By Claire Duly

15 October 2013 - 16:31

Soldiers in the South Sudanese army learn English with the British Council (image credit: Joe MacDonald)
Soldiers in the South Sudanese army learn English with the British Council ©

Image Joe MacDonald

Claire Duly, the British Council's senior teacher in charge of teaching English to the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in South Sudan, explains what it's like to transform a former rebel movement into a modern standing army.

How the classes work

Working with former soldiers was definitely a first for me. I started teaching young learners in Shanghai in 2008, and left two years later. My first posting with the British Council was teaching adults in the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in Juba, so a very different experience altogether!

We teach at the army's training base, where we have two shipping containers and a tent that we do all the teaching in. There are seven of us teaching with the SPLA - each of us teaches two groups of 20, so we teach a maximum of 280 students. All of our classes are mixed rank, and it's quite incredible to see how the soldiers are so willing to accept this. As long as it is made clear from day one that everyone's a student and not a soldier for two and a half hours per day, there are no issues at all.

Teaching these soldiers is a long-term investment, because that’s the way language works. We split our course up into three terms of training over each year. Each class will receive 150 hours of instruction, with two and a half hours of classes per group per day. One class runs from 9.30 until 12.00 and a second class runs from 13.00 until 15.30. Each group of soldiers has one class a day. One set of students works in the morning and comes to class in the afternoon, and the other set comes to class in the morning and works in the afternoon. Some of the students take part in classes for three months, while others need a minimum of a year, because they’ve come in with a lower level of English. We use formalised assessments to make sure that when the soldiers exit the programme, they are ready to use English for their post.

How English became South Sudan's national language after the civil war

Ultimately, the Sudanese civil war was a case of a Muslim North and a Christian South. The North was seen as exploiting the people and resources in the South (the oil reserves are all in the South and Southerners were often taken as slaves), with very little investment and development here. So all of the income generated from oil and petroleum was taken to and invested in the North. This led to constant clashes and tensions between the two groups, over a gruesome 40-year warring period, which finally resulted in a peace agreement signed in Addis Ababa in 2005 and South Sudan's independence in 2011.

When South Sudan gained independence, it chose to make English its national language, and the language of law and government. The main reason for this was so the South Sudanese could identify and distinguish themselves from the Arabic North. It was a controversial decision, but the main benefit of having English as a national language means that South Sudanese people can engage in global conversations on humanitarian aid and development issues that are prevalent here.

Why the South Sudanese army wants its soldiers to learn English

In theory, English is the language of the workplace in the army – so the soldiers should be using it to communicate with foreign advisers who work with them. There’s a massive foreign presence here in South Sudan, with NGOs and other groups offering training programmes, logistic support and engineering to the SPLA, but often the people they’re offering it to don’t have the English skills to communicate with them and take advantage of it. The South Sudanese army needs to learn English as a result, so they can fulfil their work-related duties and take part in civil society and regional peacekeeping efforts.

At the moment, the South Sudanese army is trying to reduce its size through a process of demilitarisation, disarmament and rehabilitation. The challenge is that they currently don’t know what the size of their army is – it could be anything between 100,000 - 200,000 people. Because they were fighting a 40-year war, pretty much everyone in the country was involved in the fighting in some way. So it’s now quite hard to determine who is and who isn’t in the army.

Obviously they don’t need that many soldiers in peacetime, and what's more, they can’t afford to pay all those salaries. Even though South Sudan is a very oil-rich country, the oil pipelines run through the North, in Sudan, and get to market through Port Sudan. There are disagreements over how much South Sudan needs to pay Sudan to get the oil to the market, so it’s hard to get the oil back into the country and sell it.

If you have 100,000 – 200,000 people in the country who haven’t been paid and are heavily armed, it’s a risk. But what’s happened in the past when you go into a fragile area and disarm people, you make those people vulnerable to other tribes who find out that they don’t have arms and may attack them. To avoid this, the army is trying to think about ways to prepare people for civilian life afterwards by making sure former soldiers are ready to reintegrate into society, and teaching them English is one way of doing this. Some of the soldiers we’re training are preparing for disarmament, others will stay in the army. It’s one class, but each student is using the English language training for different purposes.

The challenges and rewards of teaching former rebel soldiers

Working with the SPLA here is equal parts challenge and reward. Given the 40-year civil war, a lot of soldiers had very little - if any - primary and secondary school education, because often their childhoods were spent fighting. In a language classroom, this means that what we would consider to be quite standard tasks, like matching exercises and filling in gaps in sentences, are incredibly challenging, because the soldiers simply have not had a formalised classroom teaching experience.

To deal with this, we try to make sure we slow instructions down, so everything is broken into neat, achievable steps and tasks. As teachers, we have to really think about the logical leaps that we sometimes make when we assume everyone’s on the same page. It can be as simple as helping the students find where they need to look for the page numbers in a text book.

Students often use the classroom environment as an opportunity to bear witness. This is an incredibly important part of recovering, as a nation, from a traumatic past. However, for a teacher, this can often be quite overwhelming and humbling. For example, when you ask students a question like 'tell me a story from your childhood', they may talk about being kidnapped and forced to fight, watching their villages burned, walking thousands of kilometres across regional borders for safety and security, what it's like to live in a refugee camp... It can be quite a lot to take. Consider how and if you would correct a learner's utterance: 'Last year my sister was rape.' You can often be so overwhelmed by the content of an utterance, that you forget what your role is as a teacher!

There’s no real right or wrong way to go about dealing with situations like this. You need to have empathy, but steer the conversation back to something less traumatic. You don’t want to silence your students, but when you have 20 people in a room who all have those stories, it can be pretty challenging to manage. It can turn into a long exercise as people are often keen to tell their story, and while you want them to be able to talk and bear witness to their experience, you also have to bring things back into the academic arena.

One story that hit home for me was one of the SPLA teachers we have trained, Abraham. He joined the army when he was ten years old, and fought until he was 16. He then left the army in order to complete his primary education: he was a 16 year old in a class of six year olds! A South Sudanese Billy Madison! He completed his primary education and rejoined the army at the age of 20. He joined our language classes in 2011, and last year, he was part of a cohort that the British Council trained to be teachers. He now teaches English to his colleagues.

You can really see the difference in students who have just entered the programme and still need lots of support, and those who have been studying with us for a while. The dedication, commitment and pride that all the students take in learning is astonishing, as they are more than aware of what a privilege it is to be a student. It’s an incredibly rewarding place to work in and a job where you really develop as a teacher.

A new teaching partnership with the US

We're also about to set up a new partnership with the US to teach at a new military academy. They used to run a language programme here, but have since removed English language teaching from their remit. The main reason was the lack of uptake from the SPLA, because the Americans were using quite antiquated approaches and material (audio-lingual, decontextualised language). They've been sending key personnel onto our courses for the past year, and can really see the difference this has made. We're currently in discussions about how they can offer a matching funding contribution for us to be able to widen our scope and impact to achieve common goals. The Americans are very supportive and allow us to work fairly independently.

The British Council also works on a number of UK Ministry of Defence projects with armies across the world. Peacekeeping English Projects (PEP) have been run in Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan, South Sudan, Rwanda and Burundi. We recently ran our first conference on English for the Uniformed Forces in Indonesia where I presented with Abraham, the SPLA teacher that I mentioned earlier, who was trained by the British Council.

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