The Nilotes in high steel
The Nuer of Sudan in time of warBy John Ryle • 23 May 1997 • The Times Literary Supplement • Nuer Dilemmas: Coping with money, war and the state by Sharon E. Hutchinson • Posted 2016 • 1,809 words
For fifty years, Southern Sudan has been a locus classicus of the British tradition of social anthropology, its ethnographic literature subject to countless reassessments by scholars who have, in many cases, never set foot on Sudanese soil. The fame of the Azande, the Nuer and the Dinka, the most numerous and best documented of the many ethnic groups that inhabit the region to which Southern Sudan is central, has spread well beyond the confines of the discipline. They have come to define the lay notion of what anthropologists write about (or what they used to write about): remote, unlettered peoples, largely unencumbered by material possessions, living beyond the reach of the State.
The Nuer, in particular, cattle pastoralists of carefree self-regard and warlike demeanour, whose territory covers a swath of swamp and savannah land in Sudan and Ethiopia, seemed to conform perfectly to a romantic stereotype of primitive culture, or the male version of it. The fame of the Nuer, and their reputation as the cynosure of the primitive, is largely due to the work of the late Sir Edward E. Evans-Pritchard, a social anthropologist of formidable application, whose eleven months of malaria-ridden fieldwork in the early 1930s among the Eastern Nuer, near the Ethiopian border, resulted in a trilogy of books that can claim to be the most comprehensive ethnographic record of any African people.
In The Nuer (1940), Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer (1951) and Nuer Religion (1956), Evans-Pritchard (or E-P, as he is known among his colleagues and successors) presented a portrait of a people in a symbiotic relationship with cattle— “mutual parasitism”, he called it—who valued their livestock far beyond the material contribution they made to human survival. Cattle in the form of bride wealth were the means by which Nuer affirmed social ties between kin groups; as sacrificial offerings, they were the channel of communication with the remote divinity that oversaw their existence; and they were the subject of an elaborate aesthetic based on variations in the colour of their hides. To those seeking to understand Nuer social and political life, E-P’s advice was simple: cherchez la vache. In his oeuvre the dominant image is of a people living largely in isolation from the outside world, moving between village and grazing ground across the grassy floodplain of the Nile, singing to their oxen, acknowledging no higher authority than themselves—an image, contra Thomas Hobbes, of ordered anarchy.
E-P’s ethnographic monographs—he wrote a comparable sequence about the Azande, a sedentary people of rather different character living in the Sudan-Congo borderlands—not only dominated the literature on the peoples of the region, they also set the research agenda for a generation of anthropologists, in Africa and elsewhere. Their theoretical sophistication and extraordinary detail made them virtually unassailable. The people of the Nuer trilogy seemed to exist, curiously, outside time.
The Nuer in time
As an anthropology student, arriving in Khartoum in the 1970s, I was surprised to find that the labourers on the high-rise buildings going up in the city were not local people but migrant Nuer, who spoke Arabic as well as their own Nilotic language and seemed quite at home in the city. Like the Mohawks in High Steel, the American Indian construction workers in New York described in the essay of that title by Joseph Mitchell (included in Edmund Wilson’s Apologies to the Iroquois)—an ethnic minority who took the most perilous jobs in town—these young Nuer men monopolized the risky end of the building trade in Khartoum. Fearless, from a homeland so flat that a ten-story building was the tallest thing they had ever seen, in Khartoum they became the equivalent of Edmund Wilson’s Mohawks. They became the Nilotes in high steel.
These labour migrants were the first wave of a series of partial displacements of the Nuer from their homeland that started under the British administration and continues to the present day. In the half-century since E-P’s fieldwork and the twenty-five years since his death, the Nuer have had to cope with a series of profound political and economic shocks. The discipline of anthropology has also changed, adapting to the altered relations between its traditional subject and the civilization that spawned this form of knowledge.
At the time of E-P’s research, the Nuer were under the political suzerainty of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, administered by the tiny cadre of military men and Oxbridge graduates who were known—those of them who served in the swampy Southern Sudan—as bog barons. Two decades later, the British were gone and the independent Republic of Sudan was born, with state power consigned to the hands of a political elite dominated by northern riverain Arabs, different in culture, religion and political tradition from Southerners like the Nuer. Since then, there have been two civil wars in Sudan—or one war with an episode of peace. It was during this short peace that Sharon Hutchinson did the field research which forms the basis of Nuer Dilemmas, her remarkable updating of the ethnographic record.