To conserve you must transform

Culture and the wealth of nations in South Sudan

To conserve you must transform
Wedding Parade by Jacob Lueth Achol, 2004
By John Ryle  •  15 April 2005  •  Conference on Modern Government and Traditional Structures in South Sudan, Neuchâtel, Switzerland  Ÿ•  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.)

The prophet Ngungdeng . Painting by Mario Lual Deng

The prophet Ngungdeng . Painting by Mario Lual Deng

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.

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In Sudan, as we have heard, the institution of local leadership, of chiefship, was taken up and developed—sometimes introduced—by the imperial power, by the British administration, in the first half of the nineteenth century. It was based on the administrative model of indirect rule devised in West Africa by Lord Lugard—that illustrious British chief. Dr Lam and Dr Luka have explained why and how indirect rule worked in Sudan. But they did not mention one of the important attractions that indirect rule had for the British administration: it saved money. This is something worth remembering in the age of billion dollar aid programmes. With all its faults, indirect rule was cheap and—to an extent—effective. Versions of it may prove attractive to future governments in South Sudan for the same reason.

In Sudan, indirect rule developed into a system of what became known as native administration, with chiefs’ courts and chiefs as tax collectors. Existing pre-colonial leaders were coopted and empowered in return for their fealty to the administration. This in turn changed their relation to the communities they were drawn from. It is a system, as we know, that endures in rural areas of Sudan to this day (in the north it was formally abolished by one post-independence Khartoum government, and has been partially restored by another).

We have heard an account from Dr Khalid el Amin of the development of conflict resolution mechanisms under British rule, which further formalised and extended the role of chiefs. In certain cases—that of the Azande for instance—the British administration found clear political hierarchies that had already been established in pre-colonial times. (This, as most of you know, was because the Azande themselves fell under the pre-existing authority of the invading lineages from Central Africa, the Avungara, who created the Zande polity.) Once military resistance had been suppressed, these existing hierarchies lent themselves to incorporation into the colonial administration.

In other cases, such as that of the Nuer or Dinka (peoples who were—and in some senses still are—without a single established central authority), colonial chiefs were appointed variously from existing spiritual leaders and from the few local inhabitants who had experience of the world outside Dinkaland or Nuerland (as soldiers for instance, in the army of the Turkiyya or the Mahdiyya, ie the Ottoman colonial rulers of Sudan in the nineteenth century and the short-lived indigenous polity that followed.) The British had difficulty establishing the system of indirect rule among these groups because the authority of the existing leaders was limited, and of a different kind.

But fifty years of British administration managed to establish government chiefs as part of the fabric of life among the Nuer and Dinka, as much as among other, more tractable groups. “Tradition” adapted to the new powers in the land. As mentioned previously, in many parts of South Sudan the remnants of this system of indirect rule have been the main institution keeping rural society together in the absence of government (hukm—or hakuma, to use the south Sudanese Arabic term) during the past two decades of war.

Some tribal groups in Sudan, such as the Madi of Equatoria, are themselves in some sense the creation of invading forces. The nucleus of Madi ethnicity is found in communities that formed round garrisons of mixed ethnicity set up in Equatoria under the Turkiyya. Others have origins deeper in time—a precolonial ethnogenesis, to use the current anthropological phrase—but their sense of themselves has been modified by subsequent interactions with colonial authorities.

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Let us look again at the Dinka example, at the chiefly system of the Western Dinka, one that you will often find described as “traditional leadership” in the recent literature of aid and development. Among the Dinka there is a hierarchy of baany baai (government chiefs). In Bahr al-Ghazal this comprises bany alam thith, bany alam chol (or bany kor) and nhom gol. These words translate as “red-cloth chief”, “black-cloth chief” and “head of the hearth”. The language of these expressions is Dinka (thong muonyjang) but the terms are translations of a colonial—or imperial—administrative hierarchy: executive chief, sub-chief and lineage leader. It is a system that was created and formalized by the British for purposes of tax collection and local courts, the extension of state power. The red cloth and the black cloth are sashes awarded by the colonial administration as symbols of authority and were used throughout Southern Sudan. You still see them worn today.

Elsewhere in Sudan, in Arabophone communities, the equivalent figures may be termed sheikh and omda and nazir, or more rarely sultan—the last of these terms is used mostly in the South. The terms were drawn from Arabic, but, again, this did not mean they corresponded to existing indigenous roles. (Here I would draw your attention once again to Dr Khalid Ali el Amin’s paper.)

Pre-colonial political authority among the Dinka involved two kinds of leader, bany bith and bany wut, the spear master and the master of the cattle camp, the spiritual leader and the war leader. Those other terms above, gradations of baany baai (the government chief) are, in origin, artefacts of colonialism, or of the hybridization of colonial and indigenous forms of authority.

Bany bith and bany wut, the pre-colonial institutions, still exist, but in a new relation to these other kinds of bany, to the other powers in the land. Among some Western Dinka groups the patriline that possessed the bith, or sacred spear (ie that had spiritual authority), also became baany baai—ie government chiefs. But elsewhere in the Dinka polity it was held that to accept a government role would diminish the spiritual authority of the bith holder. There is a deep-rooted moral and political issue here concerning the collective identity of the Dinka, the most numerous of the ethnolinguistic groups in South Sudan. The idea of a House of Nationalities provokes reflection on questions like this, on the value of these old-established institutions, on the importance of continuity. This is certainly a good thing.

Historical considerations of the kind outlined above do not mean that government chiefs in Sudan are inauthentic. Or that what authority they have is illegitimate. What it means is that their role is historically contingent; that it is itself the product of an on-going negotiation with the forces of modernity. Also that it is not always separate from sources of national or regional power. It means that tradition also evolves, is continuously reinvented.

So when we speak of the House of Nationalities as an institution that will both conserve and also adapt and reconcile cultural traditions, this adaptation is something that has always happened, that happens continually. The difference, as I understand it, is that a House of Nationalities could make this a more conscious and collaborative process, something that might become central to the difficult business of constructing a national identity for Sudan—or for a new South Sudanese state.

Chiefship and patronage

Some final words on chiefs. These days in the South and the North, chiefs are, in principle at least, elected. In many areas, though, they are still drawn from chiefly families established during the colonial era. Often, therefore, they are part of an emerging elite within their ethnic constituency. This elite extends beyond what we are referring to as the “traditional” realm. The British authorities encouraged chiefs in the South to send their children to school. Sometimes they forced them to. This meant that educated elites in a good many parts of the South were—and still are—predominantly drawn from chiefly families. Many of your own family histories exemplify this. Chiefs may thus form part of a kin-based power complex that includes politicians at the national level (and military leaders in the SPLM/A areas). They are part of local and national political structures and may be implicated in their complications. There is no clear boundary here between the traditional and the modern sector. And of course chiefs may also be members of churches, which represent an alternative source of authority. There is more to be said on all these matters.

One of the effects of the war, in certain areas of the South, has been that there is a greater number of chiefs who are school-educated. This is likely to be a growing tendency. The SPLM/A administration, the “government of the sons” as some Dinka call it, has drawn chiefs closer to the administration in areas of core SPLA support. Elsewhere the opposite may have been the case. The fate of chieftaincy, or chiefship, under the SPLA is a question which I expect other speakers will be tackling later. It is clearly central to the question of the House of Nationalities. It is encouraging, in this connection, that there is now an active programme of research into customary law on the part of the SPLM legal department.

As we have seen, the government chief is only one kind of “traditional” leader. There are others, not incorporated into national or local administration, who would certainly have a claim to be represented in the House of Nationalities. They include ritual specialists of one kind and another, the Nuer guk kuoth (prophet) and kuaar muon (earth master), mentioned earlier, or the Zande abinza (diviner). Nuer prophets in particular may wield considerable influence at times of political and social crisis.

This means that representatives in a House of Nationalities are not only likely to comprise people from different communities but are likely to have differing roles within their communities. They would not be like members of a parliament, each with the same relation to their constituency. The kinds of power and influence they exercised within their communities would differ.

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Chiefs as peace-makers and war leaders

Let us now consider some questions about other aspects of culture raised by the idea of a House of Nationalities. Outsiders taken with the idea of an institution that is intended to conserve indigenous culture in Sudan should not suppose that the expressions of culture will always be to their liking. They may not be to the liking of all Sudanese, or South Sudanese, either.

The values we like to call “traditional” can be warlike. They can—to use terms drawn from a moral discourse of western origin—be ethnocentric, vengeful, militaristic, discriminatory and sexist. In the matter of peace-making the role of chiefs has often been highlighted by admiring outsiders, for example in accounts of events such as the Wunlit peace meeting of 1998. And commentators have applauded the peace rituals practised in Nilotic cultures such as the sacrifice of mayar, a white bull. But “traditional leaders” may be war leaders too. The young Nuer prophet Wut Nyang Gatkek, for instance, led a Nuer militia, the White Army, in the 1990s. Later he was a peace-maker; but first, like other Nuer prophets before him, he was a war-leader.

Elsewhere in Sudan there is a well-documented conflict between the Dinka of Northern Bahr-el-Ghazal and sections of two Baggara Arab peoples, the Rizeigat of Darfur and the Misseriya of Kordofan. The Baggara Rizeigat were one of the few Northern groups where the customary leadership survived the abolition of native administration by President Nimeiri. Depending on whose account you favour, the Nazir of the Rizeigat either tolerated, or was unable to prevent, or presided over two decades of large-scale raiding and abduction of Dinka villagers from the south. That was in the 1980s and 1990s.

This episode raises a number of questions about the limits of the authority of such leaders. Was the Nazir in control of the Rizeigat murahaliin, the raiding parties drawn from his people, or was he not? Was he unable to resist pressure from the Government in Khartoum for the murahaliin to become an instrument of counter-insurgency strategy against communities supporting the SPLA?  Such questions lead to a further question, a more pressing one given the current situation in Darfur: does the non-participation of the Baggara Rizeigat in the war in Darfur mean that they have learned a lesson from their earlier conflict with the Dinka? It seems that it may.

Harmful traditional practices?

And there is at least one other potentially contentious matter. One of the most striking traditional practices of Nilotic societies in South Sudan is ritual scarification (and removal of the front lower teeth in children). Scarification is one of the clearest marks of cultural diversity in Sudan. Such practices are opposed by most educated Sudanese. And they are routinely condemned in formal gatherings—most recently at the Chiefs and Traditional Leaders Conference in Kapoeta County (in June and July 2004). But they endure, nevertheless. Will an institution set up to preserve diversity celebrate scarification and ritual dentistry as marks of identity?  Or will it reject them, as Professor Kwesi Prah has suggested?

We saw last night that change can be made even in the heart of tradition. The King of Anuak, we learned, retains his lower front teeth. Does this mean that Anuak villagers will leave off the practice of ritual dentistry as well? Not yet, I would imagine. But such things may one day be debated in a House of Nationalities in Otalo or Pochala, inch’allah. (That is to say, if God wills it, to use the Arabic phrase employed in Sudan by adherents of every belief-system and none). It is surely desirable that matters like these should be discussed widely, and at every level of society.

British administration established government chiefs as part of the fabric of life. “Tradition” adapted to the new powers in the land. The remnants of this system of indirect rule have kept rural society together in the absence of government.

Similarly, many of the peoples of South Sudan have long practiced the inheritance of widowed wives by the deceased husband’s brother. In the Old Testament this institution, as practiced in ancient Israel, is known as the levirate. It is—arguably—an institution that oppresses women, though its defenders might argue that it protects them. Should it be preserved and celebrated?  Or should it be proscribed in conformity with the ideas of individual human rights promulgated in international legislation? Bridewealth itself, the exchange of cattle and other material goods between families as part of the marriage contract, is a fundamental institution in many South Sudanese communities. But it has been included in lists of “harmful traditional practices” by the moralists of Unicef, as a custom that encourages violence against women.

These are all topics that are likely to be the subject of debate in a house of nationalities. And this is how it should be. Because it is there, in a Sudanese forum—and not in a UN committee room in New York—that they need to be resolved.

Further questions arise. Are there traditional women leaders in Sudan? Not very many. With rare exceptions, such as the female rain-makers of the Lotuho, women have not had explicit leadership roles in Sudanese societies. There are, of course, women of influence to be found in every community, midwives, healers and religious leaders. And there is an emerging cadre of educated women who have taken up the opportunities offered by education and the international presence in Sudan. The idea of a house of nationalities has been strongly supported by some Sudanese women. How will women be represented in it? By educated women only? Or by women from village communities? Or by both?

Culture Is Better than Civilization (2004). Painting by Stephenal Thakiy.

Culture Is Better than Civilization (2004). Painting by Stephenal Thakiy.

Indigenous languages as cultural wealth

Finally, Language. One thing we all agree on, I think, is the desirability of preserving indigenous languages. As Dr Riek Machar mentioned, this has been officially recognised in the CPA. More than scarification, more than particular marriage customs, local languages are the primary repository of the cultural heritage of South Sudan.

All over the world local languages are dying out, disused, unwritten, unspoken. In Sudan, though, they survive, in their hundreds. In the Nuba Mountains alone, as is frequently pointed out, there are dozens of languages—mutually incomprehensible —which are still used as first languages in the communities where they are spoken. The preservation of these living tongues is something that should be celebrated. But there is an unavoidable paradox: in order to celebrate it—in order to discuss the preservation of this uniqueness—it is necessary for those who speak these languages to use another language, a lingua franca that is understood by all.

Let us consider further the peoples of the Nuba mountains. The Nuba insurgency was, in a certain respect, a war of cultural survival against the encroachment of Arab Islamic political domination. But in order to create political unity between different Nuba groups, in order to create common political institutions, the insurgents had to use Arabic, the language used by the dominant culture, and by government they were fighting against. In order to come together as Nuba they used a language that was not a Nuba language. Likewise in the South, of course, the lingua franca is Arabic or English, each of them the language of a former colonial power.

And so too it will be in the House of Nationalities–at least at the national level. How, otherwise, can you be neutral between indigenous languages? Even within the states of Southern Sudan there is no single state where only one language is spoken. The Dinka agamlong, the specialist interpreter, recorder and translator—and his or her equivalent in other communities—could be a helpful institution here. The House of Nationalities will need many agaamlong, from many different language groups.

To conserve, you must transform

Let me conclude, then, with the subject of language, the epitome of culture. What is the best way of preserving and developing indigenous languages? In the unevenly modernising world we live in—encroaching on formerly marginalised communities in Sudan—it is through education, through the use of indigenous languages as the language of instruction in schools, and through the development of written forms of these languages—text books and grammars and dictionaries. Again, the very act of writing a language transforms its relation to the rest of the world. You preserve a language by incorporating it into the same processes that are at work transforming your society, the same processes that tend to monolingualism: namely literacy and universal education.

Some of you will remember the Institute of Languages in Yambio in the 1970s, set up by the Summer Institute of Linguistics. SIL is a Christian missionary organization that has taken on the task of translating the Bible into all known languages. An important part of their work in Sudan, as elsewhere, has been the promotion of indigenous language education and the publishing of texts in many of the languages of the South. The Summer Institute worked with the Regional Ministry of Education before the second civil war and did valuable work in preserving local languages.

As an evangelical protestant organization, however, SIL is also, at least in theory, in favour of the abolition of other manifestations of local culture, those that they hold to be in conflict with Christian values, including, for example, polygyny, ghost marriage, the levirate, and traditional indigenous religious practices such as divination. Thus SIL has aimed, explicitly or not, to preserve languages on the one hand and transform culture on the other.

Even if the aim is not evangelization, the act of preservation will transform what you try to hold on to, whether you like it or not. This happens through education, and the self-awareness that comes from it. It is inevitable. To conserve, you must transform. The point is to recognise this inevitability and shape new institutions accordingly, to rescue and retain what is of value in the changing world. ★