I harbor a terrible secret here at the South Sudan archives project (where I am either “coordinator” or “researcher” depending on what I’m up to at the time). I don’t know my history well enough. I’ve never really been able to grasp the endless splits, mergers, breakaway rebel groups and alliances of 1990s South Sudan. I also have shamefully skipped over the 1970s: in my haste to attempt to understand the civil wars I skipped the dubious peace. I am a bad historian.
I’m making the confession now, because my laziness is becoming increasingly apparent to me as I look through our recently catalogued files from the 1970s and early 1980s. Not glamorous, I thought: these are all files on trying to set up an interim government, not like the files on guerrilla movements and local violence from the 1950s and 1960s parts of the archive. Obviously I was totally wrong; while I am clearly not geeking out over local council minutes – I will leave that to other, more skilled people with better boredom thresholds than myself – I spent a happy few hours this morning with files from the 1970s on popular complaints about the Addis Ababa peace agreement; a file on popular attempts to stop the Jonglei canal scheme; and intelligence files on persuading different Anyanya groups to put down their weapons in 1971 and 1972. This is surprisingly sexy stuff!
My lack of understanding of the intricacies, grudges and frustrations of the 1970s South Sudanese political scene meant I underestimated the interest of a whole cache of documents. However, I am working with an excellent group of local staff who, by their own admission, have less of a grasp of 1900s-1990s Southern history than me. They are hot on 1990s warlords, and excellent on post-2005 politics; but language issues, education in East Africa and Khartoum, a lack of time, lack of libraries and financial constraints on buying books means that my colleagues generally admit to not knowing key dates, let alone the key political figures of the 1950s and 1960s.
The National Archives here in Juba faces a few challenges: no permanent offices; no future funding; and various insects attempting to eat or live in the papers. What it has, though, is an enthusiastic and loyal staff, who like most of their contemporaries are re-learning South Sudan after years living as refugees. So we’re attempting to train each other on political history, shouting the right dates to each other, explaining who was who, and becoming history geeks.
If anyone knows any good summaries of South Sudanese political history from 1900 onwards as a training document for the staff and me, I would be extremely grateful!