Letter from Isoke No 3: The feast of Christ the King
Letter from Isoke No 3: The feast of Christ the King

Liz Hodgkin, RVI Fellow and former Amnesty International Sudan researcher, is teaching at St Augustine’s School in the village of Isoke, in Eastern Equatoria state, South Sudan. This is her third letter from Isoke. Other letters: No 1 July 2012, No 2 October 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

The Parish Compound consists of our four-bedroomed guest-house surrounded by the huts of others living in the Compound: three orphans, three staff and occasional guests. This Saturday we woke to find the compound full of goods brought from Torit by the indefatigable Father B.. He arrived at one o’clock last night. The haul include 15 crates of Coca-cola and Fanta, mango juice, sugar and sorghum. It puts me in mind of Ho Chi Minh’s complaint: whenever a Vietnamese village could find an excuse, he used to say, they would kill a pig and throw a party. Here in Isoke, on Saturday night, they killed a bull. Before that there was Saint Teresa’s feast day; then the launch of the Year of Faith (when neither the promised Bishop nor the bull materialised), and All Saints’ Day, and—just this Sunday—the feast of Christ the King. The Feast of Christ the King ushers in 16 days of women’s activism and peace-building. It is marked by Ugandan disco music, dancing and cooking. This goes on outside the parish offices in front of the Church till 4am.  

Then there was a procession followed by three-hour Mass in an impressively packed church: about  800 people including beaded dancers from Woroworo and Chahari and small children packed into every pew. Father B.’s sermon about the kingdom of Heaven ranged from Daniel to Revelation. Towards the end he informed the congregation in a furious tone “If you are in a house with gender-based violence and violence against women, that is not the kingdom of heaven”. Immediately there was clapping and ululation. It was surprising to me that the congregation—mostly women—could understand the meaning of the English phrase “gender-based violence” without waiting for the translation. Also that they were still listening to a sermon after 40 minutes. They will definitely inherit the earth.

Development, empowerment, evangelization

We still don’t have a Parish Priest and I wonder if we ever will. Father B., the Bishop’s Secretary, is deeply committed to Isoke. He is aiming to take this isolated valley—without public transport, or a mobile phone network—back to the position it enjoyed under the Comboni Fathers from the 1920s to the 1950s, when Isoke was the dominant church centre for the eastern part of Eastern Equatoria, which is an area about half the size of England.

So the church has embraced a combination of agricultural development, women’s empowerment and evangelization. One plan is to develop a large area of fertile land at Lolit Bridge, to solve food problems for the schools and provide sorghum for the whole area.  (At present, apart from what is locally sold in small piles in the market, all the sacks of sorghum are from Uganda.)

A funny Italian group called Solidar came for a week to get women to raise their own self-esteem. They stayed with the Sisters but upset them, saying that education—which is the main aim in Sister P.’s life—could be bad, leading people away from their culture towards television. Television is something the Sisters deeply love. They watch videos every evening.  The Italian group were only here for week anyway. The Isoke women’s movement is genuinely local. One of the activists is called  Mama M. She is from Chukudum and was formerly a state minister. She is said to have resigned because of corruption.  She’s here a few days a fortnight and spends her whole time talking to women.

They plan to plant an orchard behind the school where now there are huts. She says the owners won’t mind moving as they know they have encroached on Church land. And all the land here belongs to the church, through the cleverness of the Combonis in 1927.  A simple woman’s centre is being built in local brick—it’s been going up fast between the Church and the school, overseen by the efficient, modest Kenyan diocesan engineer, Charles.

School fees, girls, cows and kwete

Some students here have their fees paid by sponsors who have entrusted me with the responsibility for selecting and administering the funds. I spoke to all nineteen of the sponsored students about their families two weeks ago. In the end I thought that perhaps three of them could have found the money. Two of them were top in their class and wrote me long letters about their problems, but one (whose mother used to make kwete alcohol to pay his school fees) is living with a cousin by marriage who works at the hospital and who is sending his own son to a private school in Uganda (about $250 a term) and the other has a brother in Torit with two wives. Then there was Michael from Chahari, behind the mountain. I asked about his family. His parents were poor, he said, and he had one sister aged 20.

“Did she go to school?” I asked.

“No, she never went to school, she got married last year”.

“Then you are rich, you have 21 cows,” I said.

“No, they only paid us 10”.

“Even one cow would cover school fees for four terms,” I said.

“No,” he said, “They all died.”

“You expect me to believe that?” I asked him.

“Half of them died and half of them were raided.”

“And you expect me to believe that too?” I said.

We only have two girls on the list, one is in her last term and used to make kwete for her school fees. When Regina told me her sister had just got married I left it at that; she was on the headteacher's first list of poor students. Later I told the head about the conversation with Michael.

“Yes,” he said, “A lot of cows are dying now. It’s that disease you have in England. Mad cows?”

“Mad cow disease?” I said “Then we’ll all die!”

“No, not the brain, the lungs”.

“Is it TB?”

“Yes — but the meat is perfectly all right as long as it’s cooked. They are dying because they’ve run out of vaccine”.

Of course, the only cows pastoralists will sell off are sick ones. So none of this fills me with confidence about our meat. The second day the meat is smoked and smells and I now don’t eat it.

The same day Livingstone, water engineer in the Compound, said he had malaria but the hospital was running out of anti malaria drugs. I have stopped taking prophylaxis since I ran out at the end of September. I have been lucky not to catch anything.  A lot of the teachers have been going down with malaria. There are more mosquitoes in the gardens behind the school than in the well-swept parish compound.  Hopefully I have some immunity. When I travelled with my father Thomas in Ethiopia, sharing his room in the cheapest hotel he could find (usually a brothel with plywood walls) he would be slapping himself all night, yet I would be OK.

I will leave the attempts to get Julius Nyerere declared a saint to the next letter. [For the young, he was the first President of Tanzania]. As usual we have run out of food, so exams start on Monday.

Read on: Letter from Isoke No 4 December 2012