The National Archive of South Sudan has had (and still has) an unglamourous life. Collected by Douglas Johnson in two years before conflict restarted in 1983, left to rot in its own dust in the basement of a girls’ school in Juba for twenty years, and then shunted from one place to another since the peace deal – sustaining a metre’s worth of water damage, termite infestations, rats eating into the sacks of damaged papers, and bad handling in the process: the documents are possibly the least important, least loved but longest lived development project in Juba.
Currently we are a few weeks away from closing down the USAID tent that has housed the documents since 2006. The archive is taking shape, and at least the basics of a national research centre – a very basic catalogue, dirty files slightly dusted and put in protective covers in labeled boxes, and a digitization project for the most valuable items – is taking shape.
After the 6 weeks of work this summer, there are already about 1,960 boxes, containing a total of about 9,000 roughly catalogued files. I’m hoping that, in the future, the catalogue will be extended to include specific details of the contents of each file, but at the moment it’s just the title – if there is one.
What we’re currently wading through are the remnants of what are salvageable as complete, or near-complete, files. These include some really valuable things, despite being extremely dirty and often very damaged: we’ve found electoral registers, village disputes, more court records, catalogues of different forms of Acholi body scarification, Latuko marriage customs descriptions, a border re-demarcation of Upper Nile Province and a very fun file about a Moru cult that seemed to be centred around rape and spirit possession.
It’s likely that we have another 3,000 or so files. However, after that, we have a further few thousand accounts ledgers, budgets, government laws and publications, speeches and court record books, as well as piles of newspapers from the 1970s to the 2000s – although inconsistently collected. We then have the nightmare sacks of paper fragments, and bundles of hundreds of thousands of loose, torn papers from files that have exploded or been torn apart in transit. There’s an emerging shape to this small archive; it is developing a character and definite areas of specialism.