A hawkmoth by moonlight

The stars of Alan Root’s documentaries sometimes bite bits out of him

Letter from Yirol

South Sudan: the diaspora of objects and the future of tradition

Father of Gaia

James Lovelock’s Gaia theory proposes that the earth, the atmosphere and the biosphere are constituent parts of a single feedback system. It’s a system, he says, that could easily dispense with us.

A visit to Seydou’s studio

The spirit of light in the West African Sahel

Dictation from the dead

The posthumous career of Lord Rochester in the Brazilian spirit world


Biography & acknowledgments


John Ryle is Legrand Ramsey Professor of Anthropology at Bard College, NY. He is cofounder of the Rift Valley Institute, a research and public information organisation that has worked in Eastern and Central Africa since 2001, and was Executive Director of the Institute until 2017.

He is coeditor of The Sudan Handbook (2011) and a contributor to periodicals including the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, the Financial Times, and Granta. He was formerly a columnist on the Guardian... more»

Field Notes

31.07.2017 Letter from Yirol

Last month in Yirol I bought a heifer—a brindled two-year old, not yet in calf. In the Dinka cattle-naming system a cow like this is called nyang, the crocodile, a reference to the colour-pattern of her hide. I bought my nyang at the livestock auction on the edge of Yirol town, the administrative centre of Eastern Lakes state, in South Sudan’s pastoral heartland. The cattle for sale were tethered to pegs in a fenced enclosure; the handsomest animals were on parade outside. There were several fine heifers with their calves, and oxen with the black-and-white colour-patterns that Dinka livestock owners value beyond all... more»

Reportage & Criticism

Translating Caetano

In the late 1980s I was living in Salvador da Bahia, the old capital of Brazil, studying Portuguese. I didn’t spend much time in class. There was a beach at the end of the street. And scattered all round the city and the shantytowns beyond—beckoning from the groves of trees that surrounded them—were the terreiros, temples of Candomblé, the African-derived religion of which Salvador, an old slave port—once Brazil’s capital—is the heartland. Caetano and his mother, Dona Canô At weekends I frequented a Candomblé temple outside the city, beyond the airport. It stood among trees in the lee of a sand... more»


Elegia 1938

Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902-1987)

Joyless work in a decaying world.
No picture fits; no pattern holds.
You struggle on like others, feeling heat and cold,
Hunger, lack of cash, the ache of sex

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To conserve you must transform

Earlier today, in Leenco Lata’s absence, I read out on his behalf the paper he prepared for this conference. In doing so I took on the role of one who in the Dinka language—thong muonyjaang—would be called agamlong, or interpreter. The agamlong is a key figure in community meetings in Bahr el-Ghazal and Upper Nile in South Sudan. He—very occasionally she—repeats and elaborates contributions to discussion in courts and marriage negotiations, adding weight to the words that have been spoken, and entering them, by formal repetition, in the public oral record. In supporting our wider discussion and disseminating it, the... more»

City of Words

City of Words: Introduction

City of Words: Introduction

The column “City of Words” appeared weekly, from 1995 to 1999, in The Guardian newspaper. The idea came from Liz Jobey, then The Guardian’s literary editor; its godparent was the paper’s chief political columnist, Hugo Young (1938-2003). The name “City of Words” was borrowed from the title of a book by the literary scholar Tony Tanner (1935-1998), who took the phrase from a sentence in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Pale Fire. The column continued for four years, the last appearing in March 1999. It may yet return. City of Words never had a brief. It dealt with globalisation, information technology, literature,... more»


The Rift

The Great Rift Valley runs from the Red Sea to Mozambique, dividing the African continent in two. It is the heart of a region of striking ecological diversity, home to a wide range of human cultures and modes of existence: from pastoral nomadism in the savannah zones of Somalia and the Sudans to urban life in the industrialized cities of East Africa. Fossil evidence indicates that the emergence of modern humans took place in the eastern branch of the Rift Valley approximately 200,000 years ago. Today the lands that border the Rift exemplify the divisions and difficulties that confront Africa as a whole: a legacy of colonialism and anti-colonial struggle, and—in the present day—civil wars and accelerating environmental change….

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The Price of Survival