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Rift Valley Institute

Making local knowledge work

Letter from Isoke No 5: A walk to the network

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

Term is already into its fourth week and still the Ugandan teachers have not arrived. But the mobile network, which you can find by walking three kilometres, finally started working again. And last Sunday afternoon the Head Teacher and I and two others walked the three kilometres to be connected. No need now to take off our shoes to cross the Awali River. It can be jumped over or crossed with stepping stones. Below the mountains, huts were perched on rocks half way up; there were bells from goats wandering on the summits, and a dance on a dancing ground near the road. People passed us dressed up for it: one jubilant woman had made a headdress with bands and upright pages from an old exercise book.

 “She is showing her pride because her daughter is going to school”, said the Head Teacher.  

The primary school mentor, a Madi, from the West of Eastern Equatoria State, commented on the fertility of the land. “The Madi would leave none of this uncultivated!” he said, “You could grow vegetables by the river all the year round, and rice and sugar cane…” Depressed, the Head Teacher agreed. In 2001, he said, Father M. had made a vegetable garden by the river, but now there is nothing.

I myself came two weeks late for the beginning of term, as I had been accompanying the new Amnesty International South Sudan researcher on a visit to Wau. I expected to be one week late, but we were delayed by flight problems. I am a highly conscientious teacher, so I felt embarrassed, but even so I was back before some of the others. That week and this there have been only the Sudanese teachers and me. At first we would teach without a timetable, bargaining as we left the staffroom.  “Oh, are you going to Senior 4 now? Then I’ll go to Senior 3…”  Then we agreed on a timetable, which we don’t always keep to, and the students haven’t bothered to copy, just waiting to see what lesson turns up. So I’ve been getting students who have dropped history attending history lessons. “Oh, let’s stay,” they say, “we are not doing anything else”.  Also the Primary School leaving results were late, so Senior 1 has only just started registering. Numbers so far are not yet up to last year, but students are still arriving. 

As for the Ugandan teachers, when we reached them by phone from the three kilometer point, they said it was a question of money. They hadn’t been paid and hadn’t the money for bus fares, let alone leaving food for their families. Then two days ago two of them, including the Accounts teacher, arrived. But the Accounts teacher, immediately returned to Uganda, carrying two other salaries in cash for the stranded teachers.


There is no bank here in Isoke, nor in Ikotos, but there are branches of East African banks in Torit, and, of course, in Juba. Salaries could easily be paid so that Ugandan and Kenyan teachers could get them from their nearest town. But the Ministry of Education in Juba sends cash to the State Ministry of Education in Torit which sends cash to the County Education office in Ikotos, and the Head Teacher or senior staff member of each school throughout the rural areas comes to the County headquarters to collect the cash. Sometimes it hasn’t yet arrived so they go back again. Many schools, like us, are not on a phone network and I don’t think even the County HQ has email, so there may be no other way of knowing if the salaries have arrived. Ambrose my fellow teacher and former child soldier says, cynically, that they pay in cash because it is easier to detach money at each stage.

This payment of salaries has allowed me to see that teachers are getting even lower salaries than I thought. James, our gentle Maths teacher who draws triangles for his students in the sand under the tree and gives them extra coaching on Saturdays, is paid less than $100 a month. I am ashamed. I am now on the Ministry of Education books and get paid probably more than anyone. I am a Grade VII and get 1013 South Sudan pounds a month, which is currently $340 or £220. It feels like a vast amount. Yet 1 pound is the smallest unit of currency. Imagine—a country as poor as this, with the smallest unit of money worth twenty pence or thirty cents. How do people survive without small change?

Dust storms 

This has been a time of dust storms. They are not as bad as the habubs of Khartoum, but quite strong, lots of dust blowing, and extreme heat. Wrinkles have suddenly appeared on my face like a river with many tributaries. As soon as I put suncream on, I want to put more. Small boys fly kites made of torn up plastic bags, with many fluttering plastic tails and knotted plastic cord. We are approaching the mango season and the trees are full of children picking and eating the unripe mangoes. I had my first slices of the hard, sweet mango windfalls given me by the Sisters today.

When I walked with a former student to Woroworo, half a dozen kilometers away, it was cloudy and cool. A lovely walk beside the mountains, with the Dongotono villages perched on ridges fifty metres above the plain. I learned that there are two etymologies proposed for the word “Dongotono”. One is “people of the mountain’’. The other is “eating and mourning.” This, it is said, is because they were people who did not know when they would get another meal. I favour the former derivation. At this season, after harvest, before the rains and the planting season, granaries and vats in store huts are piled high with sorghum; it is the other side of the mountain which has been suffering from a bad season.

The women’s centre

Meanwhile I am observing, without being directly involved, the progress of two projects. Firstly, the Women’s Centre. The diocesan building manager, Charles the Kenyan, is a genius. He was recruited on the spot by the Bishop of Torit who met him in Mumbai Airport on one of his medical visits to Inda. Charles builds very simply and cheaply, purely with local labour and locally made bricks. 

The weekend before last the Head of UN Women in Sudan, a pugnacious Nigerian lady, came on a visit. I was afraid that she would think the building was so good that she would kidnap Charles. But not at all, she clearly felt the whole thing was a mistake. Isoke was not big enough to merit something like that. Why not build it in Kapoeta, further east?  It is easy to see where she is coming from because there is a state-of-the-art Norwegian Hospital built in Katiko, in the east. And Katiko is the home village, apparently, of the State Minister of Health. But most of the sick still go to the Mission Hospital in Kapoeta twelve miles away. There must have seemed to her no good reason other than this sort of thing for siting a woman’s centre in our remote village where there is nothing but farmers, schools, and an empty market. But the women here want it, there seems to be a committed group and a lot of them turn up for meetings, which always end in eating and drinking and dancing, and being smeared with flour. So let us see. At the moment Charles’ local workers have built so quickly that the money has run out—and the workers, who are owed three weeks’ salary, have gone on strike. I suppose UN Women will continue to fund the building. It now has a roof, windows, doors and lacks only a ceiling and a veranda.

Everything is bearable if you have bread

The other project I am watching is the Lolit Bridge agricultural project. This is also a result of the energy of Father B., the Bishop’s Secretary, and Mama M., the Diocese woman’s officer. The Parish has a vast tract of land at Lolit Bridge. The main idea is that it should grow sorghum so that there won’t any longer be a need for importing it. They will distribute plots particularly to women (who don’t inherit by custom). And the primary and secondary schools will become self-sufficient in food so we don’t have to close when it runs out. It will be interesting to see if it works.  The broken down tractor in our compound is still not working but, a large elderly tractor given a few years ago by the Italians was driven here under its own steam from Narus some 150 km away. But the ploughshares were taken somewhere else, so we are waiting for these. Walking sixteen kilometres to cultivate is a long distance for anyone to walk and then farm; one would need huts, food, water, cooking, a store, and supervision. Last year the school only cultivated five of the eleven acres of land that belong to it. But we had a good sorghum crop, which we’ve been eating, and by April we will have cassava too.

In this ecclesiocracy, the lack of a resident Priest means the compound where I stay has become chaotic. We are four fairly permanent, easy-going, paying guests, a Ugandan water engineer, the Kenyan master builder, and a South Sudanese Doctor.  But the management has changed, and our housekeeper, who worked for the diocese for 6 years (for $50 a month), has left and returned to her home in Magwi.  So we have a succession of local people to cook. They are all very nice, but always seem to get sacked for burning the meat or a similar infraction. So we are constantly running out of tea, sugar, toilet paper, and, worst of all, filtered water.  The good thing is that the present cook has started making bread at the Sisters’ place. Everything is bearable if you have bread. And the mango season is starting.

Read on: Letter from Isoke No 6 April 2013

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