Sudan Studies, Number 18, (August 1990)
Siege fever had taken grip of the teachers' 'mez'. Ustaz Abd ar-Rahim, mild-mannered head of geography at Abri Boys' School, had stacked the space under his bed with Molotov cocktails. And Mahmoud, a history teacher from Ed-Dammer, had procured a three foot iron bar which he too stowed away at easy reach beneath his mattress.
This general alert amongst my colleagues had been triggered by ominous rumours emanating from the school boarding house. The Sudan Certificate exams were only into their second day and our pupils were not happy.
They had entered the history exam, the first on the timetable, with expectations of a liberal invigilation regime about to be shattered. Ten minutes into the paper, the first of an endless stream of cheating students was detected and confronted. One irate boy caught with a crib note reportedly raised his chair above his head threatening to strike the invigilator with it.
Unable to consult their smuggled papers in the examination room, pupils filed out to the toilets in droves, hoping to glance over their pre-prepared notes there. Most were intercepted, frisked and relieved of their illegal scraps of paper. Evidence that some boys had succeeded could be seen in the form of torn strips of pages, patterned in scrawls of algebra, history and English, fluttering from the toilets, carried out towards the empty horizon on the hot breeze.
By the end of that first day, hundreds of crib notes had been seized and threats from the pupils had been heaped upon us. If the strict invigilation policy persisted we would be on the receiving end of their wrath.
The second day of exams passed in the same fashion as the first and that evening the school carpenter came to warn us of an imminent attack on the 'mez'. This had prompted Abd ar-Rahim's hurried manufacture of Molotovs and those other preparations, not usually associated with the teacher-pupil relationship.
At first we thought the sounds to be the pattering feet of a cat in the yard. But this illusion lasted for only a second. The first few stones cast were followed by a barrage of rocks and pebbles, raining over the wall into the yard and crashing onto the roof above us.
Mahmoud, with his iron bar, got to the door of the yard and held it shut. The rest of us stayed under cover while the missiles and angry cries were hurled at us. The attack lasted about five minutes and the mob only moved off to pursue two teachers whom they'd spotted taking flight out of a window.
The doctor's car which doubled as an ambulance, had been in the street outside our house and was badly smashed up by flying stones. But no human casualties resulted from the students' action. The ferocity with which their displeasure had been expressed shocked only me. My colleagues quickly acknowledged that their resolve to invigilate without compromise went against the grain at Abri.
Over the years apparently, Abri had gained a reputation for being a laid-back examination venue. Parents and some local teachers cited Abri's remoteness as one justification. Their children needed a head start they argued, to make up for the poor resources on offer at the school. Teaching time was always lost during the year due to closures, water shortages, student strikes and various logistical problems. In order to put their sons on a level footing with the rest of Sudan when exam times came around, it was necessary to allow a certain amount of blatant cheating, the argument went. However, what was true of Abri in terms of limited facilities was equally true of hundreds of other schools around the country.
The step my colleagues had taken led in only one direction. We abandoned our invigilation duties and took ourselves by lorry to the regional education office in Dongola, to submit a statement, put together in conjunction with the teachers' union.
While we were going through the motions, our headmaster - an Abri man - had recruited primary school teachers and government workers from local offices, to take over the management of the exams. Those candidates identified as cheats were reinstated as far as we could tell and Abri's results in the end, seemed to be respectable enough.
I found it impossible to return to teach in the Northern Province the next year. Presumably because I'd left Abri in solidarity with the other teachers. However, the division of the education administration into academic and technical sections allowed me to switch sides, and swap Abri Boys' (academic) School for al-Ghaba Boys' Commercial (technical) School, which was still in the north.
Far less remote than Abri in the heart of Nubia, al-Ghaba was close to Dongola and I looked forward to a smoother time teaching there. Abd ar-Rahim had moved to al-Ghaba too and we settled into our new post without incident. We often reminisced about the tumultuous end to our Abri careers. On the whole, relations with the pupils had been very good. Perhaps the deeply-held aversion to examinations had little to do with lack of school facilities and everything to do with an acute dearth of university places, even for those few students who emerged from the school system with good exam results. A neighbour in Abri had summed up the extent to which school was seen as an irrelevance when asked what he intended to do on leaving. He was going to devote all of his energies he told us, to getting a visa for a Gulf country, where he could earn large sums for doing fairly menial jobs.
My hopes that al-Ghaba would be different eventually started to crumble. Solitary missiles would occasionally soar across the wall into the yard of our house. One rock cut through the air like a bullet, bounced off a table, around which a group of colleagues were playing cards, and landed at their feet without harming anyone. Compared to the mass charge that night in Abri, this was very low intensity harassment and we lived with it day to day for some time.
One night we heard the clatter of yet an other projectile hitting the roof under which six of us were trying to sleep. In the morning the precise nature of this latest salvo could be seen. Lying on the ground were the shattered pieces of a smashed bottle, around whose neck, a dark stain in the sand showed where the bottle's contents had leaked out. A singed bung of cotton wool lay in the same place. Clearly what had struck the roof the previous night had not been a stone but a Molotov cocktail. Confirmation that the academic year had come full circle. It was the morning of the first day of the Sudan Certificate Exams.