Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Still writing up...balancing the 'dust of details'

"Travellers’ tales are supposed to be tall tales; but I have always found them fall short. I have nearly always felt that the real monument or landscape, when I saw it for myself, was something stranger and more striking than the indirect impression of reading. The old tale against travellers’ tales was that they magnified everything; that every lizard became a dragon and every savage tribe a race of giants. But my experience is that travellers in a strange land, especially if they have travelled in it long, tend too much to forget its strangeness. They become concerned with a dust of details, and tend to take the green lizards as casually as the green leaves. The danger is rather, I think, that a man can live in a tribe of gigantic savages, and grow to remark and record all sorts of details about their tribal taxes or their coinage of tusks or hides, and, at the end of his detailed narrative, forget even to mention that they were giants. For as there are things too big and obvious to be noticed, so especially there are things too big and obvious to be remembered."

On Travels Surprises
from All is Grist by G.K Chesterton
A book of essays published in 1931

This passage is written out by hand in the first page of Godfrey Lienhardt's* field diary from 1947. I looked at this a few times in Warrap and smiled. I thought how pleased Lienhardt must have been to find this, and how apt he must have thought it. He wanted to start his research with a reminder of it. Shame about the use of the word 'savages', other than that I like it a lot. And it makes a valuable point about scale in research and writing...a difficult balance to strike.

*Author of 'Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka' a classic in anthropology of religion published in the 1960s

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

I am in all favour of challenging and transcending conventional periodisation, but I think this is going too far...


Tuesday, 17 April 2012

brief update from Kuajok

Heading to Lietnhom tomorrow to do some work at seed fairs and hopefully learn a bit about agricultural trade in Warrap.

There is considerable uncertainly in Kuajok at the moment, amidst calls for mobilisation and youth protests against the UN statement asking South Sudan to withdraw from Heglig. I can feel the battle lines hardening almost daily.

Kuajok is on the road to Abyei and the nightly movements of SPLA troops and supplies are getting louder, as the soldiers play music and blast the megaphone through the town at 3am (soldiers move at night, I have discovered).

Things are mostly business as usual, but the price of fuel has shot up (more than doubled) over 24 hours and once it starts going tends to have its own momentum. Currently at 35ssp per just over a litre. Price of commodities will follow. Price of dollars on the black market already increasing too.

Probably out of internet and phone reception for the next week or so...

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Kuajok on Heglig

I was going to write a post about hippos. But then the SPLA took Heglig and we seem to be teetering on the verge of war with the Republic of Sudan. I don’t think that war is inevitably round the corner, I am cautiously optimistic that a resolution to Heglig will be found. But I was finding it hard to concentrate on hippos.

What are people in Kuajok saying about the spirally political situation? These are the positions that I am hearing a lot

This is a about asserting national sovereignty and Khartoum recognizing that South Sudan is an independent nation and Heglig is a part of South Sudan. Although the Abyei Boundaries Commission at the Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that Heglig was in the North – the recommendations of the Commission were never implemented.

Related to this point, any war that might happen is both old and new. Its old because Khartoum is an old enemy, and the current escalations are really a continuation of tensions that have been unresolved since the CPA. However, it is also new because what is at stake is defense of the nation. The current rhetoric about Heglig is deeply imbedded in growing national identities in South Sudan

People are very angry with the UN and the “International Community” for calling on the President to withdraw troops from Heglig. They see it as a double standard. Why was the Sudan Army (SAF) not asked to pull out of Abyei?

There is a lot of talk about ‘mobilisation’. Warrap is one of the 5 border states who have been asked by President Kiir to 'mobilise'. Its not clear what the exact terms of this mobilisation are (but take an educated guess). While people say they are 'ready', people are also incredibly scared and do not want to go back to war. Even some of the young men I am friends with, who  find it quite hard to admit they are scared of things in general, have admitted they are incredibly worried about what is going happen.

Tonight there will be a rally at the SPLM office to inform people about what is happening and what the SPLM position is.

Monday, 9 April 2012


This blog entry marks my general appreciation for rap (sourgum). It’s a staple food here and grown on every homestead.  It’s delicious. Its used to make kuin (i.e. ugali/posho). But its much stickier and more flavoursome that the kind made with white refined maize flour that is imported from Uganda. Very rare to find rap in bigger towns, where imported maize is heavily relied on (because its widely available and doesn’t require lengthy preparation.) Rap is village food.

I took a few photos last weekend of rap being prepared.

After the harvest in September/October time the rap is stored on a elevated platform, called kat (kat rap to be precise). See left. When flour is to be prepared it is taken down and moved to the smooth mud platform in the centre of the homestead (baai cielic)

Once you have a big pile of it, thrash the hell out of it (köm) with a stick so that the grain comes off the stalk.

All the stalks are removed and the grains and the husks (ayiel rap) collected and then winnowed (wiiu rap).

Then you are ready to pound it (ɣol) to make flour. [note: this is disastrous and totally incorrect technique!]

Enjoy with a variety of soupy sauces.

Just returned from an Easter weekend in Wunrok (Twic County) which I'll be writing about soon.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Ajiep and the ruins of humanitarianism

Across the river from Kuajok there is a place called Ajiep. During the war people from the Kuajok area and beyond fled here in search of safety. But the allegedly mismanaged relief operations and massive logistical problems made the scale of suffering and death toll at Ajiep startling. In my mind Ajiep is synonymous with how bad things can get and how badly wrong humanitarian assistance can go.

At the end of the 1990s, this part of Bahr el Ghazal was in the grip of a terrible famine, political fall outs within the SPLA High Command provoked rebellions, raids and pillage by one of its founder members, Kerubino Kuanyin Bol across (and beyond) greater Gogrial.  Ajiep became a kind of relief magnate, a supposed safe haven, drawing people from as far away as Rumbek and Northern Bahr el Ghazal. Except that it wasn’t safe and it was far from a haven. The area was still being raided by Kerubino Kuanyin’s forces and the few agencies working there (notably MSF-Belgium) were inadequately supplied or prepared to deal with the influx people. This meant enormous problems in food aid distribution. Put simply, there was not enough food and too many starving people. Some of the worst emergency mortality rates ever recorded come from Ajiep

A lot of people that I have met and spoken to in Kuajok went to Ajiep during the late 1990s period of Kerubino attacks and famine. They told me that I would not find anything still there, that everyone left Ajiep and it had returned to normal, just another village.  I arrived there are that seemed to be true. Today Ajiep is still a village, rather a nice village as it happens. A lots of green grass between the scattered homesteads despite it being the middle of dry season.

On Friday I had to pass through Ajiep on the way to Gogrial East and I was curious. Was there any material evidence of the aid operations? Had they left anything behind – a building? A clinic? Was anything still there? Was anything still being used?

We drove up to the market in the centre of the village and asked a few people who were hanging around. We were directed to an empty field (unfortunately I couldn’t understand what was supposed to have been there) and a small building

I have shown these photos to a few people since returning to Kuajok and they think this is an MSF office or clinic. The bomb shelter is a give away that this was built during war. It doesn’t appear to have been used at all since, the structure is still solid and intact, but it has been abandoned, forgotten on the path to somewhere else.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Disappearing Heritage of Sudan, 1820-1956

There is a really great looking exhibition opening in London next month. Photographer and filmmaker, Frederique Cifuentes spent 6 years in Sudan documenting ruins and remnants of the colonial period(s), "this photographic and video project is an exploration of the mechanics of empire through its official buildings, private residencies, cinema houses, railways, irrigation canals and bridges."

Its more than that too, because Cifuentes doesn't just look at the remaining material culture of empire, she goes further and explores the way that these buildings (and ruins) have been used and re-appropriated in the post-colonial period. What has actually happened to these structures since their originals owners left? Who took over  and why? What does this tell us about the different ways people relate with the built environment and the past? What does this tell us about ideas about heritage in Sudan?

The exhibition also uses photographic material from Durham University's Sudan Archive. This archive has tens of thousands of photos and its a comparatively unexploited resource. So this is also a great opportunity to see some of the archival material. The exhibition will go to Durham, and then Khartoum (next year).