I’ve had a lot of culture over the last few days in Juba. Now that I’m not officially an employee of the Rift Valley Institute in South Sudan – I’m now full-time on the PhD, finally – I’m putting in a lot of time (read, I’m still in the office at 10pm) on various consulting jobs, an article, and planning for moving my life up to Aweil next Thursday. And I’ve had time to do culture.
That’s a photo of a dancing Murle woman from last year’s Murle community event in Juba, which was for reuniting Murle migrants to Juba (because of conflict or economics) and having a big old dance.
The first event was last night, at UNESCO HQ, a celebration of the international day of culture earlier in the week. After dancing from the Roots Project ladies, there were several speeches from the Juba Usual Suspects: Dr Jok Madut Jok, and Dr Alfred Lokuji.
Several clever and sensible points were made about South Sudanese culture which made me happy. Firstly, it was great to hear Jok straightforwardly say that, having demanded independence from a nation that, simplistically, attempted to implement a cultural policy of assimilation and cultural monopoly, South Sudan should be sure not to replicate this mistake – inadvertently or not. And secondly, Alfred’s excellent, enjoyable presentation of linguistic similarities across tribes was both funny and revealing; he used numbers with clear parallel linguistic roots to demonstrate how, despite constant protestations of difference, the basics of Southern languages are very similar, even across such a massive country.
There were obviously problems, though. I often feel, working slightly with the Ministry of Culture as I did, that culture is held up as a catch-all key solution to the problems of difference and prejudice that fundamentally plague relationships in Juba, let alone politics elsewhere. And this was the same (although what do I expect from an international day of culture?). While I fundamentally agree that understanding and appreciating cultural backgrounds is essential for mutual respect and therefore the basis for local political societies, it felt like culture was being held up as a nebulous, beaded solution. Alfred brought up the various terms – ethnicities, tribes, nationalities – that have all been used as attempts to de-stress the serious community divides and historic relationships between different umbrellas of families and communities. And if the archive has taught me something about ethnic diversity, it’s that the history of conflict mitigations, negotiations, restitutions and court cases are actually something that South Sudan can legitimately be proud of as part of their past.
Don’t get me wrong – I think mass discussions of culture, of similarities and linguistics and dancing and songs are vital for the future of South Sudan as a coherent nation. But at the same time, maybe I was being perverse, but I think the ‘diverse’ in ‘diverse cultures of South Sudan’ sometimes gets overlooked, and the history of discussions between different backgrounds in South Sudan is a powerful part of establishing a diverse nation.