‘The course is full.’
‘How much it cost, please?’
‘It’s full. There are no more places.’
‘When it starts?’
‘The course is full.’
‘When I come and see you?’
‘I’m sorry. The course is full.’
‘Where your office? I come and pay you.’
‘No, I’m sorry, you can’t…’
‘Speak slowly, please. My English very little. I want to study with you.’
‘The course is full. Al coursaat malyaana. Maalesh.’
I hung up and turned back to Jamal who was hoping to negotiate payment terms with me.
‘200,000 pounds for four months. OK, so I pay 50,000 each month.’
‘No, I’m sorry, we can’t do it like that.’
‘But my salary is just 350,000 pounds a month. Please.’
‘No, I’m sorry, it’s not possible.’
The phone rang again. An excitable voice spoke before I could even say hello.
Yes, this is the English Language Foundation.’
‘Where are you? I look near British Council but I don’t see it.’
‘Turn left when you come out of the Council, walk on till you come to some palm trees on your...’
‘I come to what?’
‘Some palm trees.’
‘Bumrees? What are bumrees?
‘Trees. Palm trees. Outside the Oasis hotel. When you come to the Oasis Hotel turn…’
‘Stop, please. Hotel. What hotel?
‘Sasis Hotel? I don’t know this hotel. Where is this hotel?’
‘Near the British Council.’
‘What his name?’
‘Sasis Hotel. No, I don’t know.’
‘The Oasis Hotel. Al funduk al waha.’
‘Say again, please.’
‘Al funduk al waha. Do you know it.’
‘Yes, I know funduk el waha. Where is your office?’
‘Go to the Oasis Hotel and turn left. ELF is at the other side of the street on the next corner.’
‘OK, I turn right at the funduk, then…
‘No, you turn left.’
‘Yes, yes. Left. And then where?
‘On the next corner at the other side of the road you’ll see…
‘Stop, please. Speak slowly, please. Funduk el waha. Then where I go?’
‘Just a minute, please.’
I handed the phone to Jamal and asked him to give the directions in Arabic.
He did so and hung up.
‘Ok, I pay four months,’ he said, ‘but I get discount. How much discount you give?’
I told him there could be no discount either. He said he’d come with the money the following day.
The success of the children’s courses had given ELF a financial boost. This enabled me to launch out into the more precarious territory of courses for the general public and I now had a steady stream of people enquiring about those courses.
As I was still operating on a shoestring I had to get by on my own without any secretarial help. This created communication problems. I spoke only a little Arabic. I was never quite sure if people understood what I was saying and I often didn’t understand what was being said to me.
A course was organised when enough people had registered interest in it. This system required them to leave their phone numbers so that I could call them back to let them know when the course would start. But this was when the trouble would begin.
Very often my dialling would trigger off a recorded message: ‘The number you have dialled is temporarily disconnected.’ Most Sudanese lived on such a restricted budget that even those who had phones were often unable to pay the bill and Sudatel was ruthless and rapid about cutting them off, with no reminder sent out. Equally often it turned out that the number given did not belong to the person I wanted to contact but to a relative, a neighbour or a friend who was expected to pass on my message. They usually spoke little or no English. Most commonly I would find that the number given me was the wrong one as the Sudanese have a tendency to invert pairs of digits. The number 743562, for example, would be given as 47-53-26 because in Arabic they would say it as ‘four and seventy, five and thirty, two and sixty’.
Handling the money was another headache. All payment was in cash, usually thick bundles of small denomination notes. Sudanese banknotes were kept in circulation until they had all but turned into dust. For each course fee of 200,000 pounds I had to count through up to four-hundred grimy notes, some torn, some sellotaped together, some stuck to each other by the melted elastic bands which had once held them together in batches, all the time fending off requests for deferred payment or discounts and complaints about the cost of the course.
The course material available locally was limited. To introduce something fresh and new I had to order it from the UK. This brought problems of its own.
The internet in Sudan was still having teething problems. I tried emailing my order to the publisher. Each time I tried the server was either down or the link would be cut off in mid-message. I faxed it instead. A faxed reply asked me to fax my phone number and a time at which I could be reached so that I could give a credit card number. I faxed the phone number and waited. No one called. I faxed my correspondent again. It turned out that she had been calling the wrong number. She called and I gave her my Switch card number. She called again a few days later. They didn’t accept Switch cards, she said. I gave her the number of my French credit card. A few weeks later I received my French bank statement. I was overdrawn as a result of the transaction, and all the more so as the publisher had sent the wrong order and charged me for a much greater amount than expected. There was, of course, no means for ELF to make an international payment. If I wanted to purchase books I had to pay it myself and get reimbursed later. All ELF funds were held in cash, in a plastic bag hidden in my wardrobe. I had a safe, donated by the British Council, but couldn’t open it as someone had tried to break into it and there was a piece of broken key stuck in the lock.
Despite these obstacles, the language school side of the operation was now up and running after a fashion, though the kick-off had been rocky.
I experimented with different course formulas.
A conversation class taken by Sarah petered out after two months due to her health problems.
A four-month course quickly ran into trouble. To make enough money to cover costs and still have a decent amount left over I needed at least fifteen people in a class. Taken in by the seemingly passionate desire of the Sudanese to learn English with a native English speaker, it never occurred to me that the fifteen people who started would have dwindled to nine by the second month and six by the third. By that time I was running the course at a loss as the fees did not even cover the payment to the teacher.
To ease the financial burden on the students I opted for a shorter 50-hour course which took students on an accelerated sprint through each level. The advantage of this was that a lot of ground was covered very quickly and therefore at not too great a cost. The disadvantage was that this was an illusion. The method was suitable only for those who wanted to do some quick revision or to get some speaking practice; it was not a serious course of study. Selling it was beginning to make me feel like a peddler of quack remedies, a feeling exacerbated by my growing awareness that the grammar and spelling of the teachers were sometimes shaky.
Then I got a phone call from Save the Children asking if I could organise a report-writing course for their staff. What they had in mind was an eight-day intensive course in Khartoum, with participants coming from all over Sudan. I readily agreed, realizing that this would provide an opportunity for ELF to help with capacity-building, an objective more in line with its aims than simply making money. But who would teach it, I wondered.
Quite fortuitously I received, almost simultaneously, an email from David Wolton asking if I could give some work to an American PhD student who was coming to spend six weeks in Sudan. Even better, she had some experience of teaching writing to overseas college students. I faxed Paula, organized her visa and arranged for her to stay with Susie, the SVP who had helped with the children’s course. Susie’s SVP placement was with Nileen University, in downtown Khartoum, where she had a spare bed in her campus accommodation. By the time Paula arrived I had put together some material and a rough outline of the course structure and content.
Paula had strong liberal views and liked to air them, as had Susie, who was already helping the Nileen students to produce an English-language newspaper. The two of them worked together on fine-tuning the material. Paula came round to see me at the end of the first day, along with Susie, to give me a progress report. One of the items she showed me was an opinion poll which she had created to be used in a writing exercise later in the week. I ran my eye over it.
The first question was about the acceptability of polygamy, a reasonable enough subject in Sudan where it is practised, although rarely; a couple touched on the best way to combat poverty; several more dealt with fairly uncontroversial social issues. That left three more.
‘I think it might be better to modify this a bit,’ I said worriedly, pointing to the questions about same-sex marriage, the desirability of keeping religion separate from politics and the freedom which couples should be allowed in getting to know each other before marrying.
‘But they want to talk about these things,’ Paula insisted.
Susie backed her up vehemently. They clearly thought I was a reactionary old fogey, conniving with a repressive Islamic system in suppressing free speech and the rights of minorities. It may well have been that Susie’s students and Paula’s course participants did want to discuss these subjects but in a country like Sudan, with its hardline Islamic government and strict sexual mores, I thought it inadvisable for ELF to be presenting such inflammatory material. Apart from anything else it would give grounds for the more conservative elements of the Sudanese authorities to perceive ELF as a foreign Trojan horse introducing negative Western values. But my arguments cut no ice with Paula and Susie. I replaced the offending questions with more anodyne items, resigning myself to the fact that I had plummeted in the estimation of the two girls. I was reassured when various Sudanese people I discussed it with later said I had done absolutely the right thing.
On day four of the course Paula called me half-way through the morning.
‘Hilda, I’m really sorry about this, but I’ve had to come home. I’m feeling really sick.’
She had malaria.
I had ten people who had been brought to Khartoum from distant parts of the country. They had been put up in a hotel with conference arrangements for an eight-day course. The show had to go on. I dropped everything else, sorted through Paula’s material and took over. It could have been worse, I reflected. What if Paula just hadn’t arrived? What if she’d turned out to be completely useless? What if….? I could think of countless problems that could arise when arrangements were so dependent on fate or chance in this way. But at least it solved one problem. I was now in charge of the opinion poll and no longer need worry that Paula might ditch the questions I had given her in favour of her own.