Hiding behind the whiteboard

I have been teaching English here. An odd thing for a water and sanitation expert to do.

Back in Lankien after two months away! It feels a bit like a second home now. I have exactly one month left in the mission before I return to England. With the benefit of nostalgia, I thought I would make this post about the amazing people I have had the pleasure to work with. It’s a choice between people and the finer workings of pit latrines. Pit latrines or people?

People it is.

I have been teaching English here. An odd thing for a watsan [water and sanitation expert] to do. I mentioned in my first post that engineers are not known for their abilities with the written and spoken word. But the thing about MSF is that you can’t ever predict what will happen and what skills you’ll offer to make projects run smoothly. 

The way it came about was that, given we have such a large hospital, we needed to keep track of who the people were that were entering and leaving the hospital. It had been an issue for a while that people outside the watsan team had been turning on taps after hospital closing hours, which meant that we didn’t have water in the hours we needed it.

The hospital has one of only a handful of reliable boreholes that exist in Lankien. We seem to be sitting on a readily accessible reservoir. Of course, a fantastic reservoir is of no use if you can’t drill a borehole, and you can’t drill a borehole unless you have drilling equipment. You can’t get drilling equipment if there are no roads to bring the drilling equipment in on. It is easy to forget the chain of events and actions that lead to one person washing their hands with uncontaminated water. We take this very much for granted, even though there is universal consensus that clean water is a basic human right.

Well, taps were being turned, and I was turning a tap one way and returning to turn it back the other way when I turned around to see it had already been turned. We looked for a solution, and we realised that we needed to keep a better record of who was getting access to turn the taps outside of the tap-turning hours.

So we created a register. We decided to have people sign in and out at the front gate of the hospital so we would know how many patients were here and how much water was required. This seemed like a marvellous idea. ‘Why didn’t we think of this before?’ we exclaimed.

‘No taps will be turned without my knowledge!’ I rejoiced.

The process began, and within days it became clear that signing in and out at specific times was great for some members of staff, but not for others. The watsan and hygiene infection control (HIC) departments manage the entire cleaning staff for the hospital. Many of the cleaning staff have not been given the opportunity to learn to write.

So the Lankien team came up with the solution: we would teach the employees that haven’t had access to education how to write their names.

It began as just this – a method to improve the signing-in system. But six months later, to say we’ve had a hoot is an understatement. To say that this impromptu teaching of the HIC staff has been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done would be more accurate.

It started off as quite a challenge. I knew the staff were keen to learn to write, but I fell into a small paradoxical hurdle right at the beginning: I put a list up asking people to sign up for writing lessons. With the benefit of hindsight, this was a silly move. Two days later, no one had signed up because they couldn’t read the notice. I decided to rally round to find out who was interested and took lots of names. I told everyone triumphantly, ‘2 pm on Tuesday!’

Two pm on Tuesday came, but because none of the cleaning staff has watches, no one turned up. I spent a sad hour practising the alphabet alone. It took a few weeks, but slowly people started coming to the classes, and gradually we fell into a routine. I taught classes on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

What started with a class of four people (well it started out with just me, but we’ll skip over that first day) has now expanded to three classes a week of up to 18 people, depending on how many we can squeeze on the bench.

At the beginning I felt frustrated because it was difficult to get people to arrive on time. Then I realised that telling the time had never been offered to many of the attendees. In a war-torn country like South Sudan, the education of woman has taken a back seat.

We started with the alphabet, and within a month we were collectively reciting days of the week, with individuals writing the days on the board without assistance. To demonstrate how quickly the class has developed and how excited we all are about this will be impossible, so instead I will tell you some of the best moments we’ve had over the last six months.

Song and laughter seem to be very important in South Sudan. Laughter helps us communicate because, between us, we share maybe 30 common words: the six I have learnt in Nuer, and the 24 the women have learnt in English (I’m lagging, I know, but they laugh so hard when I speak Nuer that it’s too disheartening).

Actually, even when I speak in English, it sparks fits of giggles. Particularly when I say the letter W. I don’t know why, but we have a riot when we get to W. I think it’s because of my accent, but last time I said it there was so much laughing we couldn’t get to the end of the alphabet. I now have to say W very quickly and hurry straight on to X.

It is funny, having been here for eight months, I have become slightly inured to just how little people have and just how low the quality of life is here, but still so many of the people I have met in Lankien seem to have such a strong sense of fun. The classes bring a lot of joy to both the group and me, mainly because we’re quite good at laughing at each other.

Sometimes the women do things that are quite unintentionally funny. At the beginning, I used to hide behind the whiteboard if I was laughing so that they couldn’t see me, because I didn’t want to discourage them. But they seem to really enjoy it when they make me laugh, so I stopped hiding.

In week five, we were going through the introductions ‘good morning’ and ‘good evening’. I had written the word ‘good’ on the board for everyone to copy, and I asked the class to hold up their papers to show me their version of the word ‘good’. Sometimes people get confused between P, D, B and G,  because they are quite similar. One woman got a bit mixed up and somehow, instead of holding up a piece of paper with the word ‘good’ on it, she was holding up a sign that said ‘poop’.

I laughed a little and explained to the woman what the word meant using hand signals (which in itself must have been hilarious to witness) and she found it very funny. We then all laughed so much together that one of the women suggested that we all needed to hide behind the whiteboard for a few minutes.

It is a common misconception that humanitarian work gives you a strong sense of satisfaction. On many occasions it can, yes, but it can also feel very frustrating – running into challenges that in other worlds could be easily fixed. Nonetheless, I am very lucky to have this sense of satisfaction from these English classes.

A few days ago I walked past the kitchen, and one of the women I teach had written the alphabet in the sand to practice. A few times, whilst disinfecting a ward, I heard two women testing each other on the days of the week. Saturday made an appearance more often than the weekdays – but I told them there was no harm in having favourites. In a profession that is notorious for frustration, feeling a strong sense of tangible results is a gift I’m lucky to have experienced.