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Rift Valley Institute

Making local knowledge work

Letter from Isoke No 11: Ghost teachers, scorpions, broken chairs

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 eleventh letter from Isoke. Other letters: No 1 July 2012No 2 October 2012No 3 November 2012No 4 December 2012No 5 March 2013No 6 April 2013No 7 May 2013No 8 June 2013No 9 September 2013 and No 10 September 2013.

The subject of the Comprehension test in the school certificate exam this year was cattle-raiding. Cattle-raiding is a specialty round here, so it was much easier for the students than last year’s test, when the subject was the fifth and seventh Pan-African Congress.

A Ministry of Education directive apparently says that no students should be present in the school at the time of the school certificate exams, except for those taking the exam. Or maybe it’s because the teachers want to go home. Or because each school certificate candidates needs a desk and chair to themselves and there aren’t enough to go round. (In fact there aren’t even enough chairs for the teachers. We sit on a fallen tree trunk, half-eaten by termites.)

The problem is that neither desks or chairs have been getting mended since the school carpenter was murdered by his drunken nephews. No action was taken against the nephews. They are his closest relatives and any compensation would have to be paid back to them. For the same reason the nephews were not arrested by the police. Or perhaps it was because the police were afraid of them. Last week, though, one nephew was found stabbed to death. And the other one has become very thin, they say, because his strength is sapped by supernatural powers. 

I am lucky to be free of malaria this term, having been provided with prophylactics by E., Practically everyone else here has been hospitalised at some point. And unfortunately the staff of the hospital have not been paid for six months. So they left en masse for Torit to complain, leaving the hospital without staff for two days. Then the hospital ran out of anti-malaria drugs, except for amodaquine, which has the worst side-effects of all. And one of the lab technicians left and the other went on leave. So for nearly a month they couldn’t do lab tests.

Sudanese Arabic, English English

For the first time since I came here we have had two Muslims visiting the Parish. One is a Fellata, the descendent of a follower of Osman dan Fodio who migrated in the 19th century from West Africa and settled in al-Fasher, in Darfur, and whose father moved from there to Wau. He arrived here with Mama M.’s son; they both studied at Ahlia University in Khartoum. They are journalists and plan to establish a history magazine to be called Heritage. These two young people believe, remarkably, in eventual Sudanese reunification—to follow revolutions in Sudan and South Sudan. 

The other Muslim visitor is the Ministry of Education Examinations Monitor, who teaches Arabic and Islamic Religious Education. These subjects do not figure in the South Sudan School Certificate. But in fact three of the ten states in South Sudan have kept to the Sudanese Arabic school certificate from the old Sudan. These states present no students for the new School Certificate.

It’s ridiculous, really, that Arabic has not been made the second official language of Sudan, since everybody here speaks it—either Juba or Sudanese Arabic—and generally in preference to English. Arabic is the language used when commissioners or priests want to be sure that people understand what they say. In St Kizito Primary School they solve the problem by treating Arabic as the mother tongue—ie the language of instruction to be used in the first three years of school.

This is my last term teaching here in Isoke. So I will be saying goodbye not just to South Sudan, but also to Sudanese English. This year’s Letter to Parents (which I did not edit this time) reports that three boys were dismissed and three girls ‘dismissed themselves by fornication and pregnancy’. (I hope they undismiss themselves too.) The commonest words in use to describe uncooperative students are ‘stubborn’ and ‘dodging’. In fact ‘stubborn’ is used as a general term of criticism in South Sudan. For instance, the Dinka, the majority ethnic group in the country, are often described by non-Dinka as ‘stubborn’. It is a pity there are no Dinka in the school so the students can judge for themselves. In Isoke as a whole there is only one Dinka, a shop owner with two local Dongotono wives.

I explained to Senior 3  the other day that in English as spoken in England there was no such expression as ‘next tomorrow’ (Sudanese English for ‘the day after tomorrow’). They could hardly believe it. I also told them that since English is the official language of South Sudan, once they have passed their school certificate they can make of it what they like and that they should feel free to use ‘next tomorrow’, if they want. And ‘footing’ for walking—and any other expression they choose.

I am happy to say there is much less beating in the school now. We had two workshops in the past year emphasising that the practice was now outlawed. In one school assembly, though, a new teacher caned a boy who had dodged his class. The boy’s nickname—he’s proud of it—is Yau Yau, after the South Sudanese rebel leader who has been causing mayhem in Jonglei state. After a stroke of the cane he leapt up laughing.

Ghost teachers

At least we didn’t run out of food at the school this year. There was not enough extra money, though, to top up teachers’ salaries.

Under the Memorandum with the Diocese, teachers in faith schools like ours are paid by the Ministry of Education. But a teacher doesn’t get on the Ministry books until the calendar year after they start. Thus I arrived in January 2012, and during the first year received just a couple of hand-outs—two hundred South Sudan pounds a time (about US$ 45). After a teacher has left their post, on the other hand, the Ministry tends to go on paying his or her salary for another year. The school uses the money coming to these non-existent teachers to pay other teachers who aren’t on the books, or to boost existing teachers’ salaries.

This past year the school had two ghost salaries, but we had three teachers to be paid from this money, not to mention the hospital staff who teach science. I’d intended to inform the Ministry of Education that I was leaving at the end of this term, but the head teacher made it quite clear that I must continue as a ghost teacher. And I came to understand what a bad mistake it would have been, depriving the school of 1000SSP (US$225) a month.

I am one of only two women teachers now. When I leave,  L. will be the last. I couldn’t blame her if she were to leave– she has two small children at home in Uganda, one with medical problems needing more than her monthly salary for treatment. She is thinking of going into the clothes business.

The new administration in the diocese of Torit is gradually taking action against corruption. Father B. was proud of himself for unmasking the logistician and getting him put in prison.  (“Did he think I couldn’t tell the difference between a new clutch plate and a fourth-hand Chinese one costing 3,000SSP?” he asked.) But within a week, somehow, the logistician had escaped from prison.

In Isoke we have an elderly priest with a passion for growing anything—preparing a nursery, planting seeds of pawpaws, lemons, anything—and a habit of calling the congregation “comrades”, which he may have picked up from the SPLA during their socialist period in the early part of the north-south civil war. When the SPLA passed through in the early 1980s Father John would give them sweet potatoes. That was how he saved the intermediate students—including the future Bishop and three future priests—from recruitment as child soldiers. The SPLA Commander looked them over and said they were “good officer material” and should stay in school. Notwithstanding the sweet potatoes, in 1992 Father John was put in an SPLA Prison for a hundred days.

The rainy season ends as the term ends. Suddenly the grass is dry and scorpions appear in houses. The weather is still pleasant, though, with a light, warm breeze, while in Torit and Juba it is becoming really hot during the day. This week the local students set off home, girls with trunks on their heads, boys mostly with back packs, walking in groups of six or more, for safety and company. Ten of them set out on the four-hour walk to Lobira at 4AM.  Michael L.–with a young person’s blissful lack of understanding of physical limitations of an old khawajia like myself—urged me to come with him to his village, four hours trek through the mountains. This was to talk to his father about the history of Anyanya I in the area. But walking in this season is too hard; and the heat dries the mouth up as soon as you drink. Meanwhile students who are going home to Torit or Juba—too far to walk—have to wait for vehicles which may not travel at all.  Last term we had the lorry, but now it’s stuck, with gear box problems.  

But this is Isoke, so we are used to it. A town with no telephone network, with nothing in the market, with roads deep in mud, and a gun crime every fortnight. But with beautiful mountains, a good climate, fertile land, a strong women’s group and the only undamaged church in Equatoria. And our two wondrous, struggling schools.

Read on: Letter from Isoke No 12

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