to teaching Geography, I was to teach English Language and English Literature. In one way, teaching in Khor Taqqat was easy: teaching bright, hard-working pupils is easy. But there were difficulties. English Literature did not present me with any problems. The set books were a Shakespeare play (I think it was “Romeo and Juliet” in my first year), a novel (I think it was “Youth & Gaspar Ruiz” by Joseph Conrad) and another modern play (I seem to remember “An Enemy of the People” by Ibsen). These would be challenging texts for first language speakers but they were understood and appreciated by my Sudanese pupils. I remember the odd tear when reading certain parts of “Romeo and Juliet” – Sudanese men present an outward macho image but can be quite sentimental. My problems came with English Language and Geography. I was not a trained teacher of English as a second language. I knew correct English but I did not know why what was correct was correct. In addition formal grammar figured in the syllabus for School Certificate. However, there were text books and I had to undertake a speedy and steep learning curve with grammar in that first year. The biggest problem was the Geography: physical geography was fine; climatology was OK; natural regions of the world gave no problem; I had always been good at map reading. But the regional geography of the Sudan was another matter altogether. I knew that Sudan was the biggest country in Africa; I knew it was wet in the south and dry in the north; I knew that the Nile ran through the length of the country; I didn’t know much else. I asked for a text book. No text book. Panic! I found a weighty volume called “Agriculture in the Sudan” that had been published about ten years before and managed to prepare some lessons from this. Then I heard that the professor of Geography at Khartoum University was publishing a book on the geography of the Sudan. I air-mailed off to UK for a copy. No reply. I air-mailed again and thus received two copies. I was saved. Actually I only taught Geography for the first two years. For the remaining eight years I was in Sudan I just taught English.
Teaching in Sudan was very different from UK. In UK I was lucky if I had three or four free periods a week; in Sudan I had twenty. When not teaching in Britain, the only facilities were in a crowded communal staff room; in Sudan I had my own desk in a roomy office. The school day in Britain was nine to four; in Sudan work started at 7.30 then there was an hour break for breakfast that I found to my surprise was a social meal, then school finished at 1.30. Family responsibilities were viewed differently in British and Sudanese schools. When my younger daughter was born at home in Britain, there were no family members nearby and I had to stay at home to take care of my 13 month old elder daughter while my wife was giving birth. The school stopped me a day’s pay for my absence. Fast forward nine months: my family was arriving by sea at Port Sudan. The headmaster insisted that I went to meet them to accompany them back to the school. This took 14 days: no pay was stopped. What a difference. In addition to the actual teaching at Khor Taqqat, there were boarding house duties and it was expected that staff should support whatever games were going on in the afternoons and help with prep in the evenings. It was a good life. I was reasonably well paid; the teaching was stimulating; I had a pleasant house on the school campus; I had time to spend with my young family; I enjoyed the company of the boys I was teaching; looking back, I think it was probably the happiest time of my life.
There was a cadet corps at the school. This was enjoyed by a few but was unpopular with the majority, as was the military government that existed in Sudan at the time. Secondary students had been a political force when the British had been in Sudan. They continued to be a political force. There were differing political beliefs; the Muslim brothers and the communists were at opposite ends of the political spectrum but most groups came together to show their opposition to the government by going on strike. Strikes happened about once a year and followed a predictable pattern. The students would demonstrate in the town and the school, and would then be sent home. After a few weeks, angry fathers would bring their recalcitrant sons back to school. The leaders of the strike would be expelled. The remainder of the students would be beaten by the army sergeants of the school cadet corps. Beating 800 boys was a long job and the sound of beating, which resembled carpets being hung on a line and thumped with a stick, would last all day. I was on occasion asked by my students if I would beat them instead of the army sergeants. I don’t think that this was because they thought I would beat them more gently, it was that they found being beaten by the sergeants to be degrading. I never found myself able to accede to their requests even if the school would have allowed it, which I doubt. I can remember discussing an imminent strike with one or two of the student leaders. They knew the pattern of strikes; they knew that as leaders they would be expelled; they knew that they would probably never get to university as a result. Their argument was that they thought what they were about to do was the correct thing and that they could not live with their consciences if they did not carry it through. I admired their stance but I thought (and think) they were wrong.
In my first year at Khor Taqqat I taught Geography, English Language and English Literature to Third Ghezali. In my second year they became Fourth Ghandi and again I taught them the same three subjects. In addition I was their Abu Fussell. As the name suggests this is a more important role than the equivalent British form master. In addition to teaching them I supported them in the various sports competitions. Each year they invited me and my family to the form picnic, which involved a lorry, a live sheep soon to die, a fire, shady trees and usually custard. They were entertained in my house; they knew my children. At the end of my second year I said goodbye to thirty five boys wearing the school uniform of khaki shorts and white shirts. Of the thirty five, twenty obtained places at Khartoum University – a high proportion. At the end of my third year when I got off the train at Khartoum to go on annual leave, I was met by twenty tall young men in snowy white jellabias and ammamahs who whisked me off to a tea party at the university. I couldn’t have been happier.

Decorating Mr. G. R. Griffith

* Mr. G.R. Griffith, a British citizen, came to Khortaggat Secondary School near Al Obeid in 1961 to teach English and Geography. He was a successful teacher and highly admired and respected by his students and the staff. His son “Rees” was born in Khortaggat. He loved the house in the school campus where he was born and the garden where he used to play as a child. Upon the family’s return to the U.K, ten years later, Rees died at the age of 18, but he had asked his father to see to it that his remains be buried in the house garden of his childhood. After the cremation of his son’s body Mr. Griffith put the ashes in a plastic bag and mailed it to the headmaster of Khortaggat school. The headmaster who told me the story in the 1990s assembled all the school personnel in the school’s weekly assembly: staff, students and workers, demonstrated to them the plastic bag that contained the ashes of Mr. Griffith’s son and read the letter that came with it. It was a moment of high human drama. Everybody wept, mourned and grieved the untimely passing of the young Rees. His ashes were buried in the garden of his own choosing that he had so dearly loved.
* Mr. Griffith was a man of values. He loved Sudan and its people and made many friends. I am one of his students and friends. He did an excellent job as a teacher of English and Geography in Khortaggat and the K.T.I – Khartoum Technical Institute – nucleus of the present day University of Sudan. In my capacity as the political advisor to the then president of Sudan in the 1990’s I proposed to the president that he award Mr. Griffith and two University of Khartoum professors the Order of the Two Niles of the first rank for their long and extraordinary service for education in Sudan: professor John A. Abaza from England taught English literature for 44 years; and the Irish professor Miller taught Philosophy for 45 years. Because they had already returned to the U.K the Sudanese presidency advised the ambassador of Sudan to the U.K. at the time Omar Yousif Brido to find the three gentlemen and decorate them on behalf of the president. The reader of this article will see H.E. the ambassador decorating Mr. Griffith with the Order of the Two Niles at the Embassy of Sudan in London in 1997.
In another picture Mr. Griffith at the age of 32 can be seen sitting among the staff of Khortaggat School. The other British man in the picture- standing- is Mr. Rod Usher, also a teacher at Khortaggat.
* Mr. Griffith and myself have been exchanging letters and emails since his return to the U.K. Recently, he sent me an article that he had written as a contribution to a book entitled: “ I know two Sudans”. I translated the article into Arabic for the benefit of hundreds of Mr. Griffith’s Sudanese students and admirers. Some of his former students reacted favourably to my article and published newspaper articles in praise of him.
* Mr. Griffith still shows interest in political developments in Sudan by following news of Sudan from the BBC and continues to wish our country all the best wishes following the December 2018 revolution. When he first walked into our classroom in Khortaggat in 1961 and heard the students whispering: “The new Englishman!”, Mr Griffith greeted us politely and said in a firm voice, “the first thing I would like you to know about me is that I am not an Englishman, I am a Welshman!”

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