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Rift Valley Institute

Making local knowledge work

Letter from Isoke No 9: Death and tractors

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 ninth 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 and No 8 June 2013

A man called Luka climbed a cassia tree in the parish grounds to cut branches to sell, having taken five of six sachets of the strong alcohol they sell here called ‘Empire’. Drunk, he fell to his death. The family claimed compensation, but three witnesses confirmed that between his accident and his death Luka had told them no one should be held liable for his death. The judge in Ikotos agreed. So justice was done. The person who had been pushing for compensation was the brother of the deceased. He  had himself killed one of his other brothers in a drunken quarrel five years before. Did he pay compensation? Not being an anthropologist it took me some time to realize that this would be a completely different kind of case: you don’t pay compensation for killing your own brother because their family becomes part of your responsibility. And you can’t pay compensation to yourself .

At the Fathers’ Compound where I live we now have three pigs; Father B. was talking a few months ago of how much he loved roast pork. Accordingly, he celebrated the fifth anniversary of his ordination with a roast pork party, thrown thrown by the hospital staff.  Myself and Mama M., the women’s organizer, who has been spending more time here lately, are a good deal less keen on these pigs. They are really not beautiful; and the compound is beginning to smell like a farmyard. Each morning, after the rain, I wake up to find the earth of this religious house criss-crossed with prints of cloven hoofs.

The duiker dies

Some time ago the pet duiker, Joanna, died after days of refusing to eat. They said she ate something poisonous or that she caught pneumonia. I tried to coax her to eat, but to no avail. In the morning of the fourth day Franco said “Joanna died in the night”. I stroked her body and said: “Now we have to dig a hole for her grave and bury her”. Franco looked at me astonished: “Should we not rather give her to the mzee [old man] outside the gate to eat?” “Of course we should”, I said, quickly changing tack. There’s been another duiker since then. Mama M. gave him milk, but I didn’t have time to name him or bond with him before he, too, died.     

Life is punctuated with the feasts of the State, or of the Church. There is Independence Day followed by Martyrs’ Day (which comes rather too soon after and is under-celebrated as people are jaded), then the Feast of the Assumption. And soon there will be the ceremony for the hanging of the bells and the Feast of St Theresa on 1 October. The new bells— which are not so beautiful as the old cracked ones, which have inscriptions and reliefs of religious scenes—are the gift of a parish in Milan. The hanging of the bells will be attended by the Priest and representatives of the Milanese parish. The latter will have to get back in time to celebrate St Theresa’s day in Milan. 

How people love a feast! Church or State, the organization tends to be similar. A three-hour Mass, in the case of the religious festivals, followed by a wait outside the Church for food, which is served first to dignitaries and then to as many village people as it will go round—at least a couple of hundred and maybe as many as five hundred. In the midst of constant financial crises money always seems to be found for feasts. The feast of the Assumption was striking as they killed two bulls and gave one to the Primary and Secondary School students, whose diet never normally includes meat—in fact never anything but porridge and beans. 

The entertainment is always pretty much the same. There are the Children of the Infant Jesus, singing uplifting songs that they make up themselves, the choir from the secondary school, doing the same, the Woroworo women dancers, and, finally, the primary school scout troop, dressed in khaki with caps, giving displays of stamping and leaping. All this is interspersed with speeches from the village Chief, the Parish Priest, the Headmaster, the Headmistress of the Primary School, the Woman’s representative, the Youth representative, and sometimes the Commissioner. If we’re lucky the school drama group will put on a play, but they didn’t the last two times. On both those feasts it rained heavily. When festivities resumed everything was mud. The boy scouts slipped and fell as they were performing (I’m afraid one of them fractured a leg). Yet, after a delay of two hours due to the rain and the wait for food there were still a thousand or so people—mostly children—waiting to watch and cheer. They even cheered the speeches.

The European Union, the tractor and the wily Combonis

Meanwhile the school farm at Lolit has been getting underway. The money from the European Union, which was supposed to come in January, finally arrived at the beginning of August. This was just at the end of the season, when both schools were sitting exams. Sister P. said there was no way she could keep the primary school pupils in school once the exams were finished, but in the secondary school they would have to stay to get their report cards.  So we started and finished exams early and during the last week of term the tractor carried 20 boys a day to the farm and we started clearing the land. It is a wonderful project—aiming to provide food to feed the primary and secondary school so that we don’t run out each term as we have in the past. If you think about it, the money the school receives from all pupils’ school fees—supposing they are all paid—comes to about 5,000 euros a term. From this the school pays for food and equipment and salaries for any staff not registered with the Ministry of Education. (The students have to provide their own exercise books, pens and even paper for writing their exams on). So the 61,000 euros from the EU would give the secondary school complete ease for 4 years. As for land, the secondary school already has 11 acres in the valley, and for the first time this year we got it all planted with cassava. All the land, whoever farms it, up as far as a landmark cassia tree two kilometres away, is parish land, thanks to the wily Comboni Fathers.

The land at Lolit is 15km away. We have the tractor for the moment, but later the pupils will have to walk it. Charles has nearly finished building a galvanised metal store there for seeds and tools. The land is being planted with cassava as it is late in the season and anything else will be uprooted by monkeys or wild pigs. They are going to pay for three watchmen to guard the land in shifts all the year, since cassava takes a year before harvesting. I said to the Head Teacher: “Won’t that eat up all the profits?” He said, “Yes”.  I told Richard Oyet, who got the grant, that I failed to see the economics of it, except that the EU seem to like the idea of giving money in order to make schools self-sustaining, while thinking, for some reason, that paying for labs, textbooks or teachers is not their role. He agreed.

My malaria

Between the beginning of writing this letter and the ending of it, I had something like a near-death experience, the result of the engrained feeling our generation seems to have that you shouldn’t disturb doctors except in direst need. During the week I had fever and went to the hospital, but no clinician was on duty, so I said I would come back on Monday. The Somali nurse from the malaria program came out of hours and gave me malaria drugs but I still wasn’t convinced it was malaria and only started taking them on Saturday. Then I must have fallen unconscious.  I woke up in a room on a quinine drip surrounded by anxious people. The head girl and another student slept on the floor by my bed all night saying “Tea? Porridge?” or giving me Panadol.  But on Monday afternoon, the clinician agreed to discharge me.  It was like taking up my bed and walking. My sheets, blanket, pillow and crockery more than filled three basins carried on the heads of the girls. The hospital room where I had been was emptied, only the bed and table remained.

I asked everyone what had happened. “You were found”, said Sister P. “By whom?” “By me. I found you,” she said. “It was 8.30. Then Richard carried you down by car”. Later I asked the Head Teacher the same question. But his answer was different. “Richard found you on the floor of your room at 10.30,” he said.  At this point I remembered how, when I was a student at the Centre for West African Studies back in Britain, we would consider multiple accounts of a single incident and try to work out the reasons for the variations. And I remembered how later, at Amnesty International, when I was working on the Middle East, we would do the opposite: try and establish a single truth. We had to do this, because if we said, for example, that an event happened at 8am instead of 10am the Israeli government would jump on us and say all our information was clearly false. 

In the present case perhaps it doesn’t really matter what is true. In fact the different stories I think I am hearing about my collapse may all be a result of the fact that quinine distorts your hearing. It makes everyone sound like a 33 rpm record played at 45 rpm.  Today, in any case, I am well enough to eat a chapatti with Charles before he goes to Lolit.  So I ask him “Why didn’t you check that that I was alive on Sunday morning?”  “But I did!” he says. “It was I who came to your door at 7.30 and found you!”

Read on: Letter from Isoke No 10

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