We are all learners now

Shortlisted, 2010 Australian Human Rights Commission Awards, Print Media Category

I AM NOT an ocean person. I don’t like the sea particularly – it makes me nervous, and I find its endlessly shifting tidal sighs annoying and distracting rather than calming. And then there is the sand and the salt, which I don’t like either. It is too big and too empty to make me happy. A child of large cities, tall buildings, masses of people, I always feel affronted by the flat, featureless nothing of the sea. But I have come to respect the tide: if not in its littoral presence, at least as a metaphor. My unenthusiastic observation of Australian beaches over the two decades of my own migrant past here has taught me how well tidal movements re-enact the cross-cultural encounter – that undetectable moment of transition and transformation when tidal seawater washes up onto the shore, depositing its load of microbes, shells, seaweed and sand, and at the same time bearing other loads away, washing the shoreline clean of what was there moments before.


TIDAL WASH 1: Fort-da: I am sitting on a comfortable couch in a small flat in a public housing high-rise in Kensington watching a homemade, hand-held video. The video shows a Moro village in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, not far from one of the larger towns in the region. It is early February in the video – hot, dry, dusty, still, like summers in the Australian desert or in the more parched sections of wheat-belt country to Victoria’s north.

I say the video shows a Moro village, but this is not correct – the video shows the absence of a Moro village, a disappeared community devastated by years of civil war and unrest in central and southern Sudan. The twenty or so mud-brick houses with their thatched-grass roofs and mid-wall entrances to cooler interiors have settled back into the landscape over the past twenty-five years with barely a trace – earth to earth, dust to dust, a lot of ash and too many bones.

The video was shot by my friend Samuel, a Moro man who has returned to the place where his home used to be after twenty-three years of transit in Khartoum, Egypt and, latterly, Australia. Now thirty-eight, he fled the region at fourteen when the war between North and South spilled over into this remote and hard-to-reach area of the Nuba highlands. A few Moro have recently returned from the cities and are rebuilding their houses. Samuel tells me it takes only a few days to build one of the round, snug mud-brick structures – first, the labour of making and setting the bricks, then waiting for the bricks to dry while the roof is woven and installed.

So we are looking at a video of a little village that lives mostly in memory and its telling. Samuel’s need to signify takes him through clumps of bushes and trees scattered throughout the valley of his kinspeople. Here, he says, pointing to the screen, here is my uncles houseHere is where I was born. There is a slight depression in the ground where his uncle’s house once stood; the land dips away here, ashamed, turning its face from the politely neutral hum of the video camera. The tense is always present – Here it is. Here I am. Here we are.

Here we are: in the stuffy, overheated lounge room of a refugee family on a cold winter’s night in Melbourne, and in the dusty, limpid, tamarind-scented air of the Nuba Mountains. What am I to make of this doubled present, so densely populated with memory, with presence and with loss? I am nearly crying now, but Samuel, sitting in his living room next to his wife, is cheerful and benign, his handsome, broad face smiling, smiling, eager to share this with me, a gesture of friendship long anticipated and now fulfilled months after his return. My tears, his smile: I am deeply embarrassed and I don’t know where to look.

Ten minutes away on foot, in another Moro village, is the place where Samuel’s wife, Samiya, lived with her family. Ten minutes by foot, yet her Moro language is spoken with a different accent and inflection to Samuel’s, the distinction between clan boundaries marked by the shibboleth of the human tongue as much as by the shallow cleft and rise of the small hills between the two villages. I was born right here, says Samiya, pointing. And my father died right here, the same. The spot she points to on the video is very specific, very localised – she really means right here. I am overcome by the groundedness of what she is indicating: this place and no other, this birth that was mine and not another’s, this man’s death and no one else’s. It is such an intimate space, and such an intimate moment, that I am shocked at how little I feel when I look more closely to pinpoint visually the location in my mind. My emotion rises and crests through the presence of Samiya’s words and the sound of her voice, and not through the optical mechanics of my earnest peering at the screen. I am, finally, as I have always been, word-struck. I know that my looking will never be enough. I am mortified by this, and I squint so hard in an effort to see what is not there that my eyes begin to sting.

Freud understood very well the dynamics of fort-da – the game young children play when they are beginning to cope with the centrality of presence and absence in their small, fiercely felt worlds. In one sense I am that child again, but the child knows exactly where she is in Freud’s game: the anxiety about presence and absence in that scenario is about the other, or the object, in relation to the self. My grown-up moment offort-da arouses anxieties not about the loss of objects, but the loss of bearings. Samuel knows exactly where he is in that video, in that village; it is I who am cut adrift, though I sit firmly on my backside in a familiar Melbourne flat with unspent tears burning behind my eyes, eating cake that is suddenly too sweet and swallowing tea that has become too milky.


TIDAL WASH 2: Home/work: Most cross-cultural researchers, if they are honest, will tell you that much of what they learn and experience about their relationship with cultural others occurs outside the boundaries of formal research relationships. Nearly six years ago I went along to a talk given by Matthew Albert, the founder of the Sudanese-Australian Integrated Learning (SAIL) Program, which had started a few years earlier when two University of Melbourne students – one of whom was Matthew – responded to a small slip on a university noticeboard seeking homework tutoring for the children of a just-arrived Sudanese refugee family.

Significant numbers of Sudanese humanitarian refugees began arriving in Australia around 2001, and the pace of humanitarian resettlement from Sudan quickened rapidly for several years after that. Now Australia is home to approximately thirty thousand Sudanese refugees who have resettled here, often after extended periods in interim countries of transit or in refugee camps. One of the most compelling challenges Sudanese people face as they make new homes in countries like Australia is not just learning another language, usually English, but acquiring the building blocks of literacy by learning to read and write. Literacy rates in any language for women in Sudan, particularly those in Southern Sudan, where the majority of Sudanese-Australians hail from, continue to hover at around 2 per cent; the figure is slightly higher for men.

The rich oral-cultural base for Sudanese people in an array of tribal and trans-regional languages is a thing of strength and beauty, and most Sudanese people I know are immensely proud of their languages – their aesthetics, their cultural capital, their robustness. But many are also desperate to learn English, to read and write, to make their mark in their new country not only on the ground but on the page. The 510 hours in English language education that they receive from federally funded programs when they first arrive is a drop in the ocean of their need.

The small tutoring venture that Matthew and his fellow student started close to a decade ago quickly mushroomed into a cross-cultural English language tutoring and support program held weekly on Saturday mornings that serves more than four hundred Sudanese community members in Melbourne alone, across multiple campuses, with newer campuses now operating in Sydney and Adelaide. SAIL matches newly and recently arrived Sudanese with volunteer tutors drawn from across the Australian community: university students, school teachers, artists, retirees, mums and dads, professional people of all ages and cultural backgrounds. The oldest tutor when I began my life with SAIL was Fay, a short but doughty woman of eighty-six who raised her head and exhaled with pleasure whenever her student read aloud a word or phrase from the text they were bent over together.

I signed up with SAIL in 2005 as a volunteer tutor; the original SAIL campus, a church and community centre, was located in Footscray, where I live and work. I knew nothing at all about Sudan as a nation – its politics, its history, its languages, its culture, its religions or economy or life-ways. I had only the vaguest idea about the political situation in Southern Sudan, about the complex forces and circumstances over the past fifty years that have resulted in a growing population of refugees seeking humanitarian asylum in western countries.

I was aware, however, that my own adopted home of Melbourne’s western suburbs had recently become home for growing numbers of refugees from different African nations who had begun the journey of migration and resettlement following their flight into the unknown. Although as an academic in Australia I specialised for more than a decade as a researcher of Indigenous Australian writing and representation, my first love as a young lecturer in New York had been the kind of hands-on work with language skills and literacy acquisition that broadened new educational horizons for students from every conceivable cultural background.

One Saturday morning I showed up at the down-at-heel parish church in Footscray to see if SAIL and I had a future together. There were children of all ages tumbling everywhere; tutor-student pairs perched on pews, at tables, on the grass outside and tucked away in corners of the vestry. High-decibel dialogue emanated from every corner of the church hall, muffled only slightly by an avalanche of papers, pens, books, games and magazines. In the distance, I could see some harried-looking people valiantly striding from group to group, armed with clipboards, nametags in English and Arabic, and the biggest, loveliest smiles I’d seen in quite some time.

In the centre of this maelstrom were about half a dozen Sudanese women sitting around a long table with a few tutors. They worked quietly in groups of twos and threes, reading and writing, occasionally pausing to stop a rushing boy in his tracks or reverse the direction of a wayward infant making an escape from the under-fives room adjoining the church foyer. I was disarmed by how friendly and welcoming they were when I appeared, but I felt real terror when I was invited to sit and join them, for all the usual reasons: I’d say something wrong, they wouldn’t like me, we wouldn’t connect, I had nothing to offer. Yet I knew almost instantly that I wanted to work with adults rather than kids.

My motivation for this was no mystery to me. I grew up in a European-Jewish multilingual household in New York City where everyone spoke English but where the difference in reading and writing skills across generations and also across different sides of the family was pronounced. My father, a native Yiddish speaker, had begun school and learned his first English words when he was seven, and left formal education when he was only twelve to work full-time, in 1920. His first job after five years of primary schooling was for a launderer, carrying heavy bags of wet steaming laundry up many flights of stairs in Lower East Side tenements for fifty cents a week. My grandmother and mother, high-school educated, both fluent in German but born and raised in New York, read and wrote English like the American natives they were, but my Persian-Israeli stepmother, who spoke French, Farsi, Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish and had migrated to New York via France in the 1960s, never learned how to read or write in English and always relied on my brother and me to translate written texts for her.

As I grew up, becoming the first person in my immediate family to gain a university degree, I became aware of the widening gap in how we understood ourselves and the world that characterised the generations in my household. My education gave me access to things that my parents and grandparents not only never had, but at times could not fully understand or comprehend. This disjunct could sometimes be amusing, but more often it was painful, because I could not communicate with the full intimacy of shared knowledge and understanding that we often take for granted within a family or even a community.

I recall the poignant moment when I told my father, by then in his early nineties, that I had at last finished my PhD. After the expected congratulations and praise, he asked something that really startled me: he wanted to know what it was like. I realised he was asking me what the process of doing this work was like, how it had been for me; a man who revered book education but had worked with his hands all his life, he was trying to understand what sustained intellectual labour meant as a form of craft. I struggled in turn to think of a way of expressing this that would be meaningful for him. Finally, I said, ‘Well, Dad, it was the longest piece of homework I’ve ever had to do.’

A lot of people laugh when I tell this story, and I laugh too when I remember it. But behind this lies a shard of sadness that we did not, and could not, have a fully shared understanding of what it was like as mutual intimates on the inside of such an experience. The generational gap, defined by my own educational opportunity gain and my father’s educational opportunity cost, loomed very large for me at that moment.

My experience is echoed by that of many migrant families in a variety of host countries and historical periods. Of the few generalisations that can be made about the migrant experience, one of them is that the children of resettled migrant families adapt much more quickly and flexibly to the demands and challenges of a new homeland environment than adults in their families, developing language skills and acculturation repertoires that help them straddle, if not always comfortably or without conflict, both the world their forebears left behind and that which they now inhabit. In the western world, literacy skills are key to this adaptive process, and much has been written about the importance of focusing not just on the literacy of individuals but of whole families, since the foundations of literacy in many ways begin at home and are nurtured, sustained and reinforced beyond classroom environments of formal learning. Yet the price paid for this is too frequently the loss of the mother(’s) tongue, the leaching of orature’s centrality, and the attenuation of the home space it conjures and describes with each click of the tongue, each hiss of the teeth, each gentle smack of the lips.

My one-to-one student at SAIL for several years now has been Amaya, a 33-year-old Masakin Tiwal woman who came to Melbourne seven years ago from a rural village in Sudan’s Nuba after transiting for several years, first in Khartoum, then in Cairo. Amaya has a husband, Isaiah, and two sons, Matthias and Tutu, as well as Melinda, a small daughter born in Melbourne. Amaya’s husband and boys work with their own individual tutors nearby; Melinda is often with us, fidgeting, laughing, fussing, delighting.

There is a saying in Sudan that the Nuba region has ninety-nine mountain peaks, and ninety-nine languages to go with them. Amaya speaks one and understands two of these languages: her own tribal language of Masakin Tiwal and a little bit of Moro, the language her husband grew up with, although he too is Masakin Tiwal. Amaya is also fluent in Sudanese Arabic, the lingua franca in which Sudanese people from many different regions and language groups communicate with each other. Her English, to which she applies herself with great diligence, used to halt and spurt but has now steadied its progression.

Amaya did not read or write in any language until she came to Australia. As she never tires of telling me, A is for Amaya. We spend our SAIL time together working through word lists, picture– and word-matching, reading comprehension and other literacy-based activities. I teach her English, and she teaches me Sudanese Arabic and sometimes words in her own Masakin Tiwal, which I can never pronounce correctly. She has taught me how to count from one to ten in Sudanese Arabic (wahid, idnen, talata...), and I can say a few other words and phrases in the same language: jama, for the university where I work; ja, as in ‘Amaya ja’, Amaya is coming; ma mushkala, no worries; koeis or ma koeis, good or not so good. There are a host of different ways of saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in Sudanese Arabic, depending on context and occasion, none of which I’ve yet mastered.

At fifty-two, I’m old enough to be Amaya’s mother. Yet, despite the age gap and language barriers, we have become very close. We go shopping at the local malls, I cook for her at my house and I spend a lot of time at her house, in the kitchen cooking and eating with her, in the living room chatting to Isaiah, playing with their daughter, helping the boys with their homework and laughing, laughing all the time. I have never known anyone who laughs as much as Amaya.

I am surprised by how fiercely I want to reckon and tally our differences and points of connection on the abacus of friendship. I don’t yet know what to make of this hunger, other than to say that it appears to fall within the territory of wanting to practice a more specific kind of empathy, of standing in Amaya’s place to better grasp her unique standpoint or, alternatively, to pace out the impossibility of standing right here when the here of my Sudanese friends can only ever be somewhere else – culturally, affectively, epistemologically – for me. What this means, how it has come to be, whether it is sustainable, are all unanswered questions. And Amaya and I don’t yet have enough of a shared tongue for us to explore these questions together in any depth. For the moment, we spend a lot of time attempting to outdo each other in the reciprocity stakes, so that the twice– or thrice-weekly give and take of our friendship feels reliable and steady, like the movement of the tide.


TIDAL WASH 3: Error: One day at SAIL I was trying to explain the concept of a refund to Amaya, but we were getting nowhere; the receipt I’d brought along and the little skit of shopping and returning an item to get your money back that I had put together just didn’t cut it. Right after this, we went together to a community talk on Australian laws surrounding domestic violence and intervention orders. The talk centred for a little while on divorce, and the presenter mentioned that in Australia, unlike Sudan, when a man divorces his wife he doesn’t get his dowry payment of cattle to the wife’s family back after the marriage dissolves. I forgot myself entirely at this point and bellowed, ‘NO REFUND!’ Amaya looked at me with sudden comprehension in her eyes, the spark of connection flared, and we collapsed laughing.

But earlier last year, we got on to the subject of working. I wanted to know what kind of work Amaya had done in Sudan. She said to me a word that sounded like ‘floor’, and the gestures she made to show how the work was done led me to think she had worked as a cleaner, either in houses or in some institution. I was a little puzzled to hear that Isaiah had also done the same work, as cleaning is very much women’s work in Sudan. Weeks later, I mentioned this to a mutual Sudanese friend, who looked at me pityingly. The word Amaya had used in English was ‘flour’, not ‘floor’, and the hand gestures she used to embody this related to the grinding of grain into flour from the crops that Amaya and her husband grew on their land.

This misapprehension on my part, and the feeling of idiocy I experienced as a consequence, is one of the most common experiences for refugee learners who are simultaneously trying to negotiate a new culture, a new language, and a new set of communication skills and modalities. The threatening nature of having to turn back the clock educationally, and experience the feelings of childish helplessness when trying to make yourself heard and understood by people not always willing to listen or be patient, means that many refugee adult learners feel profoundly disheartened at what seems like the lifetime of learning that looms ahead. The average time for a non-literate adult learner to gain moderate proficiency in English reading and writing is about ten years. It is daunting and dispiriting, and many are unable or unwilling to complete the journey.

And what of the average time it takes for a literate native speaker of English, with many university degrees, to feel the hot discomfort of error and misunderstanding, to understand and accept their own need to learn, to turn back the clock and the cloak of education and experience? Spending time with Amaya has saved me from having to wait a lifetime for that.

A lot of cross-cultural engagement training focuses on the importance of saving or maintaining face for all parties in the cut and thrust of intercultural exchange. But I am travelling a reverse route, for I can lose face with Amaya, I can surrender all the ramparts and projectiles that the researcher and the academic and the middle-aged woman uses to thrust herself upon and protect herself within the world, and – remarkably, sublimely – the friendship grows stronger for this. When I fail to wield properly the implement for makingluuguma, the impossibly thick and unyielding flour and water paste beloved by Nuba women, Amaya laughs openly at me and then seizes the long-handled wooden paddle away, stropping the paste into submission, crowing with pride at her superior strength. I feel the tidal wave of her affection and delight at my culinary weakness wash over me, and I am in love with the ocean of it. I am smaller, older, less lugubrious and lessluuguma-worthy than Amaya – but I don’t care; in fact, I rather enjoy this newer, smaller, less able me. Sometimes it is a relief to be lesser.


TIDAL WASH 4: Between the horizon and the shore: Amaya. Isaiah. Samuel. Samiya. Gatwech. Matthias. John. Tutu. David. Melinda. Aguet. Margaret. Elizabeth. Achol. Before them, before now, I might have passed any Sudanese family on the street in Footscray or Dandenong or Reservoir and never thought twice about them. Tides are threatening. They can submerge and drown as well as wash us ashore on strange outcrops and new days. But the tidal movements of cross-cultural exchange writ small, in the everyday encounters, struggles and losses of new words, old beliefs, broken skies and the littoral detritus of the past, can open up a territory where you are alive to the possibilities engendered by curiosity and error, connection and clumsiness, for refashioning selves and the beaches on which they meet, rather than just jealously guarding the shoreline while scanning the horizon for familiar shapes and portents. We are all learners now.


Certain names and other details have been altered for reasons of privacy.

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