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Teachers in Africa: Out of the comfort zone

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After years of teaching business students in the U.K., Rupert Freeman decided his knowledge could be used to make a difference in Africa. In the past year he has been delivering life-changing lessons, while also learning a few of his own….

It’s been a difficult time if your name is Rupert. As one of this exclusive club attempted to save his grizzly empire, penniless Rupert Freeman was selflessly sharing his knowledge with aspiring, but less fortunate students. TABJ talks to a man who arrived in Egypt to teach business, only to find himself in the middle of a bloody revolution.

TABJ: Why did you decide to up sticks and leave your cosy job in England?

RUPERT FREEMAN: To be honest, I was concerned that Europe was heading for financial meltdown, and schools in the U.K. would be seeking cost-cutting opportunities (redundancies, pension cuts, reducing the number of white board markers, that kind of thing). I’ve been proved right to a certain extent, although admittedly issues in Egypt—like the overthrowing of a tyrannical regime—have put those initial concerns into some perspective!

TABJ: What was so appealing about Cairo?

RF: It’s a different continent, which has an increasing middle class population and average GDP, resulting in better salaries, reasonable tax payments and good working conditions.

TABJ: Why do you find teaching business so rewarding?

RF: It provides an opportunity for me to pass on my extensive experience in business, accounting, marketing, property and sales, to young Egyptian people, while also inspiring entrepreneurship. This will, in turn, improve economic conditions and pave a way for future generations of business people. It’s incredibly important that I leave a lasting legacy. I am determined to release potential and these students have it in abundance. They want to live better lives, earn a good wage and provide for their families.

TABJ: How responsive have your students been so far?

RF: My students are very keen to emerge from there, often very difficult, circumstances. They are really receptive to British standards and techniques in teaching. Typically, Egyptian teaching methods are based on repetitive learning, but I aim to use a more varied and active pedagogy. Keeping people engaged is vital and prepares them for all kinds of different working environments.

TABJ: Have they got the potential to succeed in the cut throat world of business?

RF: Cairo has historically been a centre of trade between Europe and the rest of the world, with the Suez Canal being the mid-point of the world’s shipping activities. As a result of this historic hub, business studies is the most popular subject at my school, and all these pupils have a natural curiosity about sales and business. It has been a real privilege to be able to nurture this enthusiasm into something dynamic, not only for the individual, but for the whole city.

TABJ: When did you realize that the scent of revolution was in the air?

RF: There were rumours milling around the staff room shortly before the real problems started, and the British embassy sent a strangely vague email to expats advising them not to go down town. It was clear something very serious was unfolding when we witnessed terrifying gun fights, screams and bloodshed at the end of the road we live on.

At this point the caretaker of the building dusted off his anachronistic World War II machine gun and all hell broke loose. We hid in our rooms and hoped that eventually we would be picked up and taken to safety.

It was surreal—in a situation like that you go into a state of shock; your brain simply cannot comprehend what is happening. I do remember briefly thinking, ‘I might actually die here.’ We were witnessing history, but when your life is under threat you start to question the wisdom of your decisions. It was a warzone, the people were determined to kick the government out and I had no idea how it was going to end.

TABJ: What action did the school take to ensure your safety?

RF: The school had some fairly odd, but ultimately useful, contingency plans in place, which involved taking us in convoy to the beach resort of Sharm el Sheik. Bizarrely, they bolted us into an all-inclusive hotel until events subsided. The only thing to do all day was eat from the unlimited buffet, until our stomachs begged for mercy. At this point I would lie down before reconvening for the next marathon feeding session.

It was very weird to know that crimes against humanity were happening a few miles away and we were just eating until it all died down. All schools in Cairo were closed for six weeks, but I heard that some expats weren’t taken away from the trouble and they just had to wait.

TABJ: Did you ever consider leaving?

RF: Within a few weeks the rebels had conquered ex-president Hosni Mubarak and it seemed that the country was entering a brave new chapter. In hindsight, the Egyptian revolution was relatively short compared to others, and we decided that to leave would be unfair on a school, which treated us so well during a very dangerous period. I also owed it to the students to return and finish the job I started. It’s this kind of incident that tests the mettle of a passionate teacher, and I’m glad that I stayed.

TABJ: How much as Cairo changed since the old regime was overthrown?

RF: Film, social discussion, music and even graffiti have become much more open. Shortly after arriving back we attended a film night with a French Revolution theme. This would have been impossible only three months earlier.

TABJ: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your job?

RF: I thrive on teaching young people the mechanics of capitalism and the potential of enterprise. I have grown to love it in Egypt and to see the people of this incredible country enjoy a sense of freedom and hope has been truly wonderful. The experience of the revolution has been unforgettable and made me realise that my mission here has only just begun. I don’t have any regrets.

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