Hebet el Nil – gift of the Nile. A Waldorf initiative in Luxor

By Bruno Sandkühler, April 2019

Every tourist knows Luxor and its famous temples, the Valley of the Kings and the wonderful drawings in the tombs. But not many come into closer contact with the farmers of al-Qurna and al-Ba’irat on the west bank of the river.

 

Even if many of the villagers make their livelihood from tourism, a farming tradition has nevertheless persisted in the life and thinking of the people in which behind the façade of the bustle of tourism the old warmth, hospitality and a sense of family and human values has been preserved. And everywhere there is the longing for education. 

Nathalie also came to Luxor as a tourist. In a picturesque cafe on the Nile the conversation turned to the unsatisfactory school situation. Mechanical learning by heart, poorly paid teachers, overcrowded classes … Mohammed, one of those present, knew about the school at Sekem and so thoughts turned to Waldorf education and awoke the desire in the farmers: “If only we had such a school!” Nathalie was ready to help and set up contact with a Waldorf teacher from Switzerland. Thus started a project which soon began to encounter obstacles. But Nathalie’s persistence and a favourable constellation led to the foundation of a kindergarten which was given the name Hebet el-Nil – gift of the Nile. Friends donated paints, brushes, recorders, but the crucial factor was probably a group of young women from the region who had concluded their studies in various subjects and some of whom had experience teaching in state schools – in classes with up to 60 children! 

It was as if they were waiting for a new impulse. A sample of the brochure from the UNESCO Waldorf exhibition in Arabic gave an impression of the international diversity of the Waldorf world but led to unexpected alarm when someone discovered that the translation into Arabic had been done in Israel. This political poison is present everywhere but could not ultimately really dampen the enthusiasm. 

No shortage of children

Rascha, one of the Egyptian teachers, explained the importance of the artistic element and child development with such warmth at a parents’ evening with the farmers that one might have thought she had visited a Waldorf teacher training seminar. Contact with Sekem was soon established and the group of teachers was able to visit the school there and take a whole lot of ideas back to Luxor with them. The Friends of Waldorf Education included Hebet el-Nil in its mailings. 

The school began with its first classes in the autumn of 2017 but the villa which had been rented not only soon became too small but was also needed by the owner and had to be vacated in the autumn of 2018. Furthermore, an own property fulfilling certain criteria is a requirement for school approval. It therefore had to be built. After a few false starts, a plot of building land could be found but that was only the beginning to meeting the many demands, which extended from the needs of a neighbour through legal and design tasks to the necessary financial basis. Obstacles had to be cleared out of the way at every step. 

The only thing that existed in abundance was the children who streamed to the school from all directions, a treasure of which there is no shortage in Egypt. From the beginning, the children were eagerly and enthusiastically involved in the development of the school, such as in forming a chain to pass the bricks to the site where the obligatory wall surrounding the school had to be built. It is a joy to watch them at play, at painting and singing, or working industriously in class. It is their school. 

Creating a network and school village 

Eurythmy has turned into “beautiful movement” in Arabic. After a visit to Sekem, a teacher came to introduce it and a teacher from Qurna was able to experience eurythmy in Sekem. Mohammed, who is studying eurythmy in Stuttgart, has embarked on the venture of translating the first lectures of The Foundations of Human Experience

In this way a network is being created around Hebet el Nil through the untiring commitment of Nathalie Kux and the Egyptian team. Marina Meier and Karin Eckstein travel regularly from Switzerland to give further training courses for the kindergarten teachers and teachers. The reputation of the school is spreading around Luxor which of course leads to the dilemma that the great demand cannot be met. The inspectors from the schools authority are also positively impressed by the concept. 

In the 1950s, the famous Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi built a village in Qurna in which he continued to develop the traditional mud brick architecture and its techniques for building domed structures. Unfortunately the unsympathetic authorities neglected the development to the extent that it became derelict and the school buildings disappeared as well. But the technique of building domed structures was preserved in Upper Egypt. Now Christian Hitsch from Salzburg could be persuaded to revive the technique for Hebet el-Nil and design a school village whose first buildings have already been completed. In this way a new system of education works together with ancient building traditions so that the new does not appear as alien. 

Another local tradition provided a further important foundation: the peaceful co-existence of Muslims and Copts and the work of a Sufi sheikh who is highly respected by the population and settles disputes. The school was able to establish a good relationship with this religious environment and is thus embedded in a lived religiosity and a community which has been abruptly catapulted out of the contemplative life of the sentient soul into a “modern” world in a matter of decades and cannot find a way forward on its own. In this situation an education building on an artistic approach appears to be an effective, indeed the only possible remedy. 

The depreciation of the Egyptian pound and massive price rises mean that building costs have doubled since July 2018. The primary school still requires 170,000 euros. That is why further help is needed to construct the buildings, safeguard the salaries of the teachers which, although they are within the customary range, lie at the very bottom at 100 euros a month – and, not least, to enable the children to attend whose parents are not even in a position to pay the monthly school fees of the equivalent of ten euros. 

About the author: Dr. Bruno Sandkühler was a teacher at the Michael Bauer School in Stuttgart and as a specialist in Middle Eastern studies has for decades had close connections with Egypt and the Sekem initiative in particular.

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