To conserve you must transform
Culture and the wealth of nations in South SudanBy John Ryle • 15 April 2005 • Conference on Modern Government and Traditional Structures in South Sudan, Neuchâtel, Switzerland • Paintings by South Sudanese refugees in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya, courtesy of the African Refugee Artists Club and the Sudan Documentation Center at Brandeis University • Posted 2016 • 4,998 words
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 Swiss Government has embraced the spirit of the agamlong. I echo other speakers today in recording my appreciation to them.
In this presentation I will be speaking, not as agamlong, but on my own account, offering reflections on political and cultural authority at the local level in South Sudan. There’s a saying in English you’ll be familiar with: Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs. It’s a warning against lecturing your elders, people who know more than you do. I speak with an awareness that I am privileged to be taking part in this discussion, a discussion that has been going on among our Sudanese colleagues for generations.
Local leadership and indigenous kinship systems
This year—2005—we have seen donor governments meeting in Oslo and pouring money into Sudan—or promising to do so—guided by priorities and theories of development thought up in Washington and London, universalist schemes that—it may be argued—take insufficient account of Sudan’s distinctive history and political economy, or the length and complexity of its conflicts, including the one that we hope has come to an end this year with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Because of this lack of understanding of local and national history and culture the promise of political development is liable to remain unfulfilled.
There has been much discussion during the peace negotiations in Naivasha of the potential of Sudan’s mineral resources, specifically oil production. Yet we know that in every country in Africa that possesses such resources they have brought most people only conflict and growing poverty. There is a phrase for this: the resource curse. A similar fate lies in wait for South Sudan if we do not consider how to avert it.
In Sudan, the best chance of averting the resource curse may lie in what our colleague Kwacakworo has called the country’s true source of wealth: not money, not minerals, but culture. Clearly economic development is indispensable, but it is to history and culture that we must look for realistic guiding principles for post-war construction and reconstruction in South Sudan, rather than to the nostrums of development economics. History and culture got us here; an understanding of history and culture may show us a safer way forward.
Culture is a broad concept, but it invites us to consider things at a local level, from the point of view of the people who engender it. During the many years of war in Sudan, when the state withdrew from large parts of the country, despite the vagaries in relations between the rebel administration of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the system of chiefly administration, it was, to a significant extent, local leadership and indigenous kinship systems that provided what social stability there was. These inherited forms of social organization—adapted for administrative purposes by the colonial regime in the early twentieth century—still have strength today. In rural areas of the country—and in towns and cities too—it is shared local languages and places of origin and the web of kin-based relationships they engender that define who people are, and where they look for assistance. This has both positive and negative aspects, as I shall argue later.
The paradox of the House of Nationalities
In discussion of the House of Nationalities a variety of purposes have been proposed for it. Some of these may appear contradictory. Thus the House of Nationalities is intended, on the one hand, to conserve culture and, on the other, to act as a forum for debate about cultural change. It is dedicated to the preservation of indigenous languages, but its discussions are likely to take place, of necessity, in a lingua franca that is not native to South Sudan, that is to say, they will be in English, or in one of the Sudanese varieties of Arabic.
A third paradox is that the idea of the House of Nationalities—which concerns itself with tradition and local culture—has been discussed with greatest vigour by the most modern and cosmopolitan sector of the population, by educated people, by intellectuals, by those in the diaspora—that is to say, by ourselves, some of us not even elders but still youths. (How many Sudanese customary leaders are present at this meeting today? Only two, I think.)
Let us consider, however, for a moment, that term, “youth”.
In Sudan—in South Sudan at least—the category “youth” is an elaboration or reflection of an established indigenous institution, the age-set. Although age-set organisation has been in decline for some time in the communities of the flood plain, such age-sets, as Professor Kwesi Prah reminds us, were long a defining feature of societies across Africa, structuring communities by generations that were formally differentiated, that followed one upon the other, youth becoming elders when they succeed to that role.
In Europe and America “youth” means something different: it is a demographic fraction, a marketing term, an electoral category, and limited to people in their teens or twenties. In many parts of Africa, by contrast, at village level, a “youth” may be considerably older. In some places the category defines the formal relation of generations to one another, and to governance and authority. Thus the word “youth” can be understood to refer either to a modern or to a traditional, indigenous category, depending on whose moral world you are operating in.
Leadership and traditional social organisation
In order to extend our discussion here in Neuchâtel and seek a resolution of these contradictions—some of them real, some only apparent—I would like to look at the institutions of leadership in some Sudanese societies, and at related questions of culture and language.
The ethnic and social diversity in Sudan is not simply a set of differences in language and habitat and mode of livelihood. It is the product of divergence between the histories of different communities. These histories differ significantly in terms of the relation of particular groups to the state, ie to centres of greater military and political power. This is an aspect of diversity. Again, it is a source both of strength and of division.
There is a well-chronicled divide in the country between the northern Arab riverain groups from which the political and economic elites of the modern Sudanese state are largely drawn—the holders of political power—and the economically marginal groups that dwell far from the geographical and political centre. This disparity lies at the root of many of Sudan’s current conflicts. There are equally significant differences, however, among peoples of the periphery, between one group here and another there. Such differences, I would stress, are not simply a matter of language or culture. They reflect differences of internal political organization rooted in history and modes of livelihood. And these differences of political organization are often related to the differing historical relations between these groups and historical invading forces—ie between them and the centres of greater power—and to the extent to which they resisted or were assimilated by or accommodated them.
This means, among other things, that terms such as “traditional leadership” and “traditional structures” (as used in the title of this conference) may be problematic. They are liable to signify something different from one group in one place to another in a different place. In documents concerned with the House of Nationalities the phrase itself has already developed a number of variants. The formulation “tribal leaders and chiefs” has been used interchangeably with “traditional leaders”. The formulation during the colonial era was generally “customary chiefs”. We may prefer “customary authorities”. But all the terms we are using here need to be examined: “tribe”, “chief”, “custom”, “tradition” and “authority”. They mean different things in different places. They bear different historical burdens. And they translate differently to and from different indigenous languages. The political history of a particular group of people and their ancestors needs to be understood in order to understand the role of leaders within it.
Ethnic and social diversity in Sudan is the product of divergence between the histories of different communities, and of the relation of particular groups to the state, to centres of greater military and political power. This is a source both of strength and of division.
Whatever form it takes, the house of nationalities in South Sudan will be composed of leaders from many different groups. And they are likely to be leaders in different senses, with different powers and different kinds of representativeness. As Professor Kwesi Prah mentioned this morning—and Dr Lam Akol reiterated—the Reth of the Shilluk (or Collo, as the Shilluk are called in their own language), a monarch with inherited powers once considered semi-divine, has a different role in relation to his people from, say, a chief of the Balanda, or a kuaar muon, a Nuer earth master. (The Shilluk reth, however, and the nyeya, the Anuak king, have something in common, being related to each other by common descent from the Luo ancestor Nyikang, as can be seen in the documentary, The Man Who Would be King.
Let us consider “chiefs”. Today we are in the presence of one such chief—Bany Dut Malual Arop, my uncle from Rumbek. And we are in the presence of the king of the Anuak. (Salutations to both of them.) Many of you—perhaps most of the South Sudanese present here—are the sons and daughters and grandchildren of chiefs. I hope you will overlook my presumption in discussing their historical and possible future role in a reborn South Sudan.