Monday, February 20, 2012

In which I learn to take a stance...

Instead of just falling back on the usual anthropological hedge ("But you have to understand, it's more complicated than that...")


  1. As I read more about the complexities and nuances surrounding the past, present, and future of South Sudan, the more I am compelled to draw comparisons between it and the former Yugoslavia.

    The two countries were conceived from years of war. Centuries of Balkan conflicts and the end of World War One birthed Yugoslavia, while after decades of civil war South Sudan finally took its first breath.

    The peacemakers at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, guided by American President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination, relied on experts in the fields of ethnology, anthropology, and geography in shaping the “land of the Southern Slavs.” The texts and maps produced by these authorities painted a complex picture of the nascent country’s ethnic and religious diversity. As Yugoslavia’s final borders were drawn, so too did Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and Bosnians draw lines in the dirt daring each other to cross.

    Throughout its history, Yugoslavia remained a blurred and opaque scene often punctuated with strokes of blood red.

    When the Bush administration brokered the peace agreement to end Sudan’s civil war and paved the way for the south’s independence, did US policy experts understand the ethnic tensions that would boil over once the lid to independence was lifted? Something tells me that they didn’t. Like those of 1919, the beacon of hope, peace, and pluralism blinded the decisions makers in 2005.

    The plight of the Mbororo, as well as the recent conflict between Murle and Lou Nuer communities, highlight the acts of blind ambition. Moreover, these issues underscore the need to familiarize oneself with those whose lives will be affected by such resolutions.

    Failure to do so often results in oppression, injustice, loss of human life, and, in the case of Yugoslavia, death of the country itself.

    Today South Sudan’s destiny rests in its ability to learn from the failures of those who strive at marginalizing their peoples, while undermining the country’s diversity.

  2. Thanks, Frank -- this is a fascinating comparison.

    I must admit I don't know much about the Balkans, but it certainly sounds like there are some compelling parallels with South Sudan and the region. What struck me in reading about Sudan, and especially the western part, is how fluid "ethnic" allegiances have always been. Ethnic groups, or "tribes", as we think of them today, did not exist. A person could change his or her group affiliation simply by deciding to do so. The colonial administrators and anthropologists, in contrast, went in looking for _tribes_, because tribes were what they expected and tribes were what would help them administer populations.

    And now governments like that of South Sudan have taken this vision of group discreteness even further than the colonizers did. I'd like to hope for a coming cosmopolitanism, but I'm afraid it doesn't appear to be on the horizon.

  3. Louisa,

    Thanks for the reply and information.

    In an effort to stir the consciences of my congressional representatives, as well as those of my local community, I would like to write a letter to the editor of my local newspaper regarding the current crisis in the Nuba Mountains, providing both historical perspective and information about the situation in Southern Kordofan.

    From news articles and the efforts by Ryan Boyette and Nicholas Kristof, I have a general understanding of the current crisis. However, I would like to learn more about the Nuba people.

    Can you suggest any resources (books, magazine articles, web sites, etc.) that describe Nuban culture?

    By the way, the New York Times has created an on-line conversation in its Op-Ed section Room for Debate. It's a fascinating look at the various complexities surrounding the situation in the Nuba Mountains. It's entitled, How to Prevent Another Darfur. It also allows readers to comment on each of the different perspectives.

    1. Dear Frank,

      My apologies for the slow response. I think that the Small Arms Survey has issued some helpful reports on the Nuba Mountains, and I'd also suggest looking into recent publications by Richard Rottenburg, an anthropologist who has been working there for quite some time. You might also check out Julie Flint's articles, and the archives of the SSRC's blog Making Sense of Sudan, which Alex de Waal moderates.

      Hope this is helpful, and best of luck!