Obituary: Lewis Brown
Thursday 14 July 1994
LEWIS BROWN was an exceptional schoolmaster whose principal work was to shape secondary education in the Sudan between 1936 and the country's independence in 1955. His impress remained on Sudan for 20 more years.
The son of a country miller, Lewis Brown was born in Reigate, Surrey, and went, after London University and a job at Windermere Grammar School, to teach science at the old Gordon Memorial College, in Khartoum, where he served under another great humanist - GC Scott. To a remarkable degree, Brown combined toughness, charisma and a playful spirit. And he was resilient. Big educational and constitutional innovations were being brought in in the Thirties. Then the Second World War came and everything slowed.
Brown was adventurous. Canoeing, climbing, sailing, orienteering and everyday scientific enquiries all mopped up his energies. He shared this with his pupils; whether young Sudanese or - much later - with Lancing boys. In 1941, he and I made the first ascent of Jebel Kassala, in eastern Sudan - 2,000 feet of mainly quite severe boiler-plate slabs, which became very hot. This was soon after the Italians had retreated into Ethiopia. On a second ascent we took two Sudanese teenagers. On the top was a legendary Tree of Life, just visible from the town. The climb was repeated 40 years on; and our one, shameful, piton was still intact.
During the war period Brown and I were among the educationalists who were trying to think out the right pattern for future, pre-independence secondary education in the Sudan. A working party of educationalists came up with 'The Brown Plan'. This nearly took off. It envisaged a large increase of junior secondary schools with a varying, 'productive' bias: agricultural, technical, commercial. However, educated Sudanese opinion, which was beginning to be listened to by the Anglo-Egyptian condominum government of Sudan, thought this was a second- best plan and wanted a much more 'British' solution - fewer but more academic boarding schools. A senior Sudanese who had visited England thought that Eton was 'on the right lines'.
In 1946 Brown became headmaster and founder of one of these new schools - Hantoub, on the east bank of the Blue Nile. He was there for 10 years and was appointed OBE in 1950 for his services to education. At Hantoub, and in similar institutions, it was then possible for strong secular values to co-exist with Arabic-Islamic tradition and even with a Christian minority. 'If on the small scale, why not on the large?' was then our hope.
In such communities there would naturally be a tinge of Imperial over-confidence. We never imagined the dangers of chauvinism, ethnicism, fundamentalism and the scrambling desire to get children away from rural life which have since marred so much of Africa.
One of Brown's star pupils at this time was Jaafer Numeiri - captain of football. Numeiri became dictator of independent Sudan in 1969, when, having established a Revolutionary Command Council, he tried to hold together the, by then, shaky centralised state. On a visit in 1970, I remember Brown remonstrating with his former pupil about totalitarian tendencies.
Brown's wife died before he went to Hantoub. They had two small sons. Three years later, Brown married Elizabeth Richards, who had been working on the education of village women in the Gezira Scheme. She and their joint family of five took part in many of Brown's more elderly adventures.
For 25 years, well into his seventies, Brown taught physics at Lancing College, in Sussex, eventually becoming head of the subject. Many myths grew up around him and the tales he told (and they were 95 per cent true ones): the cloud of bats flying out of the ancient (but still usable) pit latrine, the copulation and digestion of camels, the giant plants of Ruwenzori, the odd behaviour of static electricity under power lines. Above all Lewis Brown revelled in the processes of enquiry, of learning; and especially of children learning. In his old age the right hemisphere of his brain came into its own and he learnt, and loved learning, to paint acrylic landscapes.
When he was nearly 75, Brown went back to Africa again, to the Shire river which runs north to Lake Nyasa. He and a group of a dozen Lancing masters and boys canoed down that great river for many days and Lewis Brown tasted again the sparse fare, the blue hills, the great plains and the friendly people of a continent which he had loved, and not a few of whose people loved him.
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