Liz Hodgkin, RVI Fellow and former Amnesty International Sudan researcher, is teaching at St Augustine’s School in Isoke village, Eastern Equatoria, South Sudan. This is her tenth letter from Isoke. Other letters: No 1 July 2012, No 2 October 2012, No 3 November 2012, No 4 December 2012, No 5 March 2013, No 6 April 2013, No 7 May 2013, No 8 June 2013 and No 9 September 2013
At the beginning of term two students turned out to be pregnant. One was a sponsored student of ours. She wouldn't tell me, though it was obvious. Later she wrote me a letter admitting it. Sister P. was the one who had asked us to sponsor her. 'She has a brain,' Sister P. said, 'and her father said there was no point in sponsoring girls. He said it was better to marry them off early and not risk losing the bride wealth. Now he will be saying “I told you so”.' I was afraid her father would beat her. But neither Sister P. nor Mama M. thought it was worthwhile intervening. Luckily her father lives 12 km away, so I gave the student the money to go to secondary school in Ikotos, 32 km away in the opposite direction. Perhaps she avoided seeing her father altogether.
The other pregnant student was the wonderful S., producer of our school dramas. The last drama she produced, for the welcoming of Senior 1 and introduction of new prefects in July, was about teachers who seduced schoolgirls. This was rather close to the bone in the case of my Dongotono teacher, who, after helping with CRE (Christian Religious Education) last year, married a Senior 1 girl, Rose, whose daughter was born on 2 September, which happened to be the day I came out of hospital after my bout of malaria. They sweetly called her Elizabeth. Her other name is Idwaa, because they were weeding groundnuts at the time, so she is called Weeding Elizabeth. My Dongotono teacher has not been reappointed to the staff.
Both this term's pregnant students had affairs, not with teachers but with drivers, one from AVSI, the Italian NGO, and one from the hospital. This is significant. Drivers are a part of the small mobile population round here that enjoys a good income; they are therefore likely to have a wife in several towns. I pointed out to the Headmaster that, because of the lack of girls in education, South Sudan educational regulations state that no girl should be penalised for pregnancy. But he just said 'They will disturb the other girls'. So I sent my student to St Matthew’s at Ikotos, and advised AVSI to do the same for the other one. Then they can come back to school in Isoke once the babies are born.
I remain silent
L. and I tried to hold a discussion about this with all the girls in the school–but it didn’t really work. They didn’t talk much. There is a certain cliquishness among them, involving talking in their own languages, so that outsiders don’t understand. The Head Girl, who comes from another part of the state, complains about it. In theory, speaking in vernacular is forbidden in the school (except me, when I am trying to learn it). There used to be an awful custom that involved those caught not speaking English having to carry a chicken’s head on a string; the culprit could only get rid of it by passing it on to someone else who had committed the same offence.
There are lots of rules I don’t know till they are broken; and threats of expulsion are frequent. Father B. harangued the Primary School in Church one day last term saying they weren’t coming to church and every single student who failed to come to church would be expelled from school. Coming out of Mass I said to Mama M. 'I’m not sure that it would be legal to expel 900 students for not coming to Church'. She said, quite indignantly, “A parish priest can do what he likes in his own parish'. In the same way, when I said to the Headmaster that he couldn’t expel a pregnant girl, he replied: 'I can do what I like in my own school.' I don’t fight this. One of my first Dongotono teacher’s favourite phrases, whenever anything outrageous occurred, was “Abuho nang”, which means “I remained silent”. It is a good precept. The Sunday after Father B's pronouncement the Church was packed with Primary school children, though I doubt if all 1,000 were there. Last Sunday we were back to normal, with scarcely 100.
Two terms ago every student was ordered to bring a long list of things: sheets, mattress, 10-litre jerrycan, gumboots and a plastic chair. About 10 students brought gumboots and two a plastic chair. Last term the headmaster's letter—which I type out for him—demanded that every student bring a hoe and a slasher for clearing long grass. At the beginning of this term the headmaster refused to register students who had failed to bring them, and sent them home. Curiously, you can buy slashers in Isoke, but not hoes. There are blacksmiths among the Dongotono and you can buy hoes in the mountains. But in the small villages up there you can't buy slashers (why would you want to?). So you can't get both things in one place. Even if you can afford them. It seemed to me—and to the students—particularly unfair that Senior 4 students, with only one term left to go, had to turn back and comb the country, borrowing, begging and perhaps stealing, to find hoes. One of our students in Senior 4 had arrived early as I said that no late-arriving student would get sponsorship; then he had to walk back the 30km to his home in Iloli to borrow a hoe and slasher.
Like Father B., the Head threatens more expulsions than he actually carries out. Many who beg me for school fees say “and we couldn’t pay last term” and I find it is true, even though a month into the term everyone with unpaid fees was threatened with expulsion.
The guava thieves
And a word about the thieves. There are cassava thieves, and maize thieves (they come from a local village), and guava thieves, mostly girls (I feel sympathetic). I am glad to say that the Parish on the whole uses a good kind of punishment: those who are caught have to cultivate 1 kitala (a 10m x 20m strip of land) for the parish, and two kitala of cassava or maize for themselves, all this to be inspected so they shouldn’t have to steal again.
One was caught by the watchman and locked in the Parish store for the Head teacher to deal with. As the Head teacher was interviewing her in the compound, her brother, who is in Senior 3, came running up and pulled a kitchen knife on the Head; everyone stood frozen to the spot till he put it away. I’d have thought that would be an expellable offence, yet the boy has come back to school.
An elderly priest in semi-retirement in Ikotos has come to be Assistant Parish Priest with us. He is passionate about gardens, nurseries and planting, and he said that he put a stop to guava stealing by giving each primary school child two seedlings to take home, so every home would have their own guavas.
We need more good ideas like that. There has been so much drunken shooting at dances that people in the Parish leadership have considered banning them completely. This would be stupid, I think. No one seems to think it’s possible to ban guns.