Letter from Isoke No 12: Church, government, school fees, rebels, full moon and stars
Letter from Isoke No 12: Church, government, school fees, rebels, full moon and stars

Liz Hodgkin, RVI Fellow and former Amnesty International Sudan researcher, taught from 2012 to 2014 at St Augustine’s School in Isoke village, Eastern Equatoria, South Sudan. For her earlier letters from Isoke see the following: No 1 July 2012No 2 October 2012No 3 November 2012No 4 December 2012No 5 March 2013No 6 April 2013No 7 May 2013No 8 June 2013No 9 September 2013 and No 10 September 2013.

I’m back in Isoke, and writing in the dark. It’s been fifteen months since I was last here. I flew this time, from Juba, the capital of South Sudan, to Torit, in Eastern Equatoria. From Torit I took the road up through the hills back to the village. Surprisingly, despite the altitude, it is hotter in Isoke than Torit or Juba. It hasn’t rained here yet, but tonight there was a big dust storm. They say the wind comes to chase away the rain.

On the runway at Torit I met Millie. She is a Kenyan who was studying in Khartoum when I was there in the 1970s, when we were in our twenties. Astonishingly, after forty years, she recognized me. Millie was the eldest of 13 children; now she is a consultant on women’s reproductive rights. We remembered the time she had stayed with me in England—a frosty weekend around 1972 when we collected windfall apples off the ground and made cider. After that she and I lost touch. Four decades! Africa is a small place, sometimes.

The road to Isoke was worse than I remembered; or maybe I’ve just become unused to the jolting. But how lovely to see those mountain ranges again. In Isoke there are fewer goods in the market these days. The hospital was closed for nearly a year as staff salaries were not paid. The nun administrator left; she may even have left the order. But now there are two doctors, both South Sudanese, and the hospital is open again. The primary school and the secondary school, St Augustine’s, have both increased their enrolment, but there were riots at the primary school over the poor marks they got in their all-important leaving examination. 

“Do you remember our names?” asked Rebecca, one of my old students. I’m bad with names, but Rebecca has an unmistakeable smile that never leaves her face, whether you are teaching her the history of the Wau massacre of 1965, or the use of the semi-colon.

“Are you well?” I asked her

“Somehow,” she replied. I’d forgotten that “somehow”—a frequent and beautiful answer in these parts. 

There are difficult choices to be made when it comes to supporting students. There is one whose father, a member of parliament, died last year. Her mother died of lung cancer in 2007. Her father had four wives and 27 children and now they are all fighting over his wealth and pension. She and her full brothers live in a two-room house in Torit with their maternal aunt who farms and brews alcohol to pay their school fees. Would none of the half-brothers help? She says they were all sent to school in Kenya and Uganda and wasted their substance in riotous living and are now poor. So should it be our role to fund the daughter of an MP with 4 wives and 27 children? My former teacher Ohide says we should. Because she’s a girl.

Ministers, generals, and other powerful people in South Sudan send their children away to good schools in Kenya or Uganda, while here in South Sudan, education remains of low quality: poor teaching, little equipment, no textbooks. For most subjects, textbooks have not even been written. So the children of the powerful get a good education, and those left behind do not. When the time comes the next generation of leaders will be the well-educated children of the present ones.

Usually, when one of the students says to me “I want to talk to you” it is a request for funds. Some students are asking if I can fund them through university in Juba. But Juba University has barely been functioning. Several of our students, including Jacob O., the best of the recent graduates of St Augustine’s, lost two years waiting for classes to open. Now the University is open, but recently the lecturers have been on strike. Exams are starting; students about to take exams have to work out what they should have been taught from the class outlines. And life in Juba has become very expensive. Meat there is 34-40 South Sudan Pounds per a kilo. (That is US$5, at the official rate, less on the black market). In Isoke it is about 10 SSP a kilo. Lecturers at the university suffer also. They say some pack all their year’s teaching into one term so that they can teach at universities elsewhere. This may be a wise strategy in a world so riven with disorder.

Here in Isoke, English and History—the subjects I taught—have suffered. The other English teacher who was here, Lokulang, got a transfer to the Ministry of Education, on a higher salary. He has been sent on a training course in Arizona, from where he sends constant emails. No one is teaching modern European history in Isoke at all. From the French Revolution to the end of the Cold War the syllabus is a blank. And with the recent collapse of the peace talks between the Government and the rebels, I have a haunting fear that all boys will be taken by the SPLA as soldiers and once again become part of their own country’s long history of war.

The compound dogs—Mustafa and CPA—have been put down. There is another dog now, not belonging to us, called Omar al-Bashir. He has adopted the Church as his territory and lies under the pews. But the compound is still a menagerie. There are two monkeys, of different species, the smaller of them attached to the larger one, and four sows and 24 piglets. The sows have great difficulty feeding all their offspring. Until recently there were two young leopards as well, but they died—from eating lizards, probably. There was a duiker too—a tiny, delicate gazelle—which died, like the last one. Mama M. says she refuses to take animals now, unless she already knows how to look after them.

There is a new room in the compound with lots of beautiful large arched windows—part of Father B.’s scheme to enlarge the Verona Fathers’ handsome building. But the Akil Centre, which was established to support farmers in the area, is running out of funds as there’s been a dispute with Caritas Switzerland.

I tell my colleagues they shouldn’t quarrel with the funders, 

“Why not?” they say.

“They may pull out,” I say. “And you don’t have the money to pay the twenty workers. Then the farm will become overgrown, and they’ll say "Look, that’s what happens when we leave the South Sudanese to manage."

“So what?” they say, “We’ll get it even better in the end by our own means”.

“And if the NGO that is supporting the school pulls out,” I say, "there will be hardly any girls at school”.

“They can fund them from Italy”. 

But I’m afraid they won’t.

Lent is full of extra church services. As I arrived there was the Adoration of the Virgin. The following day I felt duty-bound to attend the 7 AM service. There were about fifty people in the congregation. Some students from the primary school were caned for being late. “And in a church school!” said Mama M. “That teacher should be transferred”. I agreed. Then in the afternoon there was procession round the village, reenacting the Way of the Cross. On International Womens’ Day at the Women’s Centre there was supposed to be a meal cooked by men, but there was no meat in Isoke or Ikotos, and few willing men except Father B. and the pillars of the church. In the event they came and handed out kwete (local beer) and waragi (distilled alcohol). An hour later the women were singing and dancing in circles.

“We don’t want war,” they sang. “We are telling the government.”
When the day ends in Isoke people drop by the compound to talk, as they always did. We discuss the corruption of government, rebel advances and retreats, and whether there is a paradise. There is a full moon tonight, and, beyond and around it, the amazing brightness of stars.

This is the last of the present series of Liz Hodgkin’s letters from Isoke. Read Liz Hodgkin’s first letter from Isoke: Letter from Isoke No 1