Volunteers needed for our new North African partnership

Palms Australia’s volunteer program has always been dynamic and subject to the changing needs of our partners. Countries that once hosted many Palms volunteers, such as Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, are less in need of volunteers than they once were. Local expertise and experience in particular fields, such as primary teaching in Papua New Guinea, is now sufficient to meet the needs. Since 1961, Palms’ focus on exchanging sustainable skills has involved over 1350 volunteers in 38 countries.

As in life, some relationships fade, while others develop or begin. In 2007 our program has included just four countries: PNG, East Timor, Kiribati and Kenya. While requests still arrive from partners in other countries, meeting them requires finding the right people and ensuring the placements are feasible (both financially and in terms of providing support). It was with interest then that we received, last year, a request for several teachers to work at Coptic schools in Sudan. The Australian Sudanese Coptic Welfare Association approached Palms, seeking assistance for schools recently re-opened after a relaxing of restrictions by the mostly Islamic government of Sudan. We were also able to briefly meet Catholic Bishop Joseph Gasi from Southern Sudan on his recent trip to Sydney.

Sudan has entered the consciousness of many Australians because of the many refugees who have made Australia their home, after fleeing conflict in Southern Sudan and more recently because of events in Darfur. Geographically the largest country in Africa, Sudan’s recent tensions reflect the significant cultural differences between the people of the North and of the South and colonialism’s legacy of arbitrarily allocated borders and racially allocated power. Khartoum, the capital, is a “triangular” city set where the Blue and White Niles intersect to become the Nile River and is made up of people from all over the country.

So, with some awareness of current issues and the need to tread lightly, and after a slight hiccup in the visa process, I arrived in Khartoum for a quick scoping visit. The two main questions were “Do the requests fit Palms Australia’s development philosophy?” and “Will it be feasible to send and support volunteers to Sudan?” although gaining a feel for the place by just being there is also immensely valuable.

During my stay I met with Bishop Elliah, various priests and the directors and head teachers of five schools, one hospital and an “elderly house”. During my meeting with Bishop Elliah, which occurred through an interpreter, the mission of the Coptic schools in providing education to the poor, regardless of their cultural or faith background was outlined. He hoped Palms Australia would be able to provide teacher trainers to assist in developing the skills of their relatively inexperienced staff, particularly assisting with English language skills and student-centred learning.

Visiting the schools, I was able to confirm these points. There are enough local teachers to run the schools, most are tertiary qualified, however many have limited experience. Each director confirmed the request: “We do not need Australians to teach the classes for us. What we need is help to improve our teaching.” For example, formal English grammar is taught, but conversational English is lacking.

The schools are each slightly different – some offering classes in Arabic, with English as a second language; others offering classes in English, with Arabic studied as a language. Students are a variety of Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic and Muslim students, and students were able to take Islamic studies instead of Christian Religious Education if appropriate. According to Sharia Law, girls and boys are separated after grade 8 and girls were slightly better represented than boys in the lower levels. Class sizes are kept manageable, although as the schools grow the resources are stretched. Many students are still unable to attend secondary school, although they hope to build some more classrooms for this purpose soon.

The values shared by Palms and the Coptic schools, particular with regards to non-discrimination and the desire for sustainability, provide great hope that this relationship may develop to help meet the needs of the people of Sudan. We are currently hoping to have volunteers at our Spring Orientation Course, ready to begin placements in Khartoum next year. Both the Coptic and the Catholic churches have indicated to Palms that Southern Sudan also needs teachers. The need in the rural areas may be greater and as our understanding of Sudan grows we may be able to assist in these areas too. Perhaps, as the relationship develops, we will one day say the Sudanese people no longer require our support.