Sunday, July 17, 2011

#16 Sudanese Students

For the past 2 days I have been interviewing student on scholarship from KH.  I’ve heard heart-rending stories, but I today want to write just about the students from Sudan—4 boys in form 3 Archbishop Ndingi and 1 girl in form 1 at SFG.

Elizabeth Nyarach is 19 and the first girl in her village to attend high school.  Not just to attend high school, but to leave her village, her country, her comfort (?) zone and go to a new country, essentially alone, except for a cousin in Nakuru. That takes courage—the fire in the belly!  And she has it.  She’s very bright and incredibly studious.  She arrived late, due to delays getting from Sudan. 

Her father and 2 brothers died in the fight for independence, after which she, her mother and 4 sisters fled to the camps in Kenya.  She stayed there until only recently, when they all returned to Sudan.  She had been schooled in the camps, but I’m told those schools are no longer.  In an effort to get the residents to return to Sudan the powers-that-be have made it less hospitable.  Bt her education there is surprisingly good.  Her English is quite good, but she and the 4 boys as well are struggling with Kiswahili, required in the Kenyan system and begun in kindergarten by Kenyan children.

As we talked yesterday, I began to think of the enormous culture shock she must be dealing with.  I began to ask questions.  Had you ever slept in a bed before coming here?  “I slept in my first bed when I came to a cousin in Nakuru, just before coming here.“  Do you like it?  “Oh, yes!”.  Had you seen running water? “No”  Electric lights? Chairs?  Flush toilets?  Showers?  Schools?  “No” to all of these.  “My people have never even heard of a school, so they don’t understand why it’s important.“  What do you think about wearing trousers in forms 3 and 4?  “Oh, I’d be beaten.”  She didn’t quite understand the question.  No I mean what will it be like for you to wear them here at school?  “When I first came here I thought they were smart (cool).  I am eager to wear them”  She had never seen a woman wearing trousers.  When you finish school here and return to Sudan will you be free to marry the man of your choice?  “No, the father can force the girl to marry an old man, often over 50.  She has no choice.”  Since her father and brothers have died, it is the uncle (“a bad man” according to Elizabeth) who has that authority.  As you can imagine that cut me deeply, for such a pioneer in her community to still be under those constraints is hard for me to swallow—and I’m sure harder for her.  Now that the lid is off the box and she has peaked out to see what the rest of the world is like for women.  She can’t go meekly back into the box!

So, nothing ventured, nothing gained, as I was interviewing the 4 Sudanese boys from Ndingi yesterday, an inspiration sat on my tongue, as it were.  In each interview I first talked about their position in Sudan when they return.  Having a high school education will position them very well to be leaders, not just in their village, but also in the country as a whole.  Too bad, in fact that they have 1 more year to complete.  Having discussed how valuable they will be to their emerging country and how necessary it is for the leadership to be persons of integrity, caring most for the people and not for themselves.  They are all that kind of man.  I just hope they can retain those values and not be victims of the “power corrupts…” reality.   Then I talked about Elizabeth and the status of women in their society.  “You 4 have to help her, support her.  She can’t go back and be the submissive woman they will expect.  You have to be prepared to convince the movers and shakers that they must use that valuable resource their women represent.  No longer can the men of Sudan view women as objects for their sexual pleasure and servants to satisfy their every whim.”  I worried about whether I was stepping over the line with them, but in fact it was an experience just to watch the expressions on their faces as I talked.  They listened!  They too have seen women who are independent, capable, bright, contributing to the fabric of Kenya.  At first I think they had a problem being taught by women.  They’ve made that adjustment.  I really pled the case for Elizabeth, b/c it will be very hard for her.  Yet she wants to return, to be of service to her country.  Unless I’ve misread them completely, and I don’t think I have, they got it.  To each I said, “If you are free to marry the woman you love and who loves you in return, you will be infinitely happier that if your wife was forced to marry you.  Women know, even in societies like yours, that they have more worth that is awarded them.  Women have ways to insinuate themselves that men never even suspect.  Much better to see your marriage as a partnership, working together for the common good.”  Each of them smiled at that thought.  They have seen.  They can’t go back into that box either.

How I wish I were younger and could speak their language.  I would go to Sudan in a heartbeat when Gabriel establishes his school, to teach and do my bit of rabble-rousing!  Probably just as well it’s not in the cards for me.  I might find myself amidst a rabble not in agreement!

Margo

PS  I finished writing this while at SFG, at my desk in the staff room.  I passed it around for the teachers to read and was so touched by the response.  Maureen, math teacher, was in tears.  Several of the men came to talk to me and discuss how they can support Elizabeth here.  I think this is something important that will be followed up both at SFG and Ndingi.

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