“The future of South Sudan belongs to you.”
Elizabeth Hodgkin interviewed by Radio Tamazuj on her book, Letters from Isohe.
Above, Elizabeth Hodgkin, with students from St Augustine’s School, Isohe.
This week’s post provides a link and full transcript to a recent interview by Radio Tamazuj with Dr Elizabeth (Liz) Hodgkin. Ten years ago, at the age of seventy, Liz resolved, in her own words, to “let me end my life as I began it” and so she returned to Africa to teach. She was to live and work in the small town of Isohe, in Eastern Equatoria, South Sudan from 2011 – 2013.
“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.”
Elizabeth Hodgkin, describing Isohe in her remarkable Letters from Isohe.
Read illustrated extracts from Letters from Isohe and learn more about St. Augustine’s, the Isohe secondary school where Elizabeth worked, here:
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In her ten-minute interview with Radio Tamazuj, Liz talks about how her collection of letters came to be published, her admiration for the teachers who “chose a life of poverty to teach the next generation of South Sudanese”, and the joys of fellowship and time shared in a community that honours the old and is generous to the visitor. She closes with a powerful message.
Watch the Interview by clicking on the link below.
Transcript of the Interview
How did it happen that you went to Isohe?
Elizabeth Hodgkin (Elizabeth): …. And then I retired and became seventy – that was ten years ago so now I’m eighty so then, when I was seventy I thought I’m still strong! Let me end my life as I began it – as a secondary school teacher in Africa. I’m eighty years old so when I was in my twenties, in the early 1960s, when countries in Africa were becoming independent, I went, like many of my friends, to go and teach in Africa – in Zambia from 1964-67. Then I had other jobs; I worked in the University of Khartoum, I worked in London for a human rights organization called Amnesty International and then I retired and became seventy – ten years ago. So then I decided to go to South Sudan because South Sudan was said to be bottom in education in the world and had just become independent. And I knew Sudan, I had worked before in Sudan and I love Sudan and South Sudan. So I went there and I was given the name of a wonderful Catholic sister called Sister Rose, the late Sister Rose, who is now dead but founded a school, The Sacred Heart School. She hadn’t yet founded her school so she said to go to Isohe. Isohe, one of the places in the world I thought I was going to a difficult place and I came to this wonderful valley where there was a primary school, headed by Sister Pashwina with a thousand students and a secondary school founded by the Comboni fathers, I think, which was headed by (Jackson) Lopul, who is still headmaster now, years later. So that is how I came to go to Isohe at the age of seventy to teach.
That’s great! And what about your experience?
Elizabeth: I loved it. It’s a wonderful place and the people were wonderful and the people in school were facing so many difficulties and small conflicts and lack of food and yet they fought through everything in order to get an education. You HAD to support them.
And now, what really inspired you to write the book? Tell me more about the book.
Elizabeth: It was never intended to be a book. I was writing letters to people and then after about three months, I thought “why should I write ten letters? I will write one letter to twenty or thirty people.” So, I did that. So I started writing these letters to twenty or thirty people at a time – to friends of mine and i would send them about every one or two months. OK, then after two years in Isohe, I came back and I did some work and I tried to get to South Sudan every couple of years to go back to the school and then a friend of mine, John Ryle, who had been head of The Rift Valley Institute decided to become a publisher and to publish the books of three 80-year olds. And I was one of these 80-year olds whose book he published. That is to say he published these letters which had just been letters. They weren’t intended to be a book…. ten years after they were written. They were letters written from 2011, 12 and 2013 – ten years ago.
And what was the message in those letters? And who are you writing to, exactly?
Above, scenes from South Sudan.
Elizabeth: I was just writing to friends! I wasn’t thinking of anything else. I was just writing to friends so I was speaking jokily a bit about my life and so naturally I was underlining what is different between the life in Isohe and life in England – I live in a village, an English village, or my life before that, – I was living in London and so I was just writing not very serious things. I was just writing so that people would see what life was like in an African school, a South Sudanese school. They weren’t supposed to be for history! They were just for friends. A lot of people could have just thrown them in the wastepaper basket as soon as they had received them. They weren’t for keeping for ever. So I’m flattered.
And what was your favourite part from one of your letters that you can really remember up to now?
Elizabeth: Oh, many of the things … there were important bits in them and not so important bits in all of them. I mean, for instance, when I spoke about, let me think, I spoke a lot of about work done by women and the father, the parish priest, Father Ben’s aim to use the women and make the women more important. I didn’t talk in my letters about what I have studied more about now and how the women’s groups were being used and many important things aren’t in my letters, like how women’s groups intervened to try to keep the peace. I spoke a lot – I hope I spoke a lot – about how the students wanted education and longed for education and how they worked and believed in education. At the end of the time in school, I and other women students would get worried about girls dropping out of education so we started to interview each girl and some of them were so strong and some of them said “No! Nothing will stop me from having an education. One girl we have often quoted said – and these are the sentences I remembered for ever; “My mother, send me to school. I don’t have a father, I don’t have brothers, I don’t have sisters. You are crying but I must continue. Here there is not even a good hospital. The people are suffering and no boy from our village has finished school. I will be a doctor or a nurse.” This aim, this push, this belief in education was so moving for us to listen to.
OK, thank you. And I understand you have also been in other parts of the world? You’ve been traveling a lot.
Elizabeth: Yes. I worked for some years in the University of Khartoum, teaching in the late 60s to 1972. I worked also in Vietnam,also teaching English. I did my PhD thesis on the history of Timbuktu in the seventeenth century. Yes, I have traveled and I like traveling.
And in South Sudan, the statistics say 70% of children don’t attend school and this is a risk for the country. In your own words, what do you think about the education system in South Sudan compared to the other countries you have previously visited?
Elizabeth: I think South Sudan has had a very difficult history. It was colonized by the British, by northerners and getting independence only after great difficulties. It is a population which has fought and which wants to have a better life but at the moment is near the bottom of the list for education. It is also near the bottom of the list of an organization called Transparency International because of corruption and in a poor country, that is very difficult. I see the salaries of the teachers. It is difficult for a teacher to live. It is so difficult for a teacher to keep alive on their salary and yet they achieve this – they are giving up their life to help the new generation. It is difficult for people to live on normal salaries in South Sudan but some people are making a lot of money. How can one teach children who are poor to fight against corruption? England was corrupt a few hundred years ago. Other countries have suffered from this but in the end we have to work for the good of the whole people. And so I admire those and the teachers especially who chose poverty and hoping that the students, as they had been when they were young …I admire them enormously and I still admire them – those who are teaching and getting perhaps the equivalent of ten or twenty dollars several months in arrears and they are continuing to teach the children of South Sudan. I am sure there will be a better future
Below, preparing a lesson, St Kizito’s Primary School, Isohe, Letters from Isohe, p75.
Letters from Isohe seems to connect things; things outsiders cannot really see; the other, good things that are happening in South Sudan, especially in Isohe. What is one specific thing that you feel most outsiders don’t see about South Sudan?
Elizabeth: We were so isolated in Isohe we didn’t see much which was outside Isohe and it was a sort of a rather peaceful island. I think the friendship and solidarity of a simple life, the joys of, yes, the joys we don’t have so normally in Britain of spending your evenings sitting round in a circle talking to each other because it’s dark, because you don’t often have a television that works so you sit and talk and this joy in just discussing and being with other people. And also the beauty of the bush, the beauty of the mountains all around. Actually, you could never get tired of looking at the mountains. And the kindness to old people. I was an old person, I was over seventy and everyone was kind and treated me nicely and it was very good. (At this point in the interview, Liz shows the viewers the picture below).
St Theresa’s Church , Isohe, and the Dongotono Mountains, Letters from Isohe, p10/11.
Beautiful! A beautiful place. And surrounded by good people. You cannot ask for more. You must, I feel very strongly, you must continue to believe in yourselves, as students, and you must continue to believe in the future. Don’t let yourself be disappointed by difficulties, by not getting jobs or anything like that. You must go on. The future of South Sudan belongs to you. it belongs to the young. And a better South Sudan will definitely come. For yourselves and your children. And for the teachers, I just have to keep saying how much I admire you that you are willing to teach for so little money and you trying to bring up the future of South Sudan.That you are the message for all of us.
Below, classes in Isohe.
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Below, scenes from our literacy circles, taken before the pandemic.