Friday, 31 December 2010

Cattle Camp Sartorialists

The weekend before I left Sudan (I am now in England), a friend took me to visit a cattle camp where his brother was looking after their cattle. I am getting really interested in how people who live in towns organise their herds and their relationships with rural kin…this was a perfect opportunity to ask a long line of questions. Although the real reason for visiting was to bring vaccinations to the cattle and for the brothers to meet before the cattle camps move further out into the toic (flood plains) and become difficult to access.

It was an early start, and our motorbike got a flat tyre so we had to walk the last bit, made it fine in the end. Some time after we arrived a large crowd formed around us. The reason for this crowd, it emerged, was a desire for ‘sura’ – photos.

I (not so secretly) really love it when people ask me to take their photo.  It’s just so fun. I love how, with a digital camera you can show the photos to people afterwards and it’s always a good reaction. How dull the photography experience must have been in the days before digital cameras. Just, snap, that’s it, all mine. But, I also enjoy taking photos because I am fascinated by the way that people choose to present themselves and compose the shot. Image and beauty are important everywhere and being photographed just makes people pay attention to the details and ensure everything is just right.  And how people make themselves beautiful is just so interesting. In the process of arranging clothes, people and props the “subjects” are often the most active in creating the image.

Most requests for photos came from young men who wanted photos of themselves with their display oxen. I am still trying to understand the meaning and role of these song oxen, (also called song bull/personality ox/display ox). Francis Deng says that young men identify with them as symbols of virility and wealth. And, from research in Upper Nile, Sharon Hutchinson has seen them as a marker of the link between masculinity and cattle wealth.

Well, I couldn’t say no to these photo requests. Below are some of the results of a considerable amount of grooming (of people and cattle) and posing. I took these, but they aren’t my creations.

Reflecting on my photos made me think more about historical photos from Southern Sudan and wonder what went in to their composition. There are very few written records for the area I am studying and I am beginning to realise the stories that are lost to the written record, but still survive in the visual (more to come on this in a future blog…or you might have to read my PhD thesis!). All of these photos are from the brilliant Pitt Rivers museum Southern Sudan resource

Nuer Youth (with display ox), from Eastern Jikany Gaajok in 1935. Photographed by E.E Evans-Pritchard 
Dinka man with an ox, in Warrap, 1947-51. Photographed by Godfrey Lienhardt
Two Mandari youths with their display oxen, in Bahr el Jebel,  1950-52. Photographed by Jean Buxton

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

Sunday, 19 December 2010


I am in Southern Sudan doing some preliminary interviews and trying to figure out where I should base myself when I come back for a year in June. But I also want to reacquaint myself with things here, see some friends and road test my evolving Dinka language skills.

Last Monday I arrived in Juba and almost immediately set about the task of getting out of Juba, to Lakes State, first stop Yirol, then on to Rumbek and surrounds. After a couple of days I managed to get a lift to Yirol with Norweigian People’s Aid who had a car taking some supplies up there.

Yirol is a large town in Lakes State (but it is much smaller than Rumbek, the State capital). It is on the shores of a large swampy lake and was an administrative centre during the British period.  The town is scattered with colonial buildings in varying states of ruin, amongst newer structures from the Nimeiri period (the 1970s) and recently build government offices, a hospital and a new guesthouse is being constructed by the lake.

Yirol town seems like a very cosmopolitan place. There is a mix of traders from the North of Sudan, restaurants run by east Africans as well as local Dinka and Atuot people (and a few lost looking UN staff). At night the main market is lit up in a rainbow of neon lights from stalls all selling the same things.  A little way from the centre there is another, smaller market where you can get “traditional” produce like dried fish, pipe tobacco and wild foods. It’s called ‘medinyiin’ which means squinting eyes because this is where people used to come to get illegally produced alcohol during the British period (I saw none for sale in 2010, but can report that beer and wine is freely available in Yirol).

Asides from the markets the focus of the town is Freedom Square, where people gather to play football, cards, watch wrestling and dancing in the evenings. There was an imperceptibly small livestock auction going on when I arrived: a single bull and three goats were being sold

Life in town is very mixed. Most people live in family compounds, which sprawl out into considerable suburban areas. But there is also considerable cultivation by the lake and there even a couple of cattle camps in the town itself. All these different ways of living mixed up together

On my second day we took a walk to see the lake and met some people who were waiting to cross to their homes on the other side. They had come to Yirol to buy supplies (mostly sodas from the look of their bags) and were trying to make the return journey. It takes about 45 minutes, either in a canoe, dug out from a palm tree (or there is one plastic boat). We discussed getting to the other side, but no one I was with had much experience of navigating the dug out canoes, which are deceptively hard to keep steady with passengers and no one was brave enough to take us all! Next time I am in Yirol I will make it to the other side of the lake.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The road less travelled

Hello. I am a first year PhD student at the University of Durham. My thesis is a historical-anthropological study of marriage and bridewealth in the former Bahr el-Ghazal province of South Sudan. My research aims to give a more sophisticated understanding of marriage and its relationship to broader political processes. In doing this I am exploring how the state has been made real in the lives of ordinary people. 

I am funded by the AHRC and my lead supervisor is Dr. Cherry Leonardi my Second supervisor is Dr. Ben Campbell. Please get in touch with me if you want to know more about my research.

My blog will document my experiences of archival and field research in Southern Sudan and the UK.  If you want an insight into the highs and lows of doing academic research into one of the worlds more remote and unpredictable places…read on.

I will also use this blog to disseminate news of my research and related publications.