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. 


  1. this is really fabulous! As well as his transition to being Southern, I love his moral definition of what being a slave is.

  2. Very interesting. I read History of Wau Town. It is practically difficult to get a copy. I think there are two editions; the latest published by St. Joseph's Press, Khartoum in 1989. My library had to order it from a library in Atlanta. Talking of rare books on Sudan/South Sudan, would you know of any talking about the growth of media in South Sudan in colonial times?

  3. Very interesting. Solved an issue of a reference in a book I am copy-editing as well as increasing my knowledge of the region. Thank you!