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Feather's Miscellany: The Teachers

...Before he knew it he’d been called for an interview in London, got the job despite his age and was sent on a course to learn basic Arabic and familiarise himself with the way of life he was about to enter – a very different way of life he was to discover; a way of life in which Jack Pedwar found his real self...

John Waddington-Feather tells the story of a man who went to teach in Africa in troubled times.

Ustaz Mahmoud was a quiet gentle man, a scholar and retired Professor of Islamic Law from the University. He was devout Muslim and, of course, well read in the Qu’ran and Islamic Scriptures. As a result he had a sect of loyal followers, both men and women. Yet, though he was so mild and gentle, saintly, he was passionate about justice; and when the General declared his version of Shari’a Law in a Country where more than half the population was Christian, he opposed it fiercely and found himself in prison as a result.

To impose Islamic Law and beliefs on non-Muslims went against everything Mahmoud believed in and had taught. “There are many roads to Allah among the sincerely religious,” he once said, “for Allah has made it so. For Muslims the way is through His holy prophet, Mohammed, may his name be blessed. For Christians that way is through Jesus Christ, and for the Jews through Moses and the Law. No man must impose his beliefs on others. Faith comes from the heart, from experiencing Allah, honouring Him and living in peace with all.”

Mahmoud was outspoken against the imposition of Shari’ah and that rankled the radical foreigners. In fact, all the evils of the Country had come from abroad: the secret police, armaments – and corruption in high places, which bled the country dry. The General and his ineffectual officials lived in luxury, propped up by the army. Around them millions lived in poverty and were dying from the greatest famine in years to ravage the Country.

Ustaz Mahmoud had many followers in the University and elsewhere. They lived a simple pious life, meeting secretly in prayer and singing psalms, secret because the General had banned their sect and his police were hunting them down. Indeed, the General’s police arrested anyone who contradicted him. He had his own football team and woe betide any team which beat it. It finished season after season unbeaten at the top of the league.

He was already in his early fifties when Jack Pedwar volunteered to teach in the Country. In England education was in upheaval as the old Grammar Schools were replaced with large comprehensives. A lifelong Grammar School master, Jack Pedwar was not happy in the new ever-changing system; in fact it depressed him so much he was near a break-down and was offered early retirement, which he took. When he recovered he began looking for jobs in an educational paper; now he could begin planning his own life and work in a system he believed in. Though he was ordained, he didn’t feel called to parish ministry. He was a born teacher, but he helped in his parish church and also in the local prison.

He fancied a spell of teaching English as a foreign language in one of the well paid colleges overseas: Switzerland, the south of France, Italy, Greece, with long holidays and a place in the sun where his wife could join him. His family were grown up and he’d only his wife and himself to care about now.

He bought “The Times Educational Supplement” and his eye skimmed the Overseas Jobs page. There they were, all those plum jobs abroad he dreamed about…till he saw a small advertisement at the bottom of the page: “Teachers urgently needed for Africa. Only the dedicated need apply.” Something within him responded and on impulse he applied for the job despite his wife’s reservations. His reason told him he’d be too old (and he hoped his reason was right!), for it was for the young, the newly graduated; not middle-aged old-fashioned teachers like him.

Before he knew it he’d been called for an interview in London, got the job despite his age and was sent on a course to learn basic Arabic and familiarise himself with the way of life he was about to enter – a very different way of life he was to discover; a way of life in which Jack Pedwar found his real self.

Within the month he was in Africa, stepping off the plane at the City airport into blistering heat. The air was thick with silt, the light blinded him and the heat swept over him in waves. Never had he experienced such heat.

Along with fifty other teachers all much younger than himself and full of idealism and enthusiasm, he was bussed into another world, the Third World. The culture shock was intense. The hotel they lodged him in was called El Shark, ‘the East’, in Arabic, but the conditions were nearer its English spelling. It was dirty cheap and seedy and there Jack picked up his first bout of dysentery.

Flies were everywhere and lean mangy cats jumped on the tables greedily to eat remnants of food. Nothing was wasted. It was a time of famine and in some parts even the cats were eaten! As he lay on his bed in between bolting to the Arab loo, Jack wondered why on earth he’d volunteered to teach there. Weak and shaking he watched a termite burrowing slowly inside the plasterwork up the crumbling wall. At intervals, the odd rat scurried across his room from a hole somewhere in the opposite wall and darted into the passage through the open door. He stayed there a week till he was found lodgings in an Arab house in the suburbs, a cycle ride from the University.

Jack worked in the English Language Support Unit (ELSU) helping science undergraduates with their command of English. His new lodgings and place of work were Paradise after that week in El Shark. He was lucky to be appointed to the University. The rest of the teachers he’d flown out with were trucked to all part of the Country: to townships in the desert in the west and north, or to the port many miles to the east, a day’s journey at least. In time, some were sent home early ill and one died in a cholera outbreak.

The City was surrounded by desert, which crept through the suburbs into the very centre. Sand and silt were everywhere. When a sand-storm was unleashed the sun was blotted out and street-lights (such as were still working) were switched on. Life came to a standstill till the storm had passed: nomads travelling through the City halted just where they were and sheltered behind their crouched camels; all traffic ceased and wrappings were hastily thrown over engine bonnets and shutters were hurriedly pulled down over windows, few of which were glazed in the village where Jack lodged.

The land was barren except alongside the River where farmers tilled strips of irrigated earth. The country’s lifeline, the River ran its entire length, entering from the mountains in the south and running through it to the Country north before winding through a delta to the Sea.

Adding to the daily grind of life was the Famine. There had been no rain for seven years and no crops that year in areas away from the River. Thousands trekked across the desert trying to reach the City from bordering Countries and outlying regions. The military kept them at bay fearing cholera and typhoid, forcing them into makeshift Camps ringing the City five miles or more into the desert. There they huddled in their miserable shelters made from whatever they could lay their hands on, fed by international charities which brought in food, medicines and blankets.

When he’d settled in, Jack employed two houseboys from the Camps, the only way they could leave with work permits. The elder was Hassan in his forties and old by the standards of the Country; the younger was Mohammed. Hassan had been a merchant from a neighbouring Country east. He’d run foul of the Communist regime there and fled. Mohammed also had fled the regime while studying at college. On top of this, they were fugitives from famine raging across the region and had survived the long march across the desert. Thousands hadn’t.

Ustaz Mahmoud continued his fearless preaching even from prison. The General promised him and his followers imprisoned with him that they’d be freed if they’d only recant and agree to Shari’ah Law. They refused. So nightly on television the General appeared attacking Mahmoud, bleating about how good Shari’ah was for the Country, while all the while unrest was simmering among the populace at large and opposition to him was coming to a head in the University. Jack had unwittingly walked into an impending revolution!

His colleagues were a mixed bunch: of different faiths, different nationalities and different religions. The Head of ELSU was Doctor Ellen, an Egyptian Coptic Christian. Next in line was Andreas, a Greek Orthodox Christian. Then came Abdallah, a black American convert to Islam and an ardent follower of Ustaz Mahmoud. Jack shared a desk with a Muslim, Hamsah, the first-born son of a powerful Sheik’s first wife. He had four others. Educated in India, Hamsah was at once westernised and traditional. He rarely used a knife and fork when he ate; usually his fingers; and out of the University he dressed like an Arab. He and Jack became firm friends. Then there was the secretary, Kavita, a Hindu, whose father was a professor at the University. Finally there were Mustafa, the middle-aged fat gaffir, who oversaw the office and tended the little garden outside in between sending Mabek, the young Dinka office-boy, on countless messages to various parts of the University because the telephones didn’t work. Mabek was jet black and came from the tribal south. Tall and lean he was related to the Masai over the border. So Jack’s new colleagues were a very mixed bunch, who grew closer as the tension rose on the campus and beyond; grew into a family. Very different from the dispirited unhappy staff-room he’d left behind in England.

Jack soon settled into his new routine, teaching English to undergraduates with only a piece of chalk and a blackboard. No sophisticated teaching-aids here and unlike England, he was listened to intently and thanked by his students each day as they left the lecture theatre. English teachers were at a premium and they knew it. Teachers were treated with great respect by the population at large as the bearers of knowledge and high standards of living to the next generation. Their role was akin to the imams and priests.

He also picked up a second job quite by chance at a school run by Italian nuns in the Roman Catholic Cathedral precincts. Their English teacher had suddenly resigned, leaving the fifth year high and dry in the middle of their leaving-exam course. Jack was approached and agreed to help them. So there he was, an Anglican priest, teaching English to Muslim and Christian girls in an Italian Roman Catholic school. Being an Italian speaker, he also coached the nun who taught science. And it was while cycling to the school he first met Moses, a deaf-mute who lived close by the Cathedral.

Moses had his pitch right next to the Cathedral. His home was simply a niche in a wall across the alley from the school. His entire possessions were stored in a hole in that wall by which he slept each night wrapped in his tattered blanket. Moses was in his twenties I guess; of medium height but well built compared with many of his fellow Countrymen. He was also intelligent as Jack Pedwar discovered the longer he got to know him. Despite the famine raging then he had enough to eat. The good nuns made sure of that. There was sufficient food in the Capital, which was why so many refugees headed for it, trekking hundreds of miles across the great desert to get there – if they were lucky.

Moses never begged. He picked up the odd job here and there in the City, working in the souks and returning each night to his pitch. Sometimes he was there when Jack left the school to go back to the University. Then, he’d stop and chat with Moses as an unspoken friendship developed between them. Neither spoke the other’s language but they communicated well by signs and facial expressions. When they’d done, Jack would mount his bicycle and ride off, Moses holding his saddle and jogging beside him till they reached the University, where Moses would wave goodbye and run back. It was as if the mute was making sure he’d got back safely, and Jack was glad he did this as the tension in the City mounted and violent mobs began roaming the streets. As the violent riots began to increase, Moses by deftly manipulating the saddle would direct Jack back safely through back streets and alleys to avoid the riots.

The weeks went by and the violence grew. Mahmoud and his followers became the focus of the growing unrest against the General whose corrupt government fuelled the crisis. When petrol ran out, the serious rioting and looting began. Food could no longer be brought into the City by road. Of course, it was still flown in to the luxury hotels in town where foreigners lived and the General entertained his guests – and where the hungry and dying lay round the high security fences outside.

The heat and disease began to take their toll of Jack. It was inevitable given the conditions he lived in in his Arab village. He picked up dysentery again and a mild form of hepatitis. The heat overpowered him and he’d lay for hours under his mosquito net sweating profusely as his body tried to cope. Yet he grimly carried on teaching and as the political situation became graver, the more closely knit the staff at ELSU became. Moses began staying on at the office after a time, sipping the tea given him before returning to his pitch.

Came the day when Ustaz Mahmoud was paraded before the cameras on television in a show trial. Again he and his followers were offered freedom if they’d recant. The General and Mahmoud stood face to face, the General almost pleading with him, for he knew what would inevitably follow if Mahmoud stood firm. Like King Herod before him faced with the same problem, the General would have to execute the Ustaz to save face and when Mahmoud was hanged, the Country was plunged into civil war.

A Christian Colonel in the army from the south mutinied and took his troops into the bush to fight the General and supporters of Shari’ah. His resistance led to a bitter civil war which went on long after the General fled the Country. Riots began on the University campus and the secret police moved in. Abdullah was arrested and thrown in prison along with many other students and staff. And finally Jack himself had to flee when he went into a lecture and found a fatwah, a death sentence: “Death to the Unbeliever! Death to the Imam Nazrin!” scrawled on the blackboard. The extremists were onto him.

He’d seen the execution of Mahmoud while crossing the bridge near the prison on his way to the University. The arch of the bridge over the river gave him an unbroken view into the prison yard where a rent-a-mob gathered screaming for Mahmoud’s blood. He watched with horror as Mahmoud mounted the scaffold, a frail old man, railed at by the crowd. He stood with dignity as the noose was placed around his neck, then in a moment it was all over and his body was carried off by a helicopter to be dumped in the desert and eaten by dogs. The General wanted no martyr’s burial, yet by killing the Ustaz he sealed his own fate. The riots turned into whole-scale revolution and the army moved onto the streets. So did the secret police.

After witnessing Mahmoud’s execution, Jack Pedwar hurried to the University which was in turmoil like the rest of the City. Following the threat on the blackboard, his name was placed on a hit-list, especially as many of the dissidents were his friends and he was targeted by the police and others.

Hamsah was the first to meet him at the office and said he must go into hiding at once. He had relatives, dealers in the desert north of the City where he could hide up till they could get him out of the Country; but first he had to get Jack to his relatives. The streets were full of rioters and if he fell foul of them anything could happen. So Hamsah told Jack to go straight to the Cathedral where he’d be met and taken to safety in the desert.

He’d almost reached the Cathedral when it happened. As Jack turned a corner, a mob out of control came rampaging down the road. It was out to beat up anyone it came across and didn’t like. Jack’s white face and European dress stood out a mile and they were onto him immediately, screaming for his blood.

He turned and fled, running into the network of alleys leading from the road. The mob followed. Jack staggered on till he entered a blind alley and leaned against a broken door gasping for breath. Just as he thought the game was up, the creaking door opened and Moses peered out, frantically signalling for him to come inside. He’d followed Jack, seen where he was going then caught up with him here just in time. Jack stumbled through the door, and as his eyes got used to the half-light inside, he found himself surrounded by pale, ravaged faces – lepers!

He’d seen the lepers in the City come out after sunset when it became cooler. During the day they hid up sheltering from the heat outside, but came the evening they emerged into the streets and souks to beg. He was in a leper-house surrounded by lepers of all ages and sexes, who stood around him examining him closely in silence. The mob outside gathered round the door and hammered on it. An old leper more disfigured than the rest opened ii and when the mob saw him they drew back at once in horror and left double-quick.

Moses took Jack into a back room and gave him a sorely needed drink; and after the mob had gone, he gestured for Jack to follow him back to the Cathedral. He followed Moses to the Cathedral, where a very worried Hamsah was waiting. There they were sheltered by the nuns till the mobs had left the streets, then Hamsah and Jack set out for the village north of the City where Hamsah’s kin had their tents, full-blooded Beda Arabs who traded across the desert from the port in the east to the Countries of west Africa.

It was the last time Jack saw Moses and his colleagues at the University, for a week later he was spirited to the airport by night and flown out on the last flight before the airport was closed. A month later the General was toppled and also flew out to live happily ever after on the wealth he’d salted away during his years in power.

Abdullah and Mahmoud’s followers were released from jail and continued living peacefully and prayerfully as was their way. Moses joined Mabek at ELSU and in time became the gaffir there when Mustafa retired, moving onto the campus into a small one-roomed dwelling by the gates. Teaching resumed at the University and the Revd Jack Pedwar became chaplain of a small prep school for the remainder of his career where he spiced up his Divinity lessons with tales of his adventures abroad. Later he tried his hand at writing, not without some success, and perhaps one day he’ll return to Africa where he discovered his real self.

© John Waddington-Feather


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