Liz Terry’s African adventures

Judith Pembleton, Queensland Regional Meeting

As a 21-year-old geography graduate, Liz Terry (Queensland RM) imagined going to Africa to explore her fascination with the desertification of Africa’s fertile agricultural lands but then she received an offer too good to refuse – the chance to go to Central Sudan with her airfares paid and a house provided by the Sudanese government plus a small salary on a one-year English teaching contract.

Her preparation for her teaching post was one weekend of intensive training and a small text, The Nile Course for the Sudan, Volumes 1 to 6, which became her guide in her early days of teaching west of the African Rift Valley.

Two weeks before she flew to Khartoum to begin her contract, Liz was watching the BBC late news with her 80-year-old grandmother when news of a coup in Sudan was shown, with bombing and clouds of smoke on screen. Liz’s grandmother said: “You won’t be going anywhere near there, will you?” And Liz assured her that she wouldn’t, as she would not be in Khartoum for long – she was determined to head for the mountain villages as far from the city as the contract would permit so that she could get to know the people and their ways of life.

In fact, Liz said, the coup made little difference in Khartoum or rural Sudan. Two weeks later there was a new government in place and with a good season for growing the country continued as it had done for decades under a mild version of Islamic Rule. Tensions between those in the south and those in north Sudan continued – those in the south would make incursions north during the wet season and move back when that ended.

Her initial journey to her teaching post was undertaken in the rainy season – travelling on top of sacks of sugar in the back of a truck and hearing sniper fire close by. Everyone remained calm and just advised her to keep her head down on the sugar sacks. Although the goods provided some seating for everyone, sugar becomes very hard to sit on after a few hours and this journey took over three days.

While it was sometimes frightening, Liz seems to have had a charmed life in the Sudan and learned to love the lifestyle and the people. As a woman teacher in the pay of the government and an international traveller, Liz had status in the community which also offered some protection to some locals with whom she travelled and spent her time.

Liz Terry today

Liz was concerned about taking a job from a local teacher, but soon discovered that village teachers tended to head for Khartoum and not return and also learned that students in country schools who could not learn English would be denied the chance for higher education, a remnant of Sudan’s colonial past.

Flying in with 40 other teachers, Liz was allocated to the “peanut capital of Africa”, En Nahud, in North Kordofan. This was a vibrant trading community centre where peanut growers brought their produce by camel and Liz was delighted to be allowed to ride camels as part of her exploration of her new home.

As an educated woman teacher, Liz became an “honorary male” and could participate with the men in meetings and could eat with the men – an unusual privilege in a Muslim country where women and children ate in the kitchen separate from the men who were waited on in the more formal eating room. 

However, Liz could also join the women in the kitchen, which was much more informal and cooking was always a noisy, lively, enjoyable time with everyone pitching in. They would eat slowly, using the right hand only as required by custom, and then lie back on cushions for a nap. The best morsels were picked out for the children. At night, the children would be part of the kitchen meals and eventually would fall asleep and someone would move them to a cushion at the edge of the room – there was no “bedtime”, bedroom or before bedtime bath and stories – and everyone in the family was responsible for the care of all the children. Even distant relatives might notice a child needing something and simply take care of it or correct the child if appropriate.

Liz learned to communicate in Sudanese Colloquial Arabic, a simplified form of classical Arabic but understood throughout the Arab speaking world. After loving the lifestyle sufficiently to sign up for a second year, Liz could read the headlines of the newspaper and communicate in the spoken language with colleagues and villagers.

Liz said, “No one else in the village spoke English and the other teachers loved that I wanted to learn Arabic and were happy to teach me the days of the week, or the numbers, etcetera in our lunch breaks”. 

Liz said she was very naive and was very fortunate in her experiences in male-dominated1980s Islamic African society. As a young woman on her own, Liz was adopted by a local family. The father was a merchant and the family were what we might call reasonably well to-do. One of the daughters married during her time there and Liz joined in the preparations for the wedding, including helping to peel a washing basket size quantity of garlic. The dancing, feasting and festivities lasted for three days but the preparations had been intense over more than six months.

Liz said “I saw Islamic culture at its best. What mattered was that you had a religious faith, not what faith it was – we could discuss the similarities between our beliefs”. At that stage, Liz came from a traditional Christian family and she was not yet well acquainted with Quakers. 

Although she had attended Quaker meetings in Durham, UK, as a student, it was only on her return to Hereford Quaker Meeting in England that she felt at home in a Quaker spiritual community. From that time she has attended Quaker meetings wherever she has lived, apart from three years in Brazil where she worked with the Padre Redemptoristas. Their following of Paulo Friere’s teachings, social action and Liberation Theology was most akin to her Quaker understandings in a strongly Catholic country.

In her second twelve-month contract in Sudan, Liz wanted to teach in the western mountains of Jebel Marra where she had taken a hiking holiday. She talked to the headmaster of a boys’ school at Zalingei and offered to teach English when the new academic year commenced. She was gratefully accepted; having a second English teacher was much appreciated and she became the first woman to teach in a boys’ school in Sudan.

Whether teaching in boys’ or girls’ schools, Liz found high levels of motivation to study by students who appreciated the sacrifices their parents were making to allow them to continue at school. While she taught only at government-funded schools, it still cost money and deprived the family of a worker at home.

At the boarding school, the Ministry of Education provided board and lodging, a handful of textbooks and some school equipment but the family had to provide the uniforms, stationary and meet travel costs.

Liz said the community was a moderate Muslim community. There was a high level of respect for older members of the family who would be cared for at home as they became aged or infirm – no one would think of sending them away to be cared for by professional carers. Liz never spoke to any woman who had been abused, unlike in some other communities where she worked later in her life.

Women’s lives in the African village were decided by the men in the family, including where they could travel and who they might marry, so Liz was asked how her dad could have let her come so far away and whether she had quarrelled with her family to have moved away independently. She assured them that she loved her family dearly and wrote regularly and the Sudanese loved to see her family photos. 

They were concerned that she was left on her own to choose from “all those men out there in the world” when their families arranged marriages between members of families who had probably known one another all their lives. For Muslim brides, they married into a family, not just the one person who was to be husband or wife, so the possibilities and negotiations were extensive and the numbers involved in decision-making large.

In the holidays, Liz took a donkey to travel to the villages where her students lived and to fulfil her desire to see more of African places and culture. Fortunately, her contacts within the community meant she would always have someone make arrangements for her stays so that there was always a meal and a bed waiting for her and brothers, cousins or uncles to accompany her on her onward journey.

Liz was aware of a Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) vaccination program in the nearby villages and as she spoke Arabic, she offered to help translate. She saw the long treks women were willing to undertake to get their children vaccinated and undertook a study of compliance rates and cost effectiveness.

Working with MSF she saw two kinds of malnutrition — the kind in which children were stick thin and the kind with swollen bellies. MSF used an armband to measure their nutritional status and to determine who required additional feeding and care. She also saw food drops from charitable organisations being delivered in ways that failed to deliver assistance in timely ways to those who needed it most, and saw much wastage. The famine had killed off many of the old, young and weak and those who were left were discouraged from farming as the food drops took away their reason for growing crops. 

She saw the ways these food drops could have been much more effectively delivered and more fairly distributed to the most needy and she felt a great anger at the injustice and the unnecessary suffering of the people which impelled her to let others know. She spoke to a journalist to try to get the food agencies to think about how to deliver fairer distribution of their food parcels. Currently many organisations have a policy of employing local staff who are much more aware of the local politics of food and medicine distribution and have a much better understanding of the holistic picture than fly in fly out emergency international teams.

Her experiences with delivering health services led to a change in direction in Liz’s work and study – instead of returning to university to complete a doctorate in desertification she went back to the UK to study Tropical Community Medicine and Health where her study of compliance rates and cost effectiveness of immunisation provided some real-life data for her studies and an understanding of some factors involved in this vital work.

When Liz began her health studies it was with the expectation of returning to Africa to work with MSF or a similar charitable organisation, Instead she was offered the chance to work on a United Nations funded leprosy and tuberculosis control project in the Amazon jungle of South America. So that led naturally to her next overseas adventure and a very different working experience.

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1 Comment

  1. Naomi Doessel

    What a fascinating story! I hope there will be follow-up about her Amazon experiences 🙂


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