Sunday, 6 November 2011

Missionary Moorings

I am now coming to you from Kuajok, Warrap State. Apologies for the long absence in blogging, which has been due in a large part to irregular access to power. Since my beloved MacBook battery is on its last legs, writing updates without power has been very difficult. Now I see why blogging is a luxury of the urban middle class. 

Kuajok is the capital of Warrap State. The first two things that anyone will tell you when you arrive in Kuajok is that (1) it is a very new town and (2) it has been very well surveyed. The latter is certainly true. The roads are so straight it would break the Romans’ hearts to see them. The first thing is technically true – as a ‘town’ Kuajok is new, but it was a mission, schools and was a large village since 1923. President Kiir himself went to secondary school in Kuajok and when he came on an official visit last week, leaned up to the window of his car and shot a special “thumbs up” to the group of secondary school students lined up in their uniform to greet him (much to their delight).

In my first few weeks here I have been told a lot about the arrival of the missionaries and establishing Kuajok as a centre. On Wednesday evening I was taken on a walk to the river port where the missionaries landed (Wanh Abun). At this time of year the river is about an hours walk away, over toic (flood plain), its still quite wet and walking is the only way to get there.

On the way we met several groups of people heading back to their home villages across the river after having sold milk, maize in Kuajok market or having just been visiting. My Dinka language – although still very limited – is now at the stage where I can have a small conversation, introduce and explain myself to people.

These two young men were walking to a cattle camp about 4 hours away, but they explained that they were strong and they would run so it would only take them 2. Young men frequently like to point out to me how strong they are and tell me how weak I am (as a foreign girl).

When we got to the river they swam across it (instead of taking the small boat) after telling me I would never be able to make it, despite my protestations that I do know how to swim!

At the river bank, to the left of the boats currently used my commuters is ‘Wanh Abun.’ Essentially a bank, the only thing that marks it out is the 6 or 7 metal posts that were once used to moor the missionaries boats. One of them has been pulled out of the ground and you can see the cast mark of a London company “Siemens”. There is also the remains of a brick structure which an old lady told me was the house of an missionary. To me it looked too small and too close to the river to be a house, more likely a store room connected with the mooring of the boats or a place to rest and unload 

The remains of the "missionary's house"
detail of the uprooted mooring post

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The road to Wau

I like travelling by road. You see more, you stop in interesting places and you meet and talk to fellow travelers (because you are bumping along with them in an intimate fashion for hours and hours). Road travel gives me more of an illusion of safety, because I am not thousands of miles above the air in a metal shell. Although I realise it is the least safe way to travel.

I have found road travel and the condition of roads is also a hot topic of conversation in South Sudanese towns. This is partly because people in towns use roads frequently to visit family in rural areas. And because the condition of these roads (security and general maintenance) has very real effects on daily life. South Sudan is a major importer of food and commodities rather than a producer, so if the main roads are bad, supplies drop and prices rise noticeably. The road connecting Rumbek to Juba (via Yirol) is a prime example. This road goes through very low land and is in a bad condition. This means that in the wet season fuel and food doesn’t reach Rumbek (and Wau and other places) as well as it should.

I recently took the road from Rumbek (in Lakes State) to Wau (In Western Bahr el Ghazal State).  This road is actually good, for the most part. The journey took 6 hours. From Rumbek to Mapel the road in is good condition. Mapel, an important SPLA barracks is over half way and you reach it in 3 hours. The last 3 hours, although a shorter distance, to longer to cover on account of mud and potholes.

The major landmarks on the way are Cuiebet – a small town about an hour from Rumbek. The road then goes through a big wet season grazing area, on the border between Lakes and Warrap. Here there are currently thousands of cattle visible from the road, being taken through pasture submerged in water. Cattle and people up to their knees in flood. Cattle keepers were walking the herds on the road to avoid the flood, much to the irritation of everyone else in the car.

Leaving Lakes State you soon reach Tonj and stop for lunch and pass through vehicle checkpoints.

We made a further stop at the turning for Mapel to unload food (for the army? I wasn’t sure)

Then uninterrupted driving till we reach the outskirts of Wau and passed through another checkpoint to check foreigners ID.

Arrived in Wau at about 3pm

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Picture post - wet season cattle camp

A few weeks before leaving Rumbek I went with a friend to visit some of his family and cattle just outside Cueibet.

We walked from the village, its normally about half an hour. But it had rained the night before and the path was completely underwater so it took us just over an hour (also may have had something to do with my pace being slighting on the slower than average).

Still it wasn't a long walk, other than vegetation, the only thing we passed on the way were some old homesteads - places where people had lived during the war when it was unsafe to be in Cuiebet and near the road. There are just wooden supports of vanished tukuls remaining now. People have moved back, or on somewhere else

People and cattle had arrived at the cattle camp only a few days before, so everything was still really green and lush. It was beautiful

I'm now in Wau, about to move on to Kuajok. But first I wanted to take advantage of a good internet connection and power to put a few photos.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

A Working Guide to Graves in Lakes State.

This is a bit out there.  I am have a blossoming interesting in graves in and around Rumbek and I want to indulge it. This could just be morbid curiosity but think this came from a wider interest in the architecture and built environment of Rumbek. Grave stones, being solid stone, survive better than a lot of other things.

The graves of big men come in all shapes and sizes. Go to Maper in Rumbek North County and you can see the grave of Wol Athiang, a famous chief of the Pakkam subsection of Agar Dinka. There is no grave stone, it is a tree with posts where cattle had been tethered before being sacrificed. (See a photo). For something more flash, on Freedom Square in Rumbek, there is the grave of Gordon Muortat a prominent southern politician. This is a modern construction, large, painted white and with no cattle posts. Really impressive is the grave of Arol Kucuol in Cueibet, a Gok Dinka town in the west of Lakes State. He was an important chief from the time of the British up to his death in the 1980s. His enormous stone grave is literally surrounded by sacrificial posts and is still an important focal point for public and political events in Cuiebet.

The Grave of Arol Kucuol, Cueibet

But walking round Rumbek (and other smaller towns, like Pacong in Rumbek East County) you will find other graves. Some of them are for important local people, not paramount chiefs, but important enough to have a big grave stone. These are within family compounds, but since most compound are open (do not have walls) its easy enough to see them.

There are other graves, which seem almost entirely forgotten about. In Rumbek, for example, there are two on the road from the main market to the cattle auction, half sunk into the ground, they are walked over daily by thousands of uninterested feet. another I have seen one partially incorporated into the wall of a house, or on a small path through the old centre of town. For the large past the graves seem to be unmarked, or the marks have been eroded. Who is buried under them?

Actual ‘graveyards’ are not common in Rumbek. I don’t know if there is one that is currently functioning. I don’t know where people are usually buried. A few weeks ago, I discovered an old, overgrown graveyard on the road to Wau, a little bit out of town. One of the graves nearest the road has an inscription that survives, the name is  ‘Thamthom Pirepi”, he was born in 1955 and died at the age of 24. After a few enquiries I discovered that this is the area where an old greek family has ‘ancestral’ land – I now suspect it is an old Greek cemetery (there is a history of Greek traders in South Sudan).

That’s it for now…I'm still on the lookout for more graves

Thursday, 1 September 2011

After Independence

It’s been almost two months since Independence day and The Government of the new Republic of South Sudan have made some very tangible changes in that time. What is life like (so far...) in the newly independent country?

One of the most noticeable changes has been the introduction of a completely new currency: the South Sudan Pound has replaced the old Sudan Pound. I got my first South Sudan 5 pound note on the 20th July, a few days after it was introduced. We were initially going to be given 3 months to exchange all the old currency for new (at a rate of 1:1), then it was two months, and last week it was announced we had 1 day to change everything. Then on the 27th August, Lakes State was declared free of the old currency

I was the first person in my family (with whom I am staying) to receive the new money. When I brought it home it was closely inspected and handled by everything. It was then washed in water as a test of its strength! Which was declared by all to be good. The transition has been remarkably quick and I haven’t heard any complaints – certainly seems much more successful than the last time a new currency was introduced and all the old money was taken from traders and ordinary citizens and burnt on Freedom Square!

The second major change has been a Presidential decree announcing a new set of ministries, ministers and assistant ministers. The espoused idea is to improve political representation in South Sudan by having a more ethnically/regionally balanced cabinet (there are various analyses of how successful/true to that goal the ministerial appointments are on sites like The Government in Juba is also being ‘slimmed down’ and more decentralisation is happening. That means that the State Government of Lakes based in Rumbek is getting bigger and new ministries and positions are being created.

We also have a new dialling code, +211 The networks have not been functioning well in the last few weeks prompting rumours (mostly unfounded) that Khartoum has cut various network connections to the South.

However, for most people, the most pressing issue in the last few months has been the soaring prices of food and commodities in the market. Some, but not all, of the reasons for this are connected to Independence. South Sudan imports almost all of its food and commodities. Since before independence the border with the North has been closed and trucks have not been coming. The other traders, importing from Kenya and Uganda are facing exorbitant taxes (official and unofficial) on the road as well as inflated exchange rates of South Sudanese Currency and dollars/East African currency at the border. The cost of this is falling on the consumer and prices are sky rocketing – with good doubling and in some cased quadrupling in price over the past few weeks

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Dancing in Freedom Square

The last few weeks in Rumbek have been up and down. The Independence celebrations lasted for about a week, schools and many offices where closed and there were events every evening on Freedom Square (dances, athletics and football competitions).

On Saturday morning, the Bishop of Rumbek, Ceaser Mazzolari died while giving mass.  He has been in Rumbek since 1990 and was a big and popular figure. He opened the proceedings on Independence day and was very active in local events generally.  His passing has meant the schools are closed again while preparations for his burial and service are made. My Dinka language course has also been cancelled until next week.

In the mean time have been getting on with some of the more ‘fun’ aspects of my research. One of the things I have been interested in the archival records is the regulation of dances in the colonial period. There are quite a lot of references to the problems of dances as violent events that often got out of control and had to be more strictly managed by the chiefs and government authorities. I have written a short piece about it in this month’s issue of the UK Sudan Studies Journal.

I wanted to attend some dances here, and there have been many happening. The young men in the family I am staying with go every evening and they have been taking me along to see and meet people.

What happens is…groups of young men, wearing boxers, bits of tinsel (left over from the Independence celebrations) and smothered in dust parade into the centre of town. This is meant to give the appearance of people who live in the cattle camp (and it does, pretty well, do this). These groups of men, shouting, sweating a high on testosterone, produce an experience that is not dissimilar to watching a lad’s Friday night out in Newcastle. When they get to Freedom square they start a dance, mostly they are doing one that involves jumping round backwards in a circle, singing and shouting bull names, girls join in too.

After a bit of asking around I discovered that these dances are organised by local students, and they are supposed to be a celebration of Dinka ‘culture’.  It’s a kind of self-mimicry or self-representation. Many of the participants feel quite distant from the ‘cattle culture’ in town, but they find ways to display and venerate it. Even though most people I spoke to thought the technical abilities of the dancers left something to be desired…and they were apparently (though not to me) very obviously not the cattle keepers they were acting as.  A fascinating kind of cultural heritage production.

Monday, 11 July 2011

New Nation

While the world’s media attention has been on the celebrations in Juba, in Rumbek have also been bringing the new nation in in style, so I want to give a bit of run down of what has been going on

Celebrations here started on Friday night…at midnight there was a candlelit vigil on Freedom Square (the main square in town). At the house I am staying in, just before midnight the party atmosphere began properly, music went on and everyone started dancing and waving South Sudan flags in the air (amidst the sound of ululating and guns being fired into the air, apparently in celebration, all over town). We danced till dawn, because frankly, if you are not going to dance all night when your country becomes Independent, when are you?

After maybe an hours sleep, all the primary school children got up to join their schools marches, and the rest of us got ourselves dressed to head down to Freedom Square for about 9am

I arrived with one of the young men in the house and Freedom square was packed full of people. Students from Rumbek’s different school marched into the square. They packed it completely full of people, if you know Rumbek then you will know that Freedom Square is very big (really more of a field than a square). There were also marches from the army, the police, the churches and cattle keepers leading decorated bulls into the square

At about 1pm the flag raising began. For me, by this point the day had turned into half celebration, half heat endurance test.  We had managed to fight our way to near the front and were jammed in with other revellers. It was a very hot day on Saturday and everyone was desperate to see the flag of Sudan come down and the flag of South Sudan go up. When it was finally raised, there was a perfect moment when the wind caught the flag and it displayed perfectly. Huge cries from the crowd. It was an amazing moment.

Celebrations are still continuing. On Saturday and Sunday evening there was dancing and wrestling on freedom square. Cattle keepers also brought there song bulls into town and led them around Freedom Square singing songs and showing them off.

I want to share some pictures from the day. I conducted a small research experiment with these photos. I gave my two cameras to two young men in my house, aged 18 and 24 (nephews of my host) and asked them to capture images of the day. Both men were born and brought up in the war and I wanted to see how they would choose to photograph the Independence celebrations. So, all of these photos were taken by them. Some of them are nicely composed, see for yourself.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Independence minus 2 days

Independence day celebrations are upon us in Rumbek.

The national anthem of South Sudan is everywhere, on the radio when I wake up in the morning, on the breath of uniformed children on their way to school and set as the every other person’s ringtone.  I haven’t learnt the words yet, but the boys in the family I am staying with have been studying them dutifully for the last week so I think that base is covered. In the afternoon you cannot move in town for all the groups of school children.  

In Rumbek, preparations for the celebrations on Saturday are in full swing. A bandstand it frantically being constructed on Freedom Square, the roof went on yesterday, it still needs to be finished and painted but it will probably be done just in the nick of time. The trees lining the streets are being painted white at the bottom. School children and church groups are practicing their marching. I even saw a large troop of Dinka scouts marching this morning.

The  celebrations will start tomorrow, where Church groups will lead a candlelit vigil on Freedom square. On Saturday the flag will be raised, there will be speeches, dances and sports competitions. Bulls will be sacrificed and it will be a big party.  

There is currently insecurity around Rumbek with cattle raids between Gok from Rumbek West/Cuiebet and people from Rumbek central. A Beny Bith (spiritual leader) from Warrap wrote to the Govenor of Lakes State to say which colour bulls should be sacrificed in order to ensure peace in the new country – these were Marial and Mabor. I am waiting to see if this advice will be taken or ignored.

About to give up on the prospects of getting any work done till next week…more (and photos) soon

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Update: Rumbek

I have been in Rumbek for one week now,  I will be here for the next three months, returning next year and hopefully in South Sudan for 1 year in total.

A proper entry coming soon, but time is short and only 3 more days to learn the South Sudan national anthem

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Who was this for?

Durham University has an amazing collection of resources on Sudan, probably the best in the world. The library has virtually every book published, there is the Sudan Archive and the Middle East Documentation Centre has a huge quantity of recent grey literature and government documents.

On a search for Dinka language material in the catalogue (of which there is quite a lot) I discovered a curious pamphlet from the Sudan Political Service…

It is called “Two Hundred Vital words” and it is crib of basic vocab in 11 Southern Sudanese languages;  Acholi, Bari, Dinka (Bor and Rek), Kresh, Lotuko, Madi, Moro, Nuer, Shilluk and Zande. It also has a key of the English words and a curious list of English words in phonetics (I’ll come back to this).

I first presumed it was issued to Sudan Political Service (SPS) officers and administrators – to help them with the local languages. But, after a bit more inspection, I was not so sure.

Some basic facts first, these words were selected by N.B Hunter. He was  in the education department of the SPS, serving in El Fasher (Darfur) and the Nuba Mountains before he took up is last position as Resident Inspector of Southern Education in Wau and Lalyo. His wife, Ysabel’s diaries and photos from their time in Sudan are in the Durham Archive The pamphlet was presented by a relative of JGS Macphail, who had a long career in the SPS, including serving as the District Commissioner of Upper Nile between 1933 and 1939. (He has also left his papers to the Sudan Archive in Durham).

The pamphlet itself was published in 1931. This struck me as being rather early, only 2 years after the last patrol against Ariandit, the time when ‘pacification’ in Dinka areas is nominally counted as having given way to regular civil administration. 

The pamphlet is fun and quite useful if you are interested in languages in Southern Sudan. Hunter has attempted to give the same 200 words in each language.  Here is a snippet of the Nuer page

It is very interesting which words he was/was not able to find in the 11 languages. For example, word no. 30 was ‘rainmaker’, in Kresh and Shilluk, he found no word for rainmaker. In Dinka Bor he listed the word for rainmaker as “Tiet” but in Dinka Rek it is listed as “Beny Bith” (with a question mark). My understanding is the “Tiet” in Dinka Rek and Agar means a kind of technical specialist, quite different from Beny Bith, I am not sure what the meaning is in Dinka Bor. In any case, a better translation of Beny Bith is ‘master/chief of the fishing spear’ (Beny = master/chief, Bith = fishing spear). In Nuer, he is also uncertain of the word and offers a tentative “Kwäär” for rainmaker. There appears to have been no word for ‘banana’ in Dinka Rek, Madi, Moro, Nuer, Lotuko or Acholi (although this could have been due to a disinterest in bananas on Mr Hunters side).

The really curious thing about the pamphlet is a list of English words at the back which are spelt out phonetically. 

To me, this implies that the pamphlet could have been intended for someone who did not speak English, because why else would you need to be told how to pronounce English words? However, whoever this was intended for would need to be literate in order to read the words and understand their meaning. You would think that someone in Southern Sudan at this time (1931) who could read English, would also be able to speak English…it is a bit of a mystery. Was it meant for a clerk? An administrative assistant? A Northerner or a Southerner?

It came to Durham via a District Commissioner, but we can’t know why he had it or if he ever used it. Perhaps this was just the education department having a bit of fun, but I’d like to know more, if anyone has ever come across anything like this, I’d love to know about it!

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Is All Press Good Press?

The elections, referendum and imminent independence of South Sudan have brought a lot of media coverage to the region. Many journalists and photographers, to their credit, have been committed to getting out of Juba and reporting the experiences of Southern Sudan’s predominantly rural population at this historic time.  A lot of this has involved going to cattle-camps and taking pictures. I am planning to write a section of my PhD on representations of “The Dinka” in the media, art, anthropology and the ways that Dinka people represent themselves, self-mytholgize and how all these link up and speak to each other. So this slew of interest has been of obvious interest to me too.

There have been countless interesting article, like these interviews by Martin Plaut in Aweil. And numerous sets of photos like these. Ok, I’d like a bit more context to a lot of these photographs but that is why I am doing a PhD (!)

But is all press good press? A recent weekend feature in Time Magazine called ‘The Violent Cattle Keepers of Southern Sudan’s Pastoralist Tribes” captures what a lot of other people have been saying. I found it pretty uncomfortable reading. The photos, all taken at night depict men brandishing AK-47s. The prose describes cattle keeping as ‘a way of life that seems quite unchanged since its inception on these plains thousands of years ago”, people live literally in ‘a void’ beyond the reach of government where it is kill or be killed and the gun is the only authority. Is this really how we are going to think about rural people?

Of course, you could not deny that after 50 years of on and off war people are armed and want to protect their cattle. Of course cattle raiding does happen and it can have tragic consequences. But articles like this belie complexity and pathologize what cattle keeping, as a way of life, is about. This is unhelpful at best. Marriage and the need to collect bridewealth is often put at the centre of these problems. The argument is that young men need cattle to marry so they raid them – but it’s not quite that simple. For one, bridewealth doesn’t have to be handed over all at one go…or sometimes, even at all.

There is a real need to balance the image of rural people as ‘violent cattle keepers’.  Other angles are more revealing and make great articles too. Take this piece by Emily Wax.  She interviewed young men and women who live in cattle camps near Rumbek about their lives and their hopes for the future. They discuss the complex choices they are making about education, the benefits and drawbacks of life in town and the future of cattle-camps. What I like about Emily’s piece is that it shows cattle camps are not isolated and that people living in them also have very ‘normal’ lives and mundane concerns. Its not all about violence.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Exploring African art in Washington DC

I recently returned from a trip to Washington DC to visit family. My time there was a welcome break from Durham and the archive, but not a rest per se. I have never been to DC and I was happy to find it is a great museum city: the National Mall is a museum lovers dream with seven (yes, that right seven) Smithsonians, the National Museum of Arts and more. This is not to mention the generous scattering of memorials, including one of the most interesting sites of memorial there is going - the two Vietnam veterans memorials. One of them, the wall, designed by a college student has been wildly successful in producing a site of national mourning and identity, the other, a statue of three soldiers, denigrated as a failure and eyesore.

As soon as you get interested in museology, all museums become intrinsically interesting, even if you don’t like or agree with them. Museums ended up punctuating my whole time in the States, even the day I spent catching up with a friend in NYC I could not resist the magnetic pull of the Met drawing me in.

There was plenty to interest a student of Africa, especially one with an interest in the politics of display.  Some of the African collections in Washington (and NYC) are truly amazing, but not unproblematic. I saw here a lot of the problems and successes of exhibiting Africa that I have also seen in Europe.

The first exhibit on Africa I went to was in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. This location was the main problem I had with this exhibition. What is an exhibition about African history doing in a The Museum of Natural History? Surely it should be in a museum of human history if anywhere?  You should not have to walk through a gallery about the ice-age into a display on post-apartheid South Africa: that just has to be the wrong message. A sign at the beginning of the exhibition announced that purpose was to display the history of African cultures from the evolution of humanity to the present day. In reality, there was very little on human evolution and it mostly concentrated on Africa’s colonial and post-colonial period. In their defense, the curators had gone to a lot of effort to stress the diversity and modernity of various African societies. However, I think whatever was done with the content of the exhibit, you could not get away from a creeping feeling of intense discomfort with the way that African cultures were being put in the context of natural history. The Ancient Greek and Roman collections used to be housed in the Natural History Museum but they have been moved, I am told. Africa remains with the beasts and rocks.

There were two massive cliches in this exhibit. The first was the decision to dim the lights. Exhibits on Africa are often dimly lit (this is the ‘Dark Continent’ after all) the Africa Galleries at the British Museum are also very dark. The second was the enormous number of proverbs printed above the cases, as if thinking in Africa only comes in mystical and poetic form?

Next we went to the Smithsonian Museum on African Art. My first impression was that they had fallen into another classic trap of displaying Africa - confusing art with artifact.  In the main hall there was a door displayed in a glass cabinet.

Nice, but is this ‘art’ or is this a door?

As we went in, we found they had a really nice exhibit of some contemporary South African and Brazilian artists. And the museum is nice, although there are a lot of empty spaces, but they seem to put on a lot of interesting events. I can't resist drawing attention to some really bad labeling we spotted. For example the label below starts with the sentence “Images of women with or without children appear frequently in African art”, this is not something unique to African art, as the Guerilla Girls have brilliantly made the point that 83% of the nudes in the Met Museum are female.

Finally I went to the Met while in NYC. I thought they have done a really nice job of displaying the permanent Africa collections.  My picture below makes it look a little dark but its not at all, some pieces you can walk all around and others are put together in cases.  For me part of the success of the Met has to be down to how genuinely fantastic their collection is, particularly the Malian pieces, I fully recommend. 

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Obscure books about Southern Issues...part 1

This is a plug for a book that is very difficult to find, so I apologise for that in advance.

I just read the autobiography of Stanislaus Paysama, called “How a Slave Became a Minister”. It was published in 1990 in Khartoum with an introduction by Abel Alier and edited by someone called Fr. V Dellagiacoma.

It’s very short, 82 pages. The first part is written by Stanislaus and tells about how he was abducted in raids from a village in South Darfur and taken into slavery in Kafia Kingi and eventually, through a series of events, he is taken to Wau (in Bahr el Ghazal) in 1914. The second half of the book is based on interviews with Stanislaus in Wau in 1985 and it describes how he was then educated in Wau, employment in the Government and his later, important political career. Stanislaus died in 1985 so the book is very much his reflections, particularly on the politics of politics in Southern Sudan around and post-Independence.

Stanislaus’ life is interesting on many levels and the book is a remarkable account. It also benefits from Stanislaus’ talent as a writer. He starts the book by explaining how, for many years, he had been asked by all sorts of people, if he had read the book “History of Wau Town” by Fr. Santandrea. He was somewhat perplexed by these questions, but one day the mystery was revealed

“I found out that Fr. Santandrea had mentioned my name in one of the chapters of the book dealing with Wau Mission School, and I found out that they were afraid to tell whether a man mentioned there was I myself or another Stanislaus A. Paysama. Had they asked me that question I would have answered them frankly and they would have gone away satisfied. To say that I was a slave is not shame: I brought up myself and therefore I am not afraid to tell the truth…I was not born a slave, but I came from a respectable family, who lived and earned their living in the most honorable way. I would feel ashamed and a slave had I used my life extravagantly and doing shameful and degrading things”

As Eddie Thomas explains in his report, this autobiography is one of the most detailed accounts we have of the early twentieth century slave trade in Darfur. Stanislaus was captured around 1904, amidst violent upheaval when the Sultan of Darfur, Ali Dinar, was leading a punitive campaign against Baggara groups (like those who originally captured Stanislaus) in South Darfur. When he was taken to Kafia Kingi, a town under British control where slavery was officially banned (although this ban was not very rigidly enforced) he met slave traders again. This time he was abducted by a professional Fur slave dealer and his account of this experience reveals something of how the slave industry operating at the time.

After being freed from slavery, Stanislaus is taken to Wau. He is educated and takes a job as a clerk in the British administration in the south. He worked in Rumbek and Yirol between 1933 and 1943. Again, his very short account this experience is fascinating. There has been a lot of interest in African history in recent years about African colonial intermediaries (clerks, court workers, interpreters etc). Scholars have shown how they can help us to understand the ways British ‘hegemony on a shoestring’ worked in practice as well as break down a binary between coloniser and colonised. Stanislaus describes how he negotiated his promotions with the British system and the attitude of the District Commissioners towards Sudanese employees. In one paragraph he explains how the Governor of Bahr el Ghazal enforced a strict uniform policy (a significant material aspect of colonial experience), preventing Dinka chiefs from wearing anything but the jellabiah (strictly not European clothes) and how the clerks could not wear shoes from the shop and had to wear a sort of shoe called shamut khalit.

One of the most interesting parts of Stanislaus’ life is how he became a Southerner. Born into the Fur ethnic group in South Darfur, through his move to Wau, conversion to Christianity and instrumental role in early Southern politics he became Southern Sudanese. My flatmate, Nicki, has been doing research into the definition of ‘Southern Sudanese’, how it has emerged historically and how it has been used in current referendum processes.  Who is and who is not a Southerner, and the different ways someone can be Southern Sudanese (or South Sudanese) is very complicated. Stanislaus’ account throws light on how he negotiated these complexities – which have become much more critical in light of South Sudan’s vote for Independence. 

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Still Time to Party

This may or may not be research. But at least it is good to be able to in some way justify going to parties as part of your research.

On Saturday I went to a party to celebrate the results of South Sudan’s referendum. Southern Sudanese voted (as predicted by all observers) in a landslide for Independence. So on 9th July 2011, South Sudan will become Africa’s newest country (does this mean I need to change the name of my blog?). Such a momentous event is cause for celebration indeed.

I arrived with a friend a little bit late and the venue was already packed. The event itself was a lot of speeches, performances and dances. A particularly nice one was a potted history and song performed by a group of children wearing matching ‘I am South Sudan’ t-shirts. They were great, and your heart would have to be made of stone not to enjoy it.

Children's performance

The speeches eventually gave way in to eating food, dances, chatting and later music (and an excellent local drink made from sesame and slighting alcoholic – thanks to the lady who gave me that). The most enjoyable part of the evening was seeing a lot of friends and making some new ones. If I am being honest I would probably say that going to parties is an essential part of research anyway and when was there ever an easy distinction between life and work? I am sure, since I will be in South Sudan on Independence Day this will not be the last chance to party.  


Saturday, 15 January 2011

Elephants and Aliab patrols

Peculiar things come up at auctions. Like the Paris home of infamous Central African dictator, Jean-Bedel Bokassa which just sold for £720,000. I admit it is less flashy than a mansion, but I took a lot of geeky smugness is discovering this lot of medals at Bonhams.

They were awarded posthumously to a Major Chauncey Stigand of the Royal West Kent Regiment.  On the 8th of December 1919, Chauncey Stigand was shot through the heart with a spear and he died instantly. He had been on ‘patrol’ in the home of the Aliab Dinka, located in the most south easterly part of Lakes state.  I drove through this area on my way to Yirol in December.

The patrol he was on was sent in response to an uprising that started at the end of October of 1919. The Aliab felt (not unreasonably, one might think) resentful of the British presence. As even the Governor of Mongalla Province admitted “The Government has done nothing for the Aliab. It has not protected them from aggression, has given them no economic benefits…it has forced them to do a certain amount of labour, to pay taxed and to endure a not negligible amount of extortion by police” (quoted in Daly’s Empire on the Nile…).

So it is no great surprise that in October 1919, a group of Aliab attacked and killed eight of these policemen. When Stigand et al went to investigate these deaths, 24 of their party (including Stigand) were killed. The Government, as you can image, responded to this with a macho display of superior fire power, but it still took them several more patrols and burning of villages to assert themselves in the area. The British administration then held, as far as I can see, a rather schizophrenic perception of the Aliab for the next 30 years. Despite the problems in 1919, by the late 1940s the Governor of Bahr el Ghazal was writing in the letters home to his mother how great the Aliab were (the letters are in the archive here, and I can assure you he was a very good boy about writing to mum regularly).

According to the auction details, Stigand was then buried at Tombe (on the bank of the Nile) with stones sent by his wife from his home in Kajo-Keji (on the border of Sudan and Uganda). Military officers in Southern Sudan were not technically supposed to have wives or families because it was considered a hardship posting. But, in Stigand’s case this rule had been overlooked on account of the fact that he had been trampled by an elephant (while hunting) the year before.  'Sorry you got trampled by an elephant, have a wife', kind of thing.

Elephant hunting appears to have been Stigand’s great passion. Despite his successful army career he found time to write a guidebook/manual to elephant hunting, which was introduced with utmost respect by Theodore Roosevelt. I have read (ok, skimmed…) this book and I am not sure how helpful it would be in actually getting your hands on an elephant. But given the trampling incident I don’t think I would take Stigand’s advice as gospel anyway…

The past seems like a very odd place sometimes.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Not yet Uhuru?

 Something resembling this picture may be about to happen in Sudan

(as represented by SSRC voter education guidebook)

No, Southern Sudan is not floating away, but it is probably about to become Africa’s newest country. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the last civil war stipulated that after a 6 year interim period, the South could vote to go its separate way. And now, that appears to be what is happening. I remember going to see a panel of experts on secessions discuss the phenomenon at Oxford last year; most of the discussion was on former Soviet states, but when Sudan’s situation was raised the panelists all scoffed incredulously! How could think that anything other than a vote for separation was a real possibility? Staying together is just not the sort of thing that people tend to choose in this kind of situation.

My research is not about the referendum, in any way, really. In my original PhD proposal, my period of study ends at the referendum, so following that, today is the last day in Sudan’s history I am looking at (but who is counting? Or holding doctoral students to their original proposals!). Such a massive political transformation is impossible to escape from and I will be joining the ranks of people anxiously biting their fingernails over the coming days. Although the Southern Sudanese friends I have spoken to over the last few days seem very happy and excited, and why not relish this moment?

I heard a talk in September by the historian Douglas Johnson who pointed out that self determination has been a major and recurrent theme in Southern political thought. Yesterday, while I was going through Durham’s collection of documents from Sudan I came across a pamplet, written by  Gen. Joseph Lagu and produced for the Anyanya, the rebel movement of Sudan’s first civil war (1955-1972).

Its fascinating to read the official statements from the intellectual and military leaders of this past struggle for self-determination. This pamphlet, interestingly published just weeks before the signing of the Addis Ababa Peace Agreement in 1972, is a rallying call to support the Anyanya movement. Of course, it is political positioning written in war and not meant to be moderate. With that in mind,  a few excerpts from this pamphlet are interesting to compare with today’s political discourse in the South and to think about the evolution of these ideas.

“South Sudan is African
Since Independence was granted to Sudan in 1956 the Arabs of the North have never regarded the South as a real part of their country and the Southerners as a people with equal status. They regarded the South as a colony left to them by the previous colonial regime and they felt themselves free to exploit the land and enslave its people. The enemy cannot even conceive of independent of autonomous existence for our country because he considers it his property. So force must be used to prove to the enemy his ignorance and stupidity, to make him accept and recognize our national identity, We had not been a colony of the North when the whole of the Sudan was under the Anglo-Egyptian comdominium. The North and South won independace together as equals, now freedom must be equal for all.”

How they saw their position in the region is fascinating too - especially today

“Defending Black Africa
Our Brothers and Sisters in East Africa must realize that ever since the first Arabs reached Malakal, Juba and Wau, we, the people of South Sudan, have been defending not only ourselves but also them from the onslaught of Arab colonialism…while we fight this war we also protect our brothers in East and Central Africa”

My flat mate pointed out to me last night that some of the Kenyan press are embracing narrative of African solidarity in their coverage of this referendum. There is vast news coverage of the referendum from Europe and the US, but I will be making sure I follow East African reaction just as closely in the coming weeks and months.