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Rift Valley Institute

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Letter from Isoke No 2: Who will be the next Superior?

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 second letter from Isoke. Other letters: No 1 July 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

The Superior Priest has left to pursue an MA at Kampala in Public Administration. He didn’t try too hard to administer things at Isoke. His casualness was one thing I liked about him, but we suffered because the Isoke Superior Priest is a key figure in the area. Isoke was founded by the Comboni Fathers in this beautiful fertile valley under the mountains in the 1920s. Before they came here, the buffalo roamed. (It is true. I have verified it through interviews and archival research).  “La bella Isoke” the Combonis called this place.

As a result the Isoke Superior Priest was effectively the ruler of the area and the village of Isoke grew up round the mission. Now, however, nearly everything here is under the authority of the Diocese of Torit: the secondary school with a hundred pupils, the primary school with over a thousand, the hospital, and the Caritas Food Security Centre across the river. Only AVSI, the Association of Volunteers in International Service, an Italian non-governmental organisation that works in health and education, has some independence.

So the question is: who will be the next Superior?  It’s like the Trollope novel, The Warden, which I have downloaded onto my Kindle. Our Head Teacher is in charge of the parish, by election. The Acting Priest is Father B., a Dongotono from this area. He is also the Bishop’s Secretary, so he is a powerful person and committed to rebuilding the glories of Isoke. Father B. drives himself over on Saturday evenings to take Mass and returns on Sunday evening. We were told that the Year of Faith would be launched last Thursday from Isoke, but in the end the Bishop couldn’t come, nor could Father B., as he had malaria. And the internet was down so I couldn’t even find out what exactly the Year of Faith was.  

The origins of the Isoke mission

Isoke, I learn, was first visited by the Comboni Fathers on St Teresa’s Day, 1 October, so St Teresa is our saint and we were to have a big celebration for that day—only a week late. I was sorry to discover, though, that this St Teresa is not the interesting mystic St Teresa of Avila, but St Teresa dell Bambino Gesu, a sickly nineteenth-century Italian who used the elevator as a symbol of the fact that even the weak, who couldn’t climb the steps, could get to the Kingdom of Heaven. Father B. revealed this to us this in a speech after the Mass. But who here knows what an elevator is?  Hardly an appropriate image, in any case, for these mountains where elderly women of my age walk four hours down to the valley in a morning carrying cabbages or onions and four hours up again in the evening with cassava roots on their heads.  

There were 126 children to be baptized and I guessed the Mass would last at least three hours. In fact it lasted nearly five; after that the Ugandan teachers left in disgust. They missed the bull cooked for lunch—and the choirs. The School Drama group put on a play, in a mixture of English, Lotuko, and Juba Arabic: it was about a sick girl and her drunken, non-church-going father and brothers. The boys were excellent at playing the parts of drunken yobs. The bad father and his sons take the girl to the diviner (brilliantly acted), who demanded a goat (bleating a lot) and several hundred pounds, and made cuts in her flesh supposedly to cure her. When she was finally taken to hospital it was too late to save her. The play featured a nun and a priest who crossed himself furiously all the time, to much laughter. It showed that the students are better at creating what they want to do (they only spent a day rehearsing it) than doing what others want.

For example, the school newspaper. I tried to organize this and it took two weeks to get on to the wall, though at least at that point everyone was pleased with it. The headlines were not exactly compelling: “Uprooting Groundnuts was started two weeks ago in Isoke Boma”  was one of the highlights. Many articles, like the one in question, went on to say:  “And now the news in detail”.  But it is true that, for the last two weeks, everybody has been uprooting groundnuts and putting them out to dry. That is the story here. The author also recorded the cost of things in the market. These included the shocking price hike in 96-page exercise books — from 2SSP to 4SSP (US 5o cents to $1, that is 30p to 60p in UK currency). Students have to buy their own exercise books and the lack of them is becoming a problem.

We got an exclusive story as on that day there was gunfire quite close. Ohisa, who comes from Isoke and seems to know what is happening, wrote an article then and there with the basic details. A local Dongotono man, was wounded in the head with a panga by some Logir lira-lira carriers. (Lira-lira is Ugandan style distilled alcohol; the Logir are the neighbouring tribal group.) The cause of the fight is obscure; it seems the assailants wanted to beat up someone who wasn’t there at the time, so the actual victim was second best. It shows that Isoke is not quite the haven of peace I once believed.

In theory a killer may take refuge in the Parish (i.e. our compound) where the victim’s family won’t kill him, but will allow him be handed over to the police. I’m not sure whether that will work, though. It seems I am the senior person in the compound now. On Saturday I had to break up a fight when a drunken teacher slapped the assistant cleaner on her cheek and she pursued him with an iron bar. 

The chemistry teacher

Our new chemistry teacher, W., is really good value. This term he arrived first of all the teachers (except for the Head).  He walked the last 20 miles from Ikotos. Last term when he applied I was saying cautiously to the Head, “You must take up his references”. I could not imagine why someone with a Diploma in Science Education from a British University would want to come to Isoke, where he might be paid $400 a month (but would more likely not receive a cent till after March when oil money may flow again). But taking up references is not a South Sudan thing, certainly not without email, and W., like most people in Africa, carried all his twenty or more certificates with him—all his degrees and diplomas, including one certifying his skills in growing vegetables for the UK market. Meanwhile I arrived here empty handed, with no academic certificates at all.

W. is always cheerful; and walking with him is a joy. He notices everything. The golden flecks in the Awali River might be gold, he says, so he’ll get the students panning, and he will get them to gather the iron-rich deposits and show them simple smelting techniques. During classes this afternoon I saw him coming back from somewhere with the senior students clustered all around him. He told me that he had decided he ought to teach in South Sudan in 2005, after the peace agreement. Then, in Leeds, he googled the phrase “South Sudan teaching chemistry” and found the post here advertised. So he came to Isoke knowing little more than the name, like me, without even the links I had to the diocese and the Sisters.

Read on: Letter No 3 November 2012

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