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Rift Valley Institute

Making local knowledge work

Letter from Isoke No 1: How do you study when there’s nothing to eat?

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 first letter from Isoke. Other letters: No 2 October 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

A new term starts at St Augustine’s School in Isoke. So far the teaching staff comprises only the Head Teacher and myself. Pupils trickle in—about 25 have registered by the end of the first week—but many from around Isoke do not bother. At the school there is a general feeling that nothing much is going to happen, with pupils doing little but cleaning the classroom, sweeping or cutting the grass. Better to have them at home working on the land. Last term there were no students for two weeks. There are a few more this term and the headmaster and I are both more active.

So I give a human rights class, this being included among the subjects in the new South Sudan national syllabus. The class benefits from the presence of seven Nuba students, refugees from fighting up north in Sudan, who are able to describe how the Nuba cannot get jobs in offices. They explain to the rest of the class the meaning of the word “discrimination”. These Nuba students were evacuated with their whole school from South Kordofan, a place that is currently the scene of violent clashes between the Sudanese army and the forces of independent South Sudan. The students have been distributed among schools here in Eastern Equatoria.

classroomIsoke—pronounced something like it’s OK—is an isolated, beautiful valley, surrounded by mountains, with no public transport or mobile telephone network. The mango season is over now and there is no fruit in the market; only local greens or beans on sale. In the school there are almost no textbooks. Up to now, for the history class, I have been writing my own version of the history of Europe in longhand and giving it out on pages torn from an exercise book. Soon, though, we will be able to use some second-hand textbooks on the history of the twentieth century donated by a school in Durham. Carrying them out here, my luggage was 15 kilos overweight, but the Kenya Airways check-in desk at Nairobi airport waved me through.

The oil shutdown and the price of food

In January, South Sudan shut down oil production in a dispute with Sudan—the country from which it broke away a year ago—over the charges levied by the North for using the pipeline to the Red Sea. Since the closure of the oil pipeline, the rise in food prices has become a major issue. Maize, the main staple, rose from sixty South Sudan pounds for a 50 kilo sack in 2011 (around US$20 or £12 sterling) to SSP150 in April this year (£30 or US $50), then to SSP250 (US$85 or £55) as term was starting at the end of May.

Both the primary school—St Kizita’s—and the secondary school closed a week early last term having run out of food. Our school fees, which as SSP250 a term for full board, would have covered the food, but too many were unpaid, and a number of students dropped out in March. Parents in urban schools are more likely to find money but here agriculture is almost entirely subsistence. The Head Teacher rails against fathers: ‘They’ll find cows for another wife but not to send their children to school.’

Life in the hunger gap 

These are the hunger months before harvest. The World Food Programme distributes food but nothing has yet arrived. Before the school closed towards the end of last term, pupils sometimes had only one meal a day. The first two weeks of this term there was torrential rain each day and a World Food Programme lorry taking maize to primary schools in Torit, 180km from here, got stuck in the road and was plundered by men with pangas. They cut open the 100kg sacks to make them lighter to carry. Local people say the whole deal was set-up. “A child could see the lorry was unsuitable for these roads,” said a worker from the diocese of Torit. In another incident, after drinking heavily, three villagers near Lobira ambushed a lorry carrying sacks of maize, killing a passenger.

With food prices so high, everyone is taking cultivation much more seriously. When two more teachers arrived after the start of term, the Head Teacher disappeared to work on his own land. State governments have declared Fridays national agriculture days. Those living in our compound—South Sudanese and Ugandans mostly working for the hospital or NGOs—joke about how public servants in Juba, the capital, will be watering their throats with beer or kwete (the local homebrew) and planting playing cards. The same assessment may have led the government to announce punishments for playing cards—or dominoes, or Ludo—on cultivation days.

Teachers’ salaries are low anyway and they are paid in South Sudanese pounds now, so they have seen their salaries cut in half. The maths teacher has still not arrived, three weeks after the beginning of term. Last term he said to me: ‘I am wondering if it is worth continuing if I cannot support my family.’ For six months we have had no chemistry teacher: now two doctors and some nurses and technical staff have agreed to split classes between them. The science, maths and commerce teachers are Ugandans; if they leave the school will collapse.

Read on: Letter from Isoke No 2 November 2012

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