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.