Letter from Isoke No 4: The food problem at Isoke school
Letter from Isoke No 4: The food problem at Isoke school

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, South Sudan. This is her fourth letter from Isoke. Other letters: No 1 July 2012, No 2 October 2012, No 3 November 2012, No 5 March 2013, No 6 April 2013, No 7 May 2013, No 8 June 2013 and No 9 September 2013

So term ended early again, and once again because of food. This time I don’t think it’s incompetence, though it is true that neither the Head, nor the Deputy Head nor the Director of Studies have any management training and don’t do things like attendance registers. I don’t think they even recorded the exam marks of the pupils since we put them on to single report cards which were given to the students. The truth is that the school is not economically viable with less than 120 pupils, and it now has only 91.

The kidnapped bride

Last Friday evening , a week ago, I was sitting under the stars chatting with Charles, the Kenyan engineer, when we heard gunshots, followed by ululations. We were relieved at the ululations, suggesting that it was a marriage and not a fight. But if we had been more aware we should have realised that the gunshots meant that it was a marriage by kidnapping: the girl carried away was R., the one girl left among our sponsored students. In general, when a girl is carried away it is because she has agreed to it; a goat is left in the compound instead of the girl who is returned after five days; the man is symbolically beaten, and then pays the bride price. But my teacher, Elizabeth Kuti, told me of one of her friends who was abducted unwillingly, and is now living unhappily in a village behind the mountains with two children.

The Head Teacher was furious. R.’s father told him: “Well of course if she had shouted we would have roused all the neighbours, but if a girl is carried away and does not even cry out, what are we to think? That she is accepting it.” Sister P. was bitterly upset. “One by one,” she said, “all the girls in her class have left to be married, in Primary 5, Primary 6 and Primary 7.  She was the last of our hopes”.

I have been shy of calling each girl to ask them about their situation for fear that it would encourage hard luck stories, but I think R.’s case gives the chance to do it as a protection, not a financial measure. She had been poor in her school work in the first term, but once she got the sponsorship she had moved into boarding and did well.  I sent a message to her saying that education need never be ended whether you are married or not, and she should try to continue; her new husband is a trader down in the village, and if he can pay the 21 cows then he can afford to pay school fees.

Women and men

On the day after the end of term — brought forward because of the food shortage — Mama M., the Catholic evangelist feminist agriculturalist ex-State Minister, gave a workshop to the Seniors of the Secondary School on women’s empowerment and peace-building. That was after Father B. had given the initial session on the family.  

The story starts, of course with Adam and Eve, showing that humans are meant to be part of a family. (One bright student said “What about priests?”) Reproductive differences come from God.  Mama M. was wonderful at acting women behaving as men, men behaving as women, mincing along, on the ground under the Parish mango trees in her high-heeled shoes, avoiding a projecting rock that I would have tripped over a dozen times. She is clearly fascinated by sex-change operations and called on me to speak about them the second day. This was my only intervention till I was called to speak at the end.  

Apart from unchangeable God-given reproductive differences, we learned that there is no difference whatsoever between men and women. Women can do anything a man can do (and Mama M. clearly felt they should be able to become priests as well.)  There is a plan for  a large increase in the number of women catechists and the empowerment of women by giving them plots of land in the new Lolit Bridge enterprise. This, it was explained, will keep families together and diminish violence. Then we moved into peace-building, starting in the family and moving outwards.

The violent months

But there has been more violence. Education does not stop this. A former seminarian, while drunk, beat his wife. When I left Isoke she was still in a coma, her husband beside her bed, swearing he'd kill the doctors and then himself if they didn't save her.

November and December are generally violent months. Perhaps it is because there is less agricultural work to do. There is less money about and attacking trucks carrying goods on the road becomes a tempting. A truck was shot at on the road from Uganda and the Senior 3s, doing school certificate next year, are worried that the Ugandan teachers will leave.  There is local violence between the Logir and Dongotono but the basis seems to be personal—alcohol and cattle related rather than tribal animosity.  The Head Teacher gave a long lecture to the students against tribalism—he said it had been reported that some students were giving bigger helpings of food to people of their area. Next day, sitting under the staff room tree, he gave me a lecture on what he claimed was the particularly violent history of the Logir. Unlike the Dongotono, he said, the Logir people like stealing and killing. A child of a mixed marriage can kill his uncle so it’s bad to marry with a Logir.  In Chirokol they don’t go to school because even small children spend their time raiding cattle.  

Yet Sister P. who revived the Primary School in Isoke, is a Logir. After the last incident, last week, the Logir were (she says, falsely) accused of plundering a truck carrying property of the Member of Parliament for Lobira. So the police (but are they really police?) were sent to her village of Hiriafit, where they plundered her and her brother’s houses, taking mattresses, clothes, plates and cups. The Honourable, she said, referring to the MP, was just taking revenge, since obviously neither she nor her brother had anything to do with it. “The Honourable “—with the H pronounced— is a term that is often used to talk of MPs, Ministers, etc. usually with venom, to describe their large houses and ostentatious wealth.

St Julius Nyerere

Father A. was here for most of October, but instead of becoming Priest in Charge in Isoke he has now chosen to accept an offer to go to Cedar Falls to minister to the Americans. When he was here he told me that everyone was praying to the late Julius Nyerere, the first President of Tanzania, hoping he would perform miracles and become a saint. You may not have to do much in the way of miracles to be a saint, it seems to me. According to Father A., a Jesuit priest prayed to St Theresa dell Bambino Gesu, Isoke’s patron saint, to send him  a red rose and then to send a white rose, which she did, by the hand of passers by. In childhood my prayers were always extremely personal and selfish. Accordingly, while I was in Juba I asked Julius Nyerere to ensure that I would be given money when I went to the bank and that I should not be mugged. And everything went like clockwork.

Sister V. gave me a lift to the bank in the Sisters’ land cruiser.  You feel secure with a Sister beside you. The miracle was that after more than a month money that I had ordered by a Skype phone call had actually arrived in South Sudan, a country the teller in the Cooperative Bank back in Britain had never heard of. So now I think that Nyerere should definitely be canonised.

Finally, just a week after I made hubristic remarks about my resistance to malaria—at the beginning of the dry season, when there are hardly any mosquitoes about—I caught malaria. The Somali nurse at Isoke hospital administered the test and advised me to that I would be in hospital for some days. “Take book!” he said.  And I thought, what wise advice.  So I took On the Road, an uncut 1963 Pan edition from a Dutch library, one of those books I should have read at the age of 17 and was now reading at 71. What the nurse meant, though, was not that I should take a book to entertain myself, but that I had forgotten to pick up the school exercise book that held the record of my case. This is the only thing we have to pay for at Isoke Hospital. It says “Elizabeth PRUDENCE—70” on the front, and the diagnosis “uncomp malaria” inside.  I still don’t know so much about having malaria, uncomp or not, but the cure—Amodaquine—was horrible. It only takes three days, but for two days you just lie there, retching, with cramps, and of course unable to read, even Jack Kerouac.

Read on: Letter from Isoke No 5 March 2013