Ronald Godfrey Lienhardt (“Thienydeng”)
Born 17 January 1921; died 9 November 1993
For Godfrey Lienhardt—as he was known among the Dinka, or Muonyjang, of Sudan—the occasions of teaching and learning extended beyond his office in the Oxford Institute of Social Anthropology, beyond the seminar room and the library, to embrace his home in Bardwell Road and the public houses where he liked to spend his evenings, and, beyond these, the ever-extending global network of his current and former students.
In a lifetime of teaching Godfrey gained an extensive and devoted following of students; later generations, including mine, benefited from the experience of their predecessors. When they came to visit, the meeting place, more often than not, would be one or another of the succession of north Oxford pubs frequented by Godfrey and his companions—by his brother Peter, also an anthropologist at the Institute, and their friends, the publisher, Dan Davin, and his wife, Winnie Davin. The locations included the Horse and Jockey in Woodstock Road, the Victoria Arms in Jericho, the Gardener’s Arms in Plantation Road, and an establishment of the same name in North Parade. These watering places became linked in a long-term transhumant cycle.
In the evenings, in such places, in the company of publicans and students, the conversation would shift away from the formal study of African kinship systems—or political institutions or thought worlds—into a less formal mode. Here the oblique process of Godfrey’s teaching became apparent. Oblique in the sense that you might take your leave at closing time certain that you had learned something, yet not be entirely sure at that point what it was, or who you had learned it from. Godfrey’s conversation was full of jokes and anecdotes and fragments of wisdom; some of what he had to impart could only be arrived at indirectly, by example and absorption, rather than by precept or study. Studying with Godfrey was, in this sense, itself a kind of field work.
A lesson from maps
Perhaps the most important aspect of his teaching was to show how social anthropology can be truly social, a discipline involving mutuality, one that begins in field research, but ends by keeping company with its subject on a global journey. For Godfrey’s students this was a lesson that started well before we left home.
On one occasion at the Institute we were studying the historical expansion of speakers of Nilotic languages in what was then the Southern region of Sudan—the non-Arab, non-Muslim groups whose struggle for political representation has since escalated into violent conflict on a tragic scale. The paper I wrote for this class had a map appended representing the present-day home territories of the peoples of the area. It was based on information I had derived—meticulously I thought—from existing cartographic sources.
When I arrived at the pub at lunchtime to discuss that week’s work I found several official-looking cars parked outside. Inside, Godfrey was sitting with some visiting Southern Sudanese, former students, or friends from the time of his field research, now diplomats or administrative officials. The map I had drawn lay on the table. It was there—or possibly later that day, at the Institute of Social Anthropology in Woodstock Road—that one of the visitors drew attention to a detail of the map.
“You have shown this area along the river as no man’s land,” he said, in a serious tone. “Others may graze their herds there in the dry season, but the territory has always been ours….”
The second visitor, a government official from what was then Upper Nile province, took a look.
“It seems,” he said, “that you have put my home across the border in Ethiopia…”
The third visitor spoke. “And it appears,” he said, weighing his words, “That you have given the village of my birth to our Arab brothers…”
The last of the three visitors to speak was Francis Mading Deng, who had been a doctoral student of Godfrey’s. Now a diplomat, representing Sudan in the Scandinavian countries, he was the author of several ethnographic works on the social and political institutions of his own people, the Dinka Ngok of Abyei, a group whose disputatious relations with their neighbours, the Humr Misseriya Arabs of South Kordofan, continue, with increasing intensity, to this day.
The admonitions were followed by laughter. But the point was not lost. Sources are inaccurate. Lines on a map are misleading. And on the ground they can be dangerous. Recent Sudanese history demonstrates that the issues that Godfrey’s visitors raised on that occasion have become sharper with time.
I knew that Godfrey himself was the instigator of this ingenious piece of corrective pedagogy. And, chastened though I was, I saw that it was not for my benefit alone. For Godfrey the interaction and dialogue between neighbouring peoples was a constituent part of what anthropology is about. His principal research had been among the Western Dinka, and he had an abiding affection for them and their ways. But he did not suffer from the common affliction of anthropologists, secondary ethnocentricity, that is to say, an exclusionary identification with the host culture. For Godfrey, all Southern Sudanese and Northern Sudanese (from the West or the East or the riverain heartland) and those from other parts of Africa–or, for that matter, from any corner of the world–were welcome in the modest flat where he lived in north Oxford, and at his table, and in the bar of whichever hostelry he favoured at the time.
The bead and the spear
One of Godfrey’s most elegant contributions to Nilotic studies is a comparative account of the myth of the bead and the spear, a story that is widespread among the peoples of the great floodplain of Southern Sudan and its surrounding areas. The story is about a quarrel between two friends. One of them is the owner of a precious bead. The child of his friend, playing with the bead, swallows it by accident. The father offers to replace it. But the owner of the bead will not accept a substitute. He insists that his friend’s child is cut open to retrieve the original. Later—seemingly forgiven—the owner of the bead borrows his friend’s spear to hunt an elephant. The elephant escapes with the spear in its body. And at this point the owner of the spear insists, reciprocally, that this particular spear must be returned, and not a replacement spear. His friend is compelled to follow the elephant to the ends of the earth in order to get it back. This incident finally severs the relationship between them.
Godfrey’s account of this story is an examination of the meaning of the gift, of borrowing and exchange, of what it implies in Nilotic societies to be lent something and to lose it, of the danger of revenge, and the desirability of give and take in human relations. The point of the story, he argues—or part of the point—is that for human relationships to prosper you should not aim to get your own back, in either sense of the phrase.
The spread of this story among the widely distributed societies of the floodplain and beyond is itself an example of such a gift. It demonstrates how a story can be a shared resource between peoples, how culture can be fruitfully held in common, or transferred between one group and another.
The tribal confusion round Wau
Thus it was, under Godfrey’s tutelage, that we learned—inter alia—that maps can lie, and that myths may embody mutiple moral truths. We learned also—a view that is now routine, but was less so then—that ethnicity is itself a fluid notion. (Godfrey himself could be said to have embodied this ambiguity, being half-Swiss in his father’s line.) In my own case the lesson came apropos an article by the linguist A.N. Tucker, concerning the ethnography of Western Bahr-el-Ghazal province in Southern Sudan. Tucker had followed in the footsteps of the pioneering Comboni missionary-scholar, Father Santandrea, extending the latter’s documentation of the complex patterns of ethnic identity in the hinterland of the provincial capital. The article Tucker wrote about this is called “The Tribal Confusion Around Wau”.
There were two young Southern Sudanese who were studying in Oxford at the time, one a Nuer, the other a Dinka, each of them articulate in discussion and confident of their origins and cultural heritage. On this occasion a third Sudanese student, recently–arrived, listened silently to our conversation. At some point one of us asked him what part of the South he was from.
“Myself?” he said. “I am from Wau.” Then he smiled and added, “I am from the Confusion.”
There was laughter, then a pause.
“As we all are,” said Godfrey.
A sociable anthropologist
This was how Godfrey prepared his students for fieldwork, launching us into the great archipelago of his acquaintance. It was in North Oxford pubs, unbeknownst to us, that we began to learn the anthropologist’s art, the art of participant observation, of interpretive conversation, the research technique that Godfrey’s own teacher, Edward Evans-Pritchard—“E-P” as he was known among his peers and students—called “extraversion to the social fact”.
When we left for the field Godfrey might well provide us with the names of acquaintances of his to look up in the place we were headed for. He would give us small gifts to take to them: books, or articles of clothing, socks or cardigans, say, usually from Marks & Spencer. When it came to his own wardrobe Godfrey took pride in dressing—rather nattily—from thrift shops, but he knew that the gift was the thing, the social institution that spans tribes and nations, that opens the door of culture.
The enduring gift that Godfrey leaves to the world is his writing—luminous, rigorous, free of obscurity, attuned to the genius of language and the hard task of translation. It is a gift that he bequeaths equally to the realm of learning and to the new social and political world that is now emerging from the old cultures of the floodplain of the Upper Nile. But the greatest gift that he gave to his students and friends—he made little distinction between the two—was to introduce them to each other. He fostered intellectual companionship and friendship between others, and took pleasure in its continuation in his absence, as many of us have reason to know.
And this is how we will remember him, not just as an outstanding social anthropologist, but as an anthropologist who was also eminently sociable, one who conspired for our collective and individual good, who was, above all, a generous person, a giver of people to each other.