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First Ceylonese pilgrimage to Mecca by air

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by Capt Elmo Jayawardena
Elmojay1@gmail.com

This is an ancient story; most records are lost, buried or moth-eaten. Still, there is a lot remaining in the minds of men who heard how things happened and what was commercial flying like in its infant days in Ceylon.

The aeroplane popularly known as ‘Dakota’ had been the workhorse of most allied forces during the Second World War. I do not know how many DC-3s were produced during the war years but they sure were somewhere around 16,000, or possibly even more. The aircraft came in various models whilst the prototype remained the fundamental ‘Dakota’ flying machine. After the war ended, most of the surplus DC-3s were converted into passenger-carrying aircraft. The new-born airlines popping up all over the world in ‘born again’ independent countries started their airline operations with secondhand military-used ‘Dakotas’.

On the 10th of December 1947, Air Ceylon took off from the Ratmalana Airport on its maiden international commercial flight to Madras via Jaffna, operated with a DC-3, placing our little island on the world map of aviation.

That was the beginning and then came the cautious expansion.

Those were the times, when the Haj and Umra pilgrims from Sri Lanka went to Mecca by travelling to Bombay and taking a flight from there. Some preferred the sea route from Colombo to Jeddah and then to Mecca by air or overland. As Air Ceylon tested its wings flying from Ratmalana to Jaffna and a few Indian airports, they began looking for new destinations. It was then that the Haj pilgrims negotiated with the National Carrier to charter a ‘Dakota’ to fly Muslim devotees from Ratmalana to Jeddah and back.

The commercial part of the matter was all-settled at the Airline head office and the task fell on the fledgling flight operations section to find a way to fly to Jeddah. The DC-3 was more than capable of the journey, of course, with multiple pit-stops for re-fueling and overnight stays. A fully loaded ‘Dakota’ weighing 26,200 Ib could carry 21 passengers. Its fuel capacity was 822 gallons and its two Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp Radial engines drank 73 gallons per hour. The aeroplane had a ‘nil-wind’ range of approx. 1,500 nautical miles (nm) cruising at 6,000 ft. These were the performance data the flight crew had to work with, but there was a problem, a huge one at that. None of the Air Ceylon crew had flown those desert routes. Their exposure was limited to India, and to make it worse the Flight Operations office had no charts of the air-routes that could take them from Ratmalana to Jeddah! They were OK up to Bombay, but what lay beyond that was unknown or even a possible damnation.

There was no way to go from Ratmalana to Jeddah as the crow flies. The crew had to consider the range capacity of their ‘Dakota’ and make their flight plan. The answer was at the Katunayaka RAF base. where they had all the necessary charts that covered the entire Middle Eastern sky. Post-war long-range operations were well-organised by the RAF, and they very generously shared all the information for route planning with details of radio beacons for navigation and radio frequencies for en-route communication.

Air Ceylon was now equipped to make their flight plan. They worked out the route from Ratmalana to Bombay (840 nm) and then to Karachi (471 nm), to Salalah (RAF base in Oman by the Arabian Sea – distance 871 nm), then to Aden (583 nm) and finally to Jeddah (627 nm).

Night stops were planned in Karachi and Aden with accommodation for crew and passengers. Everything was ready to fly to the unknown destinations through unknown territory and an unknown sky.

When I flew to Jeddah from BIA in the 80s it was on state-of-the-art Tri- Stars. We sat in the cockpit and punched into computers our route and destination Jeddah. We took off and engaged the autopilot and the automation did the rest and took us on the planned route to King Abdulaziz Airport in Jeddah. Even with all the sophisticated equipment we carried it was difficult to spot the runway when approaching the airfield. Everything was dusty, brown and hazy; it was either radar vectors or the instrument landing system that brought us to touch down. I often wonder what it would have been to fly a DC-3 to that same airport in 1950. The route they flew and how they found the airfields and countered the 40-degree heat in un-airconditioned cockpits would have been nothing less than the zenith of professional ‘seat of the pants’ flying. Perhaps it may have been the romance of it too, the true essence of flying which modern day pilots like me would hardly know.

They took off from Ratmalana with 21 Haj pilgrims bound for Jeddah. The flight crew comprised Capt Peter Fernando the Commander, Capt Emil Jayawardena the Co-Captain, Lionel Sirimanne the Radio Officer and G. V. Perera the Engineering Officer. Capt Peter was a veteran and the Flight Operations Manager of Air Ceylon. Capt Emil was an ex-RAF ‘Spitfire’ fighter pilot, who flew in the war; Mr Sirimanne and Mr Perera were experts in their allocated roles of communications and engineering. Off they flew, from Ratmalana, tracking to Bombay, where they stopped to refuel; everyone had lunch there. The next sector was to Karachi and as the sun went down in the Western sky, the ‘Dakota’ made its approach to land in Karachi’s Drigh Road Airport (currently known as Jinnah International). Now, it was night-stop time and the entourage moved to the BOAC crew hotel called ‘Speedbird’ located right next to the airport.

End of day one.

So far so good, they had flown 1,311 nm staying in the sky the whole day. Even though the first day’s route was quite familiar the navigation would have been very demanding as there were only a handful of non-directional beacons (NDBs) to tune to and use as nav-aids to make course corrections. The crew depended a lot on topographical maps and cautiously calculated aircraft positions by dead reckoning. This was real hard work by any standard.

The following morning, they departed Karachi and headed to Salalah Airport in Oman located by the Arabian Sea. This was an RAF base and the ‘Dakota’ was stopping there to refuel before flying on to Aden. Nearing Salalah they noticed the ground below completely covered with a thick stratiform-type cloud that stretched like a sheet as far as the eye could see. To make the situation worse, the Salalah Airport NDB was not working and the control tower too was silent. Radio Officer Sirimanne kept trying to raise Salalah and repeatedly failed. By dead reckoning the crew knew they were somewhere near Salalah Airport but with the beacon not working and without a visual sighting they simply could not descend through the cloud cover. Salalah aerodrome had considerable amount of high ground in the vicinity and the ‘Dakota’ descending through the cloud layer without a visual sighting could possibly plough into a hill killing everyone.

The crew had no fuel to go anywhere other than Salalah and they circled above the cloud layer for a while hoping to see a break in the clouds. They kept calling Salalah and re-tuning the beacon without any success. That, no doubt, was a tight situation. Truth be told, it was a very tight situation. The pilots played their last possible trump. Their plan was totally out of the box, yet sound and safe. They flew south/east from the place they were hovering, knowing they would now certainly be over the Arabian Sea. Then they slowly descended in cloud looking for the blue waters below. The plan was to get under the cloud base and fly above the water and make a 180 degree turn and fly towards land. They were experienced pilots who flew more with common sense and airmanship than fancy flight instruments. They were right. They broke cloud and saw the water and some boats, too. Now they were safe from the rugged terrain. Then they turned back, saw land below the cloud and headed to Salalah approaching from the seaside.

The radio crackled and the beacon came alive and Salalah tower was calling them. The ‘Dakota’ was safe and they flew towards the NDB at the airport and made a safe landing in Salalah. Many a pilot could have panicked in a situation like this. What the ‘Dakota’ crew did by flying out to sea to find a safe way to descend was a class act, and in my humble opinion deserves to be remembered and reminded to others as a hallmark of the type of gutsy people who flew aeroplanes in the bygone days.

The RAF base had not received the departure signal from Karachi that a DC-3 was flying to Salalah. The skeleton staff at the airport had shut down the aerodrome and gone for a sea bath. While they were frolicking in the water they heard an aircraft circling above the cloud layer and knew some pilot was desperately trying to land in Salalah. The RAF staff ran ashore and got into their vehicles and raced to the airport. That is how the radio came alive and the beacon started working. This was 1950, and such incidents did happen in aviation. The crew received a case of beer as a gift from the RAF boys and they took off, again after refueling, to Aden.

High frequency (HF) weather broadcasts were forecasting thunderstorms over Aden. The ‘Dakota’ had no radar unlike modern aeroplanes with colour screens to detect storm cells. The DC-3 pilots depended solely on their sight to carve a safe path weaving in and out of clouds to avoid weather. At night they went by the lightning flashes to stay away from thunderstorms. An old trick in flying DC-3 was to lower the landing gear if flying in bad weather. (I really can’t remember why, but we did it when flying ‘Dakotas’). The two pilots who were flying the Haj pilgrims were well-seasoned veterans who were a rare breed of aviators; they were so different from the people like me who flew modern jets. We can only imagine their feats and marvel on how they survived in unfriendly skies in their unsophisticated flying machines which hardly had any automation.

The ‘Dakota’ arrived in Aden safely and the crew and passengers did their second night stop after a weary, event-filled day flying the unknown skies. The following morning, they flew the last leg from Aden to Jeddah, flying over the Red Sea. It sure must have been a pleasant trip of 627 nm. The ‘Dakota’ crew brought their 21 passengers safely from Ratmalana to Jeddah flying a total of 3,392 nm. The pilgrims said their good-byes and disembarked to travel to Mecca overland.

The ‘DC-3 turned back and flew to Aden for another night stop. The return journey was in an empty aeroplane. That made it possible for the crew to fly direct to Karachi from Aden. The final night-stop was again at the Speedbird Hotel. The following day they flew to Ratmalana via Bombay after a pit-stop in Santa Cruz airport to re-fuel. A little more than a week later another Air Ceylon DC-3 flew from Ratmalana to Jeddah following the first flight’s flight-plan to bring back the Haj pilgrims home.

Those who know aeroplanes and the sky would cheer such aviators who blazed their way to the unknown in the magnificent ‘Dakotas’. To the non-aviators, I can only say this was flying at its optimum best, flown by men who knew what the flying game was all about.

I knew the entire crew that flew the ‘Dakota’ very well. Capt. Peter drove a yellow and black Riley and lived in Uyana, Moratuwa, next to St Joseph’s Church. Capt. Emil, the ex-RAF fighter pilot I knew from the day I was born to the day he said his final good-bye to this world. He was my father. Mr. G.V. Perera was a very senior aeronautical engineer, a wonderful man who even had a flying license. And the Radio Officer, Uncle Siri, he is only 101 years old and is active on ‘Facebook’. Lionel Sirimanne still mows his lawn in Kohuwela and drives his car to Keell’s supermarket. I am deeply grateful to him for some of the details he gave me about this flight to Jeddah. As for the old warrior, the ‘Dakota’, one of them is spruced up and kept in the Air Force Museum in Ratmalana. It is a worthy sight to see as it majestically rests its soul among airmen and aeroplanes and aviation lovers who come to see this historical aeroplane.



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Isn’t cleansing hearts a political issue?

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President Ranil Wickremesinghe presenting the government’s policy statement in Parliament on 07 Feb.

In his policy statement during the inauguration of the 5th session of the 9th parliament, President Ranil Wickremesinghe insists that the solution to the economic crisis lies in economic and scientific measures, not political ones. However, he draws inspiration from Confucius and urges citizens to introspect and cleanse their hearts, which can be seen as a political measure beyond being framed as moral or ethical. In the meantime, he has asserted that his government has achieved a significant transformation and provided a concise progress report, highlighting the remarkable recovery of the economy. President Wickremesinghe has emphasised that the economy, once in dire straits and requiring intensive care, has successfully emerged from its critical condition, exhibiting a robust V-shaped recovery. (See Table 1)

President Wickremesinghe claimed that this record-breaking breakthrough achievement in a brief span is truly a world record; he compared similar situations such as Greece, which took almost a decade to recover. Refuting allegations that he is engaging in secret agreements to conceal the true situation from the public, he has emphasised that every step taken was transparent, offering opportunities for discussion and debate both within and outside Parliament, with nothing hidden. The accuracy of this statement has to be verified by the concerned parties.

Going by confidence that people will eventually recognise and appreciate his decision-making, driven by the country’s growth rather than political gain, the President does not seem to have learnt from the defeat he experienced in the past including the last presidential election. Despite implementing relatively better governance with initiatives like increasing tax revenue and anti-corruption measures, the electorate prioritised different concerns, such as the “inna ratak” outcry. Consequently, they not only failed to acknowledge or appreciate these efforts but rejected the regime altogether, leading to the election of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in 2019.

The President appears aware of the risk of truth manipulation, deceiving both the nation and its people, yet he seems to take insufficient action to effectively prevent such occurrences.

Facing opposition from major media institutions, the President should proactively direct his media unit to implement a robust awareness program. Relying solely on the passage of time for people to become aware of his administration’s achievements is not sufficient. To effectively communicate the positive initiatives, the President and his government must engage in proactive efforts to counter the negative narrative. Failing to take assertive action may lead to a repetition of mistakes, as people are less likely to recognise and appreciate the purported “good” work without an active and strategic communication strategy.

Accomplishments:

·  Recognition from international institutions.

·  “Urumaya” program for land rights to over two million people.

·  “Asvasuma” program improving living standards for 2.4 million poor individuals.

·  130% increase in tax network (from 437,547 to 1,000,029 registered taxpayers).

·  Successful debt restructuring.

·  Establishment of an economic commission.

Future Initiatives:

·  Eradication of corruption.

·  Simplification of the investment process by eliminating bureaucratic hurdles and corruption risks.

·  Social modernization.

·  Target of attracting 5 million tourists annually.

·  Emphasis on technological advancement, renewable energy, and establishing the International Climate Change University in Sri Lanka.

·  Increase productivity of agricultural land in the dry zone (double or triple).

·  Restructuring of foreign relations with non-aligned policies.

·  Pursuit of free trade agreements with China, Bangladesh, and Indonesia (Singapore agreement already in full operation).

·  Intent to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

·  Diversification of economic activities away from the Western Province to cities like Jaffna, Trincomalee, Bingiriya, Hambantota, and Kandy.

·  Plan to complete over 50,000 houses for low-income urban residents.

·  Positioning the country as a service center and economic hub in the Indian Ocean by developing three new ports.

·  Collaboration with India to develop Trincomalee as an economic hub.

Some of these objectives appear contradictory and need clarification. For instance, the goal of constructing 50,000 houses in urban areas, mainly in Colombo, seems to contradict the broader plan of expanding activities away from the Western Province. Additionally, there is a seeming contradiction in developing Trincomalee as an economic hub while simultaneously positioning the entire country as a service centre and an economic hub in the Indian Ocean.


The President has said that merely condemning and blaming the crisis without delving into its root causes is ineffective. However, this stance apparently runs counter to his plans for eradicating corruption and promoting social modernisation. The question is how he can conclude that addressing the economic crisis is solely dependent on economic solutions, and dismiss the relevance of political remedies. Many analysts argue that a political solution is primary, with economic solutions being secondary. Historical observations indicate that political changes, such as a regime change, precede the implementation of economic solutions by new political leaders. Without political change, the emergence of these economic solutions is challenging, if not impossible. These statements raise concerns about the possibility of individuals responsible for the crisis being absolved, despite the Supreme Court’s determination and punishment of those accountable and identification of root causes.

He has acknowledged the importance of addressing these issues but has not explicitly deemed them necessary. Perhaps, his emphasis on these matters is an attempt to garner support from the SLPP for his presidential campaign. However, it is crucial to note that he repeatedly emphasises the need to address root causes and hold those responsible accountable.

Finally, the President poses a series of questions: Why is it challenging to embrace an open perspective? Despite our diverse ideas, ethnic backgrounds, languages, provincial residencies, faiths, beliefs, and political affiliations, why can’t we unite in a shared vision for the country’s well-being and the future? Why can’t we collectively understand the benefits for our nation’s youth and join hands to reach great heights? The answers, for many, are not ambiguous. The rise to power by ultra-nationalists and corrupt politicians is often facilitated by divisive tactics. Many politicians faced imminent convictions, and without regime change, including Gotabaya Rajapaksa, several could have ended up in jail. We clearly witnessed manipulation of emotions to set different communities against each other as a route to political power. To counter such tactics, he should advocate for the implementation of strong laws and systems to prevent the propagation of manipulation through mass media.

In conclusion, vital statistics illustrate a remarkable turnaround in key economic indicators, signaling progress under his administration. However, certain contradictions and concerns arise, particularly regarding the alignment of various objectives and the perceived emphasis on economic solutions over political remedies.

The President’s call for heart cleansing and unity, inspired by Confucian principles, highlights the importance of fostering a shared vision for the nation’s well-being. Despite the accomplishments outlined, challenges remain in navigating political complexities, addressing root causes, and maintaining transparency to win public trust.

The proposed initiatives, including eradicating corruption, social modernization, and economic diversification, reflect the administration’s ambitious agenda. However, the potential contradictions warrant clarification.

The assertion that the economic crisis resolution lies predominantly in economic and scientific solutions contradicts the notion that political remedies are secondary. Analysts argue for a holistic approach where political and economic solutions complement each other, emphasizing the need for effective governance and accountability.

The President’s reluctance to name the people, who are responsible for the crisis, raises concerns. This ambiguity may stem from political considerations or an attempt to garner support from the SLPP.

The reference to manipulation of emotions for political gain highlights the need for strong laws and systems to counter divisive tactics through mass media.

Hence, the President should address the underlying political forces that contribute to the root causes of the crisis. Cleansing hearts is not an economic solution; it is fundamentally a political issue.

(The writer, a senior Chartered Accountant and professional banker, is Professor at SLIIT University, Malabe. He is also the author of the “Doing Social Research and Publishing Results”, a Springer publication (Singapore), and “Samaja Gaveshakaya (in Sinhala). The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the institution he works for. He can be contacted at saliya.a@slit.lk and www.researcher.com)

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President needs to take up challenge of leaving a legacy

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President Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

Even as the date for the presidential elections approaches, there are increased speculations regarding those elections, not only who might win but also whether those elections will be held at all.  There is also a debate being generated whether the presidential elections ought to be held at all.  There are many who feel that President Ranil Wickremesinghe needs to be given more time to take the country to development. United States Assistant Secretary of State for South & Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, might be one such. He has described Sri Lanka’s economic recovery as one of the greatest comeback stories in the part of the world he deals with. On the other hand, there are others who argue in favour of abolishing the presidency as soon as possible.  This would also do away with the need for a presidential election to be held.

There is indeed a strong case for the abolishing of the presidency which is generally believed in the country to be an institution that is over-powerful and prone to abuse by those who are elected to it.  This argument has been made into an election campaign theme by some of the past presidential candidates at past presidential elections.  But after they won the elections those who promised to abolish the presidency failed to do so, and instead made strenuous efforts to stay on as long as they could, which explains why the presidency continues to this day. There being little faith that those who win the presidency will wish to abolish it, there is an opinion being formed that the presidency should be abolished before the presidential elections. The fact that the presidential form of government led the country to economic disaster is another reason for the hurry. There is, however, a question as to the practicability of this proposition.

The present system of government is called the executive presidential system on account of the central role in the constitution given to the presidency.  It can be imagined that cutting out this central institution will be like a fatal wound caused to the prevailing structure of governance. It may be argued that through skillful constitutional engineering that the hole caused by the excision of the presidency can be filled.  But the speed at which these reforms can be enacted is questionable in the absence of a political consensus that includes both government and opposition on the issue which is presently not to be seen. If there is to be an abolition of the executive presidency, it is very necessary for there to be consultation with the population and political parties about the new system that will replace the executive presidency. It must be one that meets the expectations and aspirations of the ethnic and religious minorities as well. There is no such consensus at the present time.

UNPOPULAR GOVERNMENT

There have been deliberations on a new constitution and on constitutional reform on many occasions. However, constitutional schemes from the past cannot substitute for the need to consult people and political parties at this time, when circumstances have changed so drastically, having experienced the Aragayala protests and economic bankruptcy. There is also need for recognition that where there is no consensus, as on the solution to the ethnic conflict and the inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities into governance, change proceeds painfully slowly.  This can be seen in the change of the electoral system to the provincial councils that commenced in 2017 and has still not been completed with the result that provincial council elections are overdue five years. It is also noteworthy that 36 years after being made part of the constitution, the provincial councils are in abeyance and there is a proposal pending to eliminate their police powers which, in any event, was never implemented. Fast tracking constitutional change does not seem to be an option especially when all eyes are focused on elections.

 Public opinion polls are repeatedly showing that the opposition candidates are ahead in the presidential race by significant margins. If these poll results are anywhere close to reality it can be surmised that the vast majority of people are looking for an election.  They would see that it is an election more than anything else that could dislodge the government which is entrenched in power under the leadership of President Wickremesinghe.  Two years ago the weakness of the government was such that its leading members dared not come into the public as they feared the wrath of the mob.  Some even faced heckling at weddings where people who had come for the happy occasion started hooting those whom they accused of bankrupting the country.  Now they are able to attend public functions without fear and with reasonable confidence that their security personnel can handle any eventuality.

The prospect of losing power is never a pleasing one to political leaders with their sights on power.  Even advanced countries such as the United States have faced this situation.  At the presidential election held in 2020, incumbent president Donald Trump refused to accept defeat and claimed the election was rigged.  The desire of those in power in developing countries would be as strong, perhaps even stronger, as losing power could make the incumbent vulnerable to revenge in which the system of checks and balances fails to protect them.  The prospect of facing an unknown future in the aftermath of electoral defeat would also be unnerving to those in government, especially if the new government is composed of those with a very different political ideology.

MOST INTRACTABLE

The present government is for the most part a continuation of the government that had to face down the protest movement in which tens of thousands of people from all parts of the country participated.  During those halcyon days, protestors young and old from far and near came on foot, on motorcycles, tractor trailers and improvised lorries to be part of a historic revolution they thought was near.  The vision of a “system change” that motivated them to make big sacrifices to come to the various protest sites still lives within them, as indeed it must within all who want to see Sri Lanka politically awaken and rise to its full economic potential which is still a distance away.  The main beneficiaries of the elections to come will be those who best hold out the hope of system change that will eradicate corruption and ensure a fairer distribution of the costs of getting out of bankruptcy.

The opportunity to effect governmental change will come in October when the constitutionally mandated presidential election falls due. Those in the government would prefer if those elections do not take place or are postponed for as long as possible.  In March 2022, the government ensured that local government elections were not held by denying the Election Commission the money to hold them.  The government’s determination not to hold those elections was high. It even disregarded the Supreme Court order to make the money available to the Election Commission to conduct the elections. This was a highhanded act that undermines the principles of democracy itself. There is concern that the presidential election will similarly be postponed on some ground or the other.

However, on this occasion, the President’s media unit has stated that the presidential election will be held within the mandated period and according to the current timeline. It added that the general election will be held next year and financial provisions will be provided for in the 2025 budget.  The government has also stated that the Election Commission is responsible for conducting the elections and the government will be communicating with the Commission as and when required. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has also reiterated to a group of MPs who met him recently that the presidential election would be held on time and there would be no abolition of the presidency. Speaking in a statesmanlike mode, the president said, “I have clearly stated several times that I have no intention to put off the presidential elections. Funds for that purpose are there. The talks about attempts to abolish the executive presidency were circulated by the main opposition.”

The president is also reported to have said that “People of this country know better than the opposition that the abolition of the executive presidency cannot be done in a hurry. There is a procedure to do that. We should not fall into their trap. Do not waste your time on this. You speak of the economic revival programme that we are carrying out.” Likewise, President Wickremesinghe can also seek to address the country’s most intractable problem, the ethnic conflict by ordering the full implementation of the 13th Amendment which would make it easier for the victor at the next election to find a mutually acceptable solution. Whether he succeeds or not he could feel contentment that he did what he had agreed and undertaken to do.

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Silence in the classroom: Confronting the dynamics of ‘deficiency’

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by Ruth Surenthiraraj

I remember, with unusually vivid clarity, the first time I really noticed the presence of silence in the classroom. One of the lecturers, who was taking our undergraduate class, had assigned us reading to be done ahead of time, parts of which were quite tedious and had to be read twice/thrice over to be grasped. In true happy-go-lucky undergrad spirit, my classmates and I turned up having ‘skimmed’ the articles and nurturing the fervent hope that someone else would pick up the discussion in the event that any questions were raised. As you would imagine, it went horribly wrong. The lecturer posed a question that required some thinking, and we suddenly and silently went into panic-mode in a bid to offer something akin to an answer. A few of us tried to start things off by giving noncommittal responses in the general direction of the question and were kindly asked to explain ourselves further – at which point we fell silent once more because we felt that we hadn’t thought things through. The lecturer, instead of berating us for not reading adequately or making us feel like we were bad students, simply invited us to embrace the silence so that we could get our thoughts in order.

In recalling this incident, I remember the strong sense of discomfort that we felt as learners. It wasn’t, however, something that stemmed from the lecturer or their handling of what must have been a frustrating situation. Instead, I now read that feeling as the acute discomfort of learners who had been trained to view silence in the classroom as something negative. That incident – apart from giving me impetus to never turn up to my classes without completing my assigned reading – also invited me to begin exploring the role of silence and its presence (or absence) in our undergraduate classrooms.

Although silence in teaching and learning is still fairly under-researched and is rarely a nuanced consideration in mainstream conversations around the dynamics of a classroom, there are still broad arguments that have attempted to imbue silence with meaning. For one, our multiple religious traditions seem to have strong tendencies towards silence as a form of retreat to assist deeper reflection even though these traditions often sit in direct contrast with current trends to be constantly producing and documenting aspects of life. Conversely, there is often a ‘culture of silence’ (much bemoaned by Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire) that surrounds those who are socially, economically, and culturally vulnerable – a way in which socialisation teaches people to not interrogate their realities. Linguistically speaking, silence often assists us in distinguishing speech units (i.e., the silence that marks a pause in or completion of an idea/thought), but it can be further categorised as playing various functions in establishing relationships between participants in conversations. The possibilities of interpreting silence are myriad.

In the classroom, however, I think we are often limited to viewing silence as a negative indicator. As educators working with undergraduates, we assume that learners’ silence signals a disinterestedness or a disengagement from the critical approaches that should ideally frame undergraduate classroom discussions. At an even more basic level, we often consider silence to signify a lack of knowledge and we then attempt to fill that assumed void with speech that appears to address this lack of knowledge. As a result, we educators often view silence as a thing to be disliked at best and dreaded at worst. But what could silence really mean in a classroom of learners attempting to engage with new knowledge?

Firstly, it is very likely that the learners in our classrooms are expressing a deep-seated, culturally taught fear: the fear of giving the ‘wrong’ response. Sad as it is, it is still common to find educators who berate students for giving unacceptable answers. Instead of engaging with why the answer might not best reflect the desired response, we often shut students down when they don’t meet our (sometimes undefined) expectations. We rarely realise in the moment, though, that learning is a process in which ‘mistakes’ are as important as so-called successes. In fact, mistakes and errors often pave the way for deeper understanding of how what works and why. When learners begin to internalise the message that they don’t know enough to answer, they will simply opt to remain silent despite having a working knowledge of a subject. On the contrary, our classrooms should be safe spaces for ‘stupid’ or partial answers that encourage the students to reflect on why those responses require more thought.

In a constructivist view, learners are not blank slates which we fill with information: rather, they are intellects with existing knowledge structures (schemas) which are formed based on their experiences in life. When these existing schemas meet new knowledge in the classroom, the learner is required to make some adjustments in order to accommodate the new knowledge. This accommodation requires time and the capacity to be reflective, which in turn enables a more integrated worldview. Indeed, if education is meant to be transformative, repeated opportunities to integrate new and existing knowledge structures must be offered to learners within our classrooms. In short, I believe silence could also indicate an unspoken request for space and time to contemplate the significance of new knowledge. Sometimes, we give our students too little time to fully turn ideas around in their heads before requiring them to respond to us. I’ve observed many good educators allowing their frustration at silence to compel answers from students – resulting in responses that might be superficial rather than actual reflections of learning. A better way to undercut our impatience with silence would be to invite learners to hash out their fledgling ideas among themselves before attempting to articulate a holistic and/or individual response. This preliminary discussion often assists in integrating new and existing knowledge in the relatively safer space of peer groups.

Over centuries, educators have also played directly into the problem of sanitising education – separating theories and practices from the contexts in which they originated or detaching them from the sociocultural impacts they may cause. In turn, learners gain an ‘education’ that is removed from its everyday consequences. This also makes it difficult for learners to assimilate such unrelatable concepts, leading to more awkward silences in our classrooms as they attempt to collect seemingly detached pieces of knowledge.

Finally, silence is further compounded in classrooms where students are expected to respond in their second languages. With increasingly more undergraduate study programmes opting to shift wholesale (and almost overnight, in some cases) to the English medium instruction, many more undergraduates are going to be struggling to articulate their thoughts in a language that is not part of their repertoire. Educators (especially those other than language teachers) must be doubly attentive to these unspoken difficulties when interpreting silence. There are a heartbreakingly large number of stories where perfectly articulate and knowledgeable students are deprived of their classes (not to mention jobs) simply because they have not mastered the art of the second language yet. In wrongly categorising such students as ‘below par’ or not having the requisite ‘skills’, we relegate them as incompetent rather than critique our own skewed standards. I have often admired a student in my class for her comfort with awkward pauses as she attempts to construct a sentence that accurately reflects her thoughts as well as ‘acceptable’ language structures. But this is also possible only because I have now taught myself to never rush learners as they navigate new knowledge in a language that they are not fully familiar with. As a teacher of English as a second language, the tendency is to jump in with the necessary vocabulary so that the silences/pauses cause minimal discomfort to the learner. Yet, how will our learners ever be comfortable with the pauses that are inherent to language use and language learning if we do not (want to) confront our own discomfort with silence?

Learner silence, therefore, could act as a signifier of multiple underlying processes and problems. I am not in any way suggesting that silence cannot be associated with a lack of knowledge or with disinterest. However, to boil nuances in learner silence down to either a lack of knowledge or a sense of apathy regarding their discipline is to view learners reductively; we rob them of their right to be considered and accommodated as complex intellects in our classrooms. In rephrasing our questions (to better shape the silences in our classes) or in simply limiting our impatience at the lack of sound/response, we begin to create an atmosphere that is supportive of deeper engagement with our disciplines.

(Ruth is a teacher of English as a second language at a state university.)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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