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Feather's Miscellany: A New Year Resolution

"In September 1984 I walked unwittingly into a Graham Greene novel. I’d volunteered to go to Sudan as an emergency teacher, not realising in my ignorance before I went that the country was in the grip of a dictator General Nimieri and a group of fundamentalist fanatics operating shariah law. So I arrived in Sudan naively thinking I was merely helping out in a developing country which was desperately short of teachers. I was soon to learn otherwise,'' writes John Waddington-Feather.

I saw an appeal for teachers in ‘The Times Educational Supplement’, and, having been offered early retirement at 50 when re-organisation of the state education system took place in Shrewsbury, I signed up with the Sudan education department, learned a bit of Arabic and flew out to Khartoum along with a plane-load of young teachers from Britain and the USA. All of them were new graduates, idealistic and much younger than I, who was the daddy of them all at 51.

When we stepped off the plane we were hit by a searing 50 degrees C heat straight from the surrounding desert and the temperature hovered around the mid-forties till it cooled off in October, never dropping below 30 degrees C all the time I was there. We were bussed from the airport to a crumbling, Arab hotel aptly called El Shark, which meant ‘The East’. It was decrepit and I shared a dilapidated room with an American teacher from Chicago.

As it was a Muslim fast day, there were no meals served till sundown, so we lay exhausted on our beds chatting, sipping water and watching the odd rat scurry across the floor. That night we all went to the local souk (market) and ate native. As a result I picked up my first bout of amoebic dysentery which remained with me on and off all the time I was there and leaving me 28lbs lighter by the time I flew home.

Sudan is a vast country, the biggest in Africa (but it’s now divided in two), and the volunteer teachers were sent to all parts of it. I was lucky to be allocated to the English Language Support Unit of Khartoum University to teach English to science undergraduates. I was treated with great respect and thanked by each student after every lecture. The Sudanese treated their teachers like priests who held the future of the country in their hands. Other volunteer teachers weren’t as lucky as myself. Several became stressed out and were sent home. One died in a cholera epidemic in the east of the country. And in the west of Sudan in Darfur, 2 million people died of starvation and millions more in Ethiopia to the east. There’d been no rain in that region for seven years and only the Nile running through Sudan prevented many more deaths as farmers were able to raise crops along its banks.

As a result, refugees poured in to Khartoum from all sides. Food was grown on the nearby farms fed by the Nile, and also flown in by air for the large groups of ex-pats living in the city, who traded with the oil-rich south or worked on various engineering projects. Those refugees living in the city were all right, but some miles outside in makeshift camps were housed thousands of refugees kept from entering the city by the army for fear of typhoid and cholera which was rife.

Those in the camps were fed by international charities and other groups. I went several times to one camp from the university taking food supplies and clothing; and while I was there the pop singer, Bob Geldorf, drove with a convoy of supplies from Port Sudan A grimmer daily round was made by the army with tractors and trailers, collecting dead bodies from the camps and streets in the city.

Meanwhile, the dire political situation in the country was coming to a head as people began revolting against the rule of strict Islamic shariah law, which had been imposed on Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Under sharia law thieves had their right hands cut off, anyone caught with alcohol was flogged and women were stoned to death for adultery. Executions by hanging or beheading were carried out, and Christians were crucified in some prisons. One man whose family I got to know and who opposed these barbaric acts was Ustaz Mahmoud Taha, an elderly Professor of Law at Khartoum University. He and several of his sect had been imprisoned by Nimieri when I arrived. Others, whom I met and prayed with had fled into hiding.

Many academics had already fled the country to avoid imprisonment but those who remained led the opposition to General Nimieri and the fundamentalist clerics who were running the country. Eventually the army mutinied and he was overthrown and left the country to live happily ever after in exile in Egypt with the fortune he’d amassed while dictator. Shortly after I arrived in Sudan spasmodic rioting was beginning to break out, much of it focussed on the university campus.

The revolution finally broke when Nimieri hanged Mahmoud Taha in public before a huge rent-a-crowd bussed in to Kober Prison, which stood just outside the Arab house where I had my apartment. So I witnessed the hanging and saw Mahmoud bravely mount the scaffold voicing his resistance to the wrongful application of sharia law to the end.

I’d met and prayed with his followers, including his daughter, in desert villages on the outskirts of the city where they were in hiding; for several of my colleagues at university were his secret followers. I felt they were very close to Christianity with their respect for all human life and other faiths – a far cry from the fundamentalist Muslims who were a violent and barbaric lot.

The crunch came shortly after Mahmoud’s death when I went into the university as usual to give my lecture. The lecture theatre was empty. My students had either fled or joined the uprising against Nimieri; but scrawled across the blackboard behind my desk in English and in Arabic were the words: “Death to the Unbeliever!” I’d had a fatwah (death sentence) put on me by an extremist mullah who’d found out I was a Christian priest and thought I shouldn’t be teaching Muslim students in a Muslim University.

After that, my university colleagues spirited me away to hide up till I could be flown out of the country; and a few days later I caught one of the last flights from the airport before it closed as the revolution got into full swing when the army mutinied.

Meanwhile, my poor wife and family had been watching all the rioting and bloodshed on television in England, worrying themselves to death wondering where I was and how I was faring. I hadn’t been able to communicate with my wife until at the last minute I managed to let her know I was coming home via the British diplomatic bag, for I was chaplain to the ambassador and officiated at the cathedral.

And as I flew out of Khartoum over the desert through a magnificent sunrise, I made a late New Year resolution, which was once I’d reached England safely, I’d never grumble again – and I didn’t for six weeks. Then my innate Yorkshireness took over and I’m still grumbling like mad again twenty seven years later!
John Waddington-Feather ©


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