South Sudan, The Youngest Country on Earth, Is Not Without History

A decomposing letter and the soothsaying of the past 

[As I was editing the final draft of this article, clashes broke out in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. According to the latest government estimation more than 500 people died. This tragic event also highlights the vulnerability of South Sudan’s material past.]

Found after 60 years, a letter from Wolfgang Langewiesche, the father of one of America’s preeminent magazine journalists, sheds light on a little-known piece of African history and on how we’re condemned to repeat the failures of the past if we neglect our archives.

The Letter

It was a portentously beautiful moment. The aging generator was loudly puffing in the courtyard—no electricity in the grid— when I reached the last page of a dusty and never-opened file in the National Archive of South Sudan. I’d been working for weeks in the Archive, a small house hidden away in a suburb of the hectic, booming capital city of Juba. My research was into citizenship in South Sudan, a country where no one has a birth certificate and almost every ethnic group is divided by a national border.

So on this Friday afternoon I opened the brown and half-destroyed file titled Upper Nile Province 49.B.2. Vol. II. I know the old British filing system too well: 49 means “Passports, Visas, and Permits to Enter Southern Sudan”, while B indicates individual cases. The file was boring as hell, mostly missionaries and other soldiers of God begging for reentry permits after their holidays. The last letter in the file, though, was from another kind of visitor.

It was interesting; a guy is flying all over the Nile valley just for one article, and he is addressing the colonial administrator as you would your best man days before your wedding. Surely an American, full of self-confidence and money, I decided to memorize his name to look up these articles later. But there was no need for memorization, not with a name like this. The moment mesmerized me. Wolfgang Langewiesche, the author of this decomposing letter found in the back of a boring registry in the South Sudan Archive, must be the father of William Langewiesche, arguably one of the greatest and most interesting American journalists.

The Son

Well, this is ironic, I thought. That summer I had descended slowly along the Nile from Cairo to Lake Victoria with my girlfriend Lilla. Peter, the eccentric dandy of Gawker Media, joined us with his wife Natalia in Juba, and we traveled together in the Great Lakes region. In Gisenyi, a surreally picturesque Rwandan city on the shores of Lake Kivu, we were watching the white UN and colorful Congolese planes flying towards Goma, the capital of the troubled North Kivu Province of the Congo, when Peter mentioned a William Langewiesche article about the Congolese aviation industry. I was interested, and he sent the article to me a few weeks later, and I forwarded it to John Ryle, the founder of the Rift Valley Institute, one of the few people trying to make things happen for the Juba Archive. Just a few days later I stumbled upon a Wolfgang Langewiesche letter asking for help to write some articles about Central Africa on a planeback.

In the article, Congo from the Cockpit, William Langewiesche tells the story of a courageous Indian family. They have to rebuild their business from scratch four or five times in half a century, and while they narrate their own tale, we learn more from the tragicomic Congo than from almost any history book.

The Archive

For me archives are not repositories of historical facts. I deeply believe they are speaking to our present, and each and every document has to be read with extreme caution. Why was it put on paper? By who? To whom? What is the literary genre of the document? What constitutes a state secret and what is not written down at all? I deem we can learn almost as much about the shadow and frightening system of a state from the very filing system enforced on papers than from the historical facts they contain. 49.B.2, “Passports and Permits”. Nevertheless, this was the very first moment in my life, when I faced myself—even in this detached, remote way—in a piece of paper, typed on a Remington typewriter, in a Kenyan hotel room, three years before my father was born. It was scary and illuminating; holy shit, this is what I always speak about.

In 1951, when the letter was typed, my native Hungary was a Stalinist dictatorship, six years after the devastation of World War II and five years before a doomed and bloody anti-Soviet revolt. Meanwhile, Sudan was impatiently waiting for her independence, and for the first civil war in the Southern regions that arrived inevitably, like your drunkard uncle at Christmas. Things are changing, and in this case, strangely, things get better. Sixty years later I was able to download Wolfgang Langewiesche’s article via the library of my Hungarian university on quick mobile internet in peaceful Juba. The article, based on Langewiesche’s visit to Sudan, is entitled “What’s All the Noise on the Nile?” and it appeared in the November 22, 1952 issue of the Saturday Morning Post, pretty much the Vanity Fair of the Fifties.

The Father

I was afraid to read the article though, simply because the son, William Langewiesche, means so much to me. I was full of prejudices. I knew what Wolfgang Langewiesche would show to me: a perfectly written, awful description of glorious colonization and the British heroes behind the scenes, or maybe a few Scotsman on gin who try to modernize the “naked savages” by changing the Nile with irrigation and dams. In the first few pages, I was pretty much damn right. The article is about the water struggle between independent Egypt and the British Empire, and the joint effort of the two powers to dig a 200-mile-long canal through the infamous Sudd, the South Sudanese marshlands, where half of the White Nile evaporates and disappears in the myriad channels of brownish reeds. We learn from Wolfgang that it is “a big attempt to crank up a backward region”, in the middle of Sudan, which is “a land of nothing—endless plains, thornbush, near-desert, earth-colored villages; heat, dust, glare” inhabited only by the “naked primitive who doesn’t know from nothing”. Colonial language at its best.

Then suddenly, in the last few paragraphs the thoroughly built-up, logical argument supporting the canal collapses. Wolfgang Langewiesche intended it this way, and all his ostensible support was a pure rhetorical trick. He sees something from the cockpit of his little Cessna (American, registration number: N5312C) almost no one dared to see in his time; the canal will also kill and destroy. Colonization kills. Modernization can kill. It is worth quoting at length:

[I]f the Sudd Canal is dug, what is to become of the tribes that live in the Sudd—the Shilluk, Dinka, Nuer? Those people, naked, spear-carrying, live by the very thing the canal is designed to stop—the spilling of the Nile. They are cattle people who love their cattle. There is a soul connection there that we don’t understand. They don’t eat their beast. They drink the milk, and they nick a cow’s neck vein to drink the blood. But mostly they love cows the way the Greeks loved beauty or the Americans liberty.
During the high-water part of the year, when the water spreads, they retreat to the “highlands”—land two or three feet higher than the rest. When the water dries up, their cattle eat the new green grass. Then the grass turns wooden and without nourishment; the water holes dry up; they follow their cattle toward the river. As the river falls, new land, still damp, keeps emerging—the Toich. They burn the tall swamp grass that’s on it; fresh green grass grows up, and the cattle live on that. And when it turns wooden, new Toich has come out. Finally, when all the herds are on the river, and no more fresh Toich is coming—why, then, the rain makers simply start making rain, and the king—who is also a god—desires the Nile to rise. The rains come. The river rises. The cycle starts anew.
But now? If the canal is dug the river will no longer spill; no more new Toich each week. The rain makers will have to make rain at a different season, and it won’t work. The king, having lost his divine power, will have to be buried alive. The darling cows will lie down and die. There you are, Mr. World Improver!
Oh, well, a bunch of savages. Collect them into refugee camps, let them get jobs on farms. But a wrecked society is grist for you know who. That’s right, Uncle Joe in Moscow.
I waded around a bit in the Toich with a research team of Britishers who were seeking a new way of life for those people. But they were baffled. Fact is, those savages have that country figured out just right. If people are to live there, that’s how they have to live. Besides, what would life be without cows? One Dinka boy, a progressive fellow, went out to see the great world downriver. He got himself a cotton plot on one of the pump schemes. The British district commissioners watched him closely. Could these wild cattle people perhaps be settled on irrigated land and taught how to be farmers? What would he do next? The boy made a lot of money—maybe $700. So he walked back 400 miles to his people. He took off his clothes and bought himself some cows.

The Excavator

I am not sure how deeply Americans love liberty, and I certainly know that the Dinka, the Nuer, and the Shilluk do eat their beasts, but these paragraphs are wonderful. The British—and later the Northern Sudanese—never shared Wolfgang Langewiesche’s anti-colonial and anti-developmentalist sentiments. They never even understood it.

After Sudan became independent in 1956 the planning continued as though nothing had happened, just a new flag was raised above the old colonial forts. Remember the archives? They didn’t even bother to open new files, only changed the language to Arabic. And nobody asked in Khartoum, “What is to become of the tribes” that live out there? During the fragile ceasefire of the Seventies, the Sudanese government contracted a French company and they brought down a gargantuan machine, the largest bucket-wheel excavator of her time. Lucy, as the machine was known, finished a channel in Pakistan, and the French engineers dismantled her, put her on ocean-cruisers, Nile-steamers, and finally on camels, and installed her in the middle of the Sudanese plains. Thousands of tons of hydraulics, steel, and oil. She dug 150 miles in six years, but never finished her job. The Southerners hated the canal and Lucy. They were kept uneducated by consecutive governments but they were not stupid, knowing very well that the canal was killing their culture. In 1983 they took up their arms and a brave Southern soldier fired a rocket-propelled missile into Lucy.

The ruins of Lucy

She is still out there, the once-largest and most expensive machine in the world, rusting into the very marshland it was supposed to dry up and destroy. It is a beautiful symbol of the modernization efforts in the Southern Sudan. If the UN guys would have a minimal sense of irony and look up from their Excel spreadsheets, they would have to put the skeleton of Lucy on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The Future in the Past

The Juba Archive and the 2,500 boxes of irreplaceable documents are in danger. Despite the spirited local staff and the considerable efforts of the Rift Valley Institute, UNESCO, the Norwegian Government, and the South Sudanese Ministry of Culture, future funding is uncertain. There is almost no money for wages, for petrol to feed the aging generator, not even for the rent of the place where the documents are kept. There are splendid plans for a new building—although without shelves or reading rooms—but construction hasn’t started yet. And donors keep saying that in the country with the highest maternal mortality rate, non-existent infrastructure, tribal conflicts, and no electricity in the grid, they have more important things to focus on. It is true, there is a lot of development and modernization to do. But without the Archive, we miss the chance to see this very development in a historical context. South Sudan may be the youngest country on earth, but it is not without history.

Staff of the National Archive

UNICEF is supporting the South Sudanese Ministry of Health to set up a birth registration system. The project is imagined as something brand new, despite the fact that there was already a birth registration scheme operated by the British in the Thirties. It was inaccurate, and during the civil war no one dared to maintain it, but we could learn from their experiences. The files can be found at the Archive, under Category 53, “Population Statistics”.

Similarly, some NGOs and UN agencies are offering a helping hand for South Sudan to conduct a national census, as even the baseline statistics of the country are unsure. One of these experts complained to me that it is not just the hardships of logistics, non-existent infrastructure, and lack of funds they have to cope with but also “the primitive, ancient witchcraft. The Dinka just don’t want to be counted”. Similar sentiments were expressed by Ali Ahmed, the former director of the Sudanese statistical agency in his article on the 2008 all-Sudanese census. He writes, “It is commonly known […] that the Dinka tribe […] usually report lesser number of their children, believing that the evil eyes of the enumerators will kill their children when they report many.” The policy now is to fight this ancient, primitive, backward witchcraft with “dissemination campaigns”, “popular songs”, and “workshops”.

But is this “witchcraft” really that ancient and primitive? If we examine the documents of the first Sudanese census of 1955—all can be found at the Archive—we see that enumerators were already complaining that Dinka headmen under-reported the sizes of their families and herds. “You can never hope to get an honest answer from an animal owner for two very strong reasons, namely (a) the fear of paying more taxes and (b) the fear of the evil eye.” And if we go back another twenty years and read the reports of British district commissioners about the introduction of individual taxation and the village censuses, the infamous “evil eye” disappears. For example, one colonial administrator proudly reported to the Governor the first-ever counting of “his Dinka villages” in 1934.

On arrival at the centre of each Dinka sub-section I met the chief. […] Then we took each family in turn and with the aid of the head ably supported by the chief […] we listed the individual numbers […] having a look on the young boy who was produced to see if he was of taxable age. […] The whole procedure was simple and the method of listing by family groups appeared to be very popular with the people.

It may happen that Dinka have a fear of enumeration and they will cite the “evil eye” or “witchcraft” as their reason not to be counted but we may also argue that it developed as a reasonable counteraction to taxation. People of South Sudan very logically concluded that enumeration and taxation goes hand in hand, and if fewer boys are counted, fewer bulls will be taken away from them. What would life be without cows? Instead of fighting the ghosts of “primitive witchcraft” we should make it clear for everybody that this time there will be no connection between taxes and numbers.

We can learn from the failures of the past, but for that, first of all, we have to save the Archive.

Ferenc David Marko is an anthropology PhD-applicant from the Central European University conducting research in South Sudan with the generous funding provided by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. If you want to know more about the South Sudan National Archive or if you feel you can help, please contact the Rift Valley Institute or check Nicki Kindersly’s fantastic blog. Peter Orosz and Justin Spike helped me in editing the article.