Thursday, 23 December 2010

In search of Wol Athiaŋ

I’m still working out how to talk to people about their past in a productive way. I am finding it difficult, especially when cultural notions of time are so different, to get the kind of information I want from people. Responses to some of my questions have been very vague, lacking the sort of details that I want and hard to relate to a specific period. Of course, if you ask general questions, you get general answers, and some of my best and most enjoyable research so far has been from collecting memories and versions of famous people and events.

Take the example of Wol Athiaŋ, the warrior-chief from the Pakkam section of Agar, whose home is 75 miles north of Rumbek town. Wol Athiaŋ is a legendary figure in the Rumbek area. He is most famous for attacking, and capturing, the Turkish slave fort in present day Rumbek in 1883.  Joining with different section of the Agar Dinka in Lakes and Nuer from Upper Nile they successfully captured the fort from the Turkish Army (it was retaken by the Turks the following year). Wol remained an important figure in political relations between different Dinka sections in Lakes State up to and throughout the British Period. He mediated in the biggest grazing dispute of the 1930’s and 40’s between the Luac Dinka of Warrap and the Pakkam. I am fascinated by the Pakkam area anyway, it’s at the northern most point of Lakes state, bordered by Unity and Warrap states – a frontier area with a difficult history or confrontation and displacement. Many of these problems are still unresolved. I hoped Wol’s life could give me a hook into finding out about some of this past.

Wol comes up a lot in British colonial records, clearly a highly intelligent man and brilliant strategist, he was consistently able to both captivate and outsmart the British officials. Despite this there is little written about Wol. While I was in Rumbek I wanted to find out more about him - what are the oral traditions around Wol? How is he remembered and what is his legacy, in Rumbek and Pakkam? What are the local versions of this history?

I started asking people I knew in Rumbek, and soon found out that everyone had something to say about Wol. Then I was introduced to descendants of Wol, many of whom live in Rumbek town. They told me fascinating things  – stories about his childhood, how he planned the attack on the Turkish, how he resisted the British and tried to keep the government out of Pakkam areas, about his wives, children and the complicated relationship with the Luac Dinka.

I soon found out that Wol’s grandson, Kuloŋ Marial Wol, is a paramount chief of the Pakkam Dinka and lives in Maper, a town about 75 Miles north of Rumbek town. I was desperate to interview Kuloŋ, everyone insisted that I must. After some inquiries, I managed to get a lift to Maper with the Lakes State Ministry of Animal Resources, who wanted to take some vaccines for cattle up there. We set off, myself, someone to translate, a young relative of Kuloŋ’s to introduce us and several ice-boxes of vaccines and para-vets.

We arrived, and Kuloŋ was kind enough to take an hour and a half out of his court hearings to speak to me about Wol and the Pakkam area. We sat in a small shack, surrounded by people listening, and laughing at me pronouncing Dinka names, as I furiously took notes. When we were done, I thanked Kuloŋ and agreed I would bring him a pair of glasses from the UK next time I came, as he has become short sighted. A good excuse to come back and ask him questions about his own life – as he has been paramount chief since Sudan became independent.

But, before we left, the wife of Kuloŋ's brother took us to see the place where Wol is buried. A tree was planted in the spot and it is surrounded by the horns of sacrificed cattle. Next to the grave is the cattle byre were Wol lived and kept his cattle. His descendents still live there and I was allowed inside. It looked and smelt incredibly old, and still had Wol’s drum and spear in the corner. I felt so privileged to have had this glimpse into the life of Wol Athiaŋ.

On the left is the tree over Wol's grave, the large byre on the right is his. This is at the edge of Maper town
Wol's byre


  1. I was very interested to read this, as only a few days ago I was writing about a visit 30 years ago to what I recorded as the luaich of Makot at Warnyang. I was told he died 200 years ago and this would be the Panyar Agar, I think. It will go into this blog on 13th Jan 2011 if you're interested.

  2. Hi Chris, wow, I love your blog! It's amazing to read about your experiences in Southern Sudan all those year ago. I will look forward to Jan 13th entry.

    I am so excited to read you were at Rumbek Senior Secondary School, that was my first experience of Rumbek, I went there with John Ryle (who I see on your blog too). It looks so similar today - I even recognise the teachers house - I was taken to visit it by some of the current teachers in March. I have often wondered what it was like before the war... Actually, I would love to ask you some questions about your time in you have an email address I can get you on?

    Merry Christmas


  3. p.s Winchester Whisperer, I don't know, I didn't ask and I'm not sure where wives get buried

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  5. Beautiful!
    Wol Athiang was a master of the fishing spear?
    And, the byre is still used by his family?

  6. Warrior chief, not a master of the fishing spear, of course.

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  8. This is a remarkable unearthing of a historical treasure, Zoe. Wol Athian (Athian rather than Athiaŋ, I had always heard) was a legend. It's fascinating to know more about him and this other legend, Ariaath-Makuei, whose name I heard was assumed by a British colonial officer in Gogrial when they imprisoned him for years. Look forward to your second visit or more publication to learn more. Thanks.

  9. Hey Aleu, Thanks for your comment. I am sure you are right about the name - Athian rather than Athiang (thanks for pointing it out!) Thanks - I hope I work out what to do with the material and get it written up and available soon. As Douglas Johnson commented on my Facebook wall, he has written about Wol Athian in his book Nuer Prophets, and also in an article about the Mahdiyya in South Sudan ( Also, Damazo Dut Majak has written about Ariaath-Makuei in his PhD thesis...including archival material and oral history from Northern Bahr el Ghazal.

  10. Great people were in Lakes State p.

  11. What a legend. Thanks for this incredible article.