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February 2003 - Issue No. #49 (p. 15-16)

Teaching English and Human Rights to the Military

by Jessica Newby

Guinea, West Africa

How does one go from teaching English in a private Japanese women's university to teaching human rights to the Guinean military? During my stay in Japan, I was active in bringing global issues into the language classroom, so the jump isn't as far as one might imagine. I needed a change and Africa was calling my name. It all came about by one of those chance meetings that finally led to a job offer through the Public Affairs Section of the US Embassy to come to Guinea and work with the military.

As I tried to plan and prepare which materials to bring, I asked about student level and needs. The response I got was "imagine teaching conversational English, but just change all the vocabulary into military terms." For example, "My weapon is broken. I need a new part." What was I getting myself into? Does the military really need English and am I suited for this? Are they going to be able to understand human rights concepts? Are they literate? All of these questions were going through my head as I boarded the plane.

As it turns out, the military does need English, especially here in Guinea. Guinea is a francophone country that is precariously situated next to war-torn Sierra Leone and Liberia, both English speaking countries. Liberia attacked Guinea in 2000, so now there are even more troops stationed in the border area. This area, called the Mano River Region, houses a large number of refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia. There is also a lot of regional trade that is governed by the military and gendarmes. Therefore, it is essential for troops stationed in that region to have some level of English, since many of their interactions take place in English. You can also find a lot of anglophone speakers in the capital city, Conakry, since refugees have been settling in Guinea during the past 10 years that there has been unrest in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Another reason for learning English is that Guinean troops have been stationed in both Sierra Leone and Liberia on peacekeeping missions (UNAMASIL and ECOMOG). In fa ct, many of the officers in my classes were previous members of these U.N. missions. These students often have a high level of comprehension, but not always the grammar to go with it as they learned their English in an informal setting

In addition, if members of the Guinean military have a sufficient level of English, they have the possibility to be sent to the United States for further training. The US Department of Defense offers various courses throughout the year to military of foreign countries including subjects such as finance, radio repair, medic training, coast guard training, communications and so on. Recently, one of the soldiers in my class, a young private of 22 who had never been out of Guinea, was sent to the US for 2 years of field medic training. He will be given 3 months of intensive English, then sent on his medic course. It is certain he will return to Guinea a changed person, with many more opportunities awaiting him.

The Public Affairs Section's interest lies in engaging the military on a regular basis and teaching about human rights and democratic values. The political future in Guinea is not predictable. The President, General Lansana Conte, came to power in a military coup in 1984. He is presently very ill and elections are scheduled for this year. Everyone is crossing their fingers for a smooth transition, but there are many factors, including ethnic tensions, to take into account. Dialogue and training regarding human rights, civic rights and education, tolerance and diversity are necessary to ensure this transition. Dialogues of this nature with the military are particularly relevant here in Guinea. Where there is regional instability, the mil itary is an essential component for discussions regarding human rights. Not only are these issues covered in the language classroom, but the military is also involved in other related events and programs conducted at the American Center.

Another issue covered in class is HIV/AIDS. In December, for AIDS Awareness Day, a session was conducted by an American HIV/AIDS trainer (in English) and was very positively received. The interest in HIV/AIDS training is substantial; other military who had heard about these sessions were coming to sit in on the classes and the Military Academy is considering hiring the trainer for further sessions for all the instructors at the Academy.

When I arrived and assessed the situation, I realized that the only way to have this program be successful and benefit all those involved (students, Guinean military, Defense Department and Public Affairs) was to work with learners who already had a base of English. I gave a placement test and chose 10 soldiers from the American-trained Ranger battalion and 20 officers from the four military services (army, navy, air force, gendarme).

The classrooms where I teach are on the military bases - one is in the Military Academy, the other is housed at the Ministry of Defense. My day is surrounded by camouflage and weapons - this has become the norm. The facilities in the classroom consist of 10 cubicles (limiting each class to 10 students) with headphones and a master cassette tape module as well as numerous textbooks, cassettes and test booklets. The classroom were purchased using the International Military Education and Training (IMET) funds and are part of a US State Department program called the Security Assistance Program. The facilities and extensive materials are designed to enable local officers who have completed training in the US to conduct classes. I use the textbooks provided for the grammatical lessons and develop other teaching materials for the content-based lessons.

The students, both soldiers and officers, are extremely motivated and astute. They are eager for the language training and to improve their level. They feel it is part of their responsibility as members of the military to learn about human rights and they are therefore open and receptive to these lessons. My classes are predominantly male, although I do have one female helicopter fighter pilot, the only one in Guinea and probably all of West Africa. All of the students are polite, chivalrous and serious - I have been impressed and encouraged by their positive attitude. I arrived not knowing what to expect and my expectations have been surpassed on many levels.

This experience has given me an insight into the military that I never imagined I'd have. It's also added a human face to the armed forces. Whereas before the military was a faceless entity in uniforms, I now see that they are people with the same problems and concerns as the rest of us, and that one of their main concerns is peace in their country.

Jessica Newby is a former JALT Global Issues SIG officer who taught EFL in Japan before moving to Africa. She now works as a trainer for the United Nations and is currently posted in East Timor. United Nations Training Program



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