Building southern Sudan through promotion of our history and culture

“Now that we will become a state, we also need to become a nation,” writes Prof. Jok Madut, who is soon to take on the task of nation building as an undersecretary for the ministry of Culture and Heritage. 

equatoria(New York) – To be a nation means having a citizenry that takes pride in citizenship in “South Sudan” first and in tribal citizenship second. Such a nation can no longer assume that shared interests alone will continue to unite us. So far, our struggle to wrestle our freedom from the grips of the Khartoum-based successive governments has been the most unifying force for South Sudan. Now that this struggle has seen some success, what will unite us is the desire to build a strong nation together, and such a nation will need a shared identity. Such a shared identity will need to be harnessed, it needs to be politically constructed, and it is our task to forge it.

To this end, I envision my task as undersecretary of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage as joining a collective effort with the minister, the staff of the ministry and other branches of GOSS to set a policy for constructing our nation’s identity.

A solution begins with the correct identification of the nature of the problem. The most significant enemy of South Sudan’s cohesion, national loyalty and the citizens’ pride in their nation will be a growing sense of exclusion from the national platform, media, government programs and access to services. Any citizen who will feel excluded will never develop that important sense of pride in his/her nation. A starting point to addressing the feeling of exclusion is to state the obvious, that South Sudan belongs to all South Sudanese; it does not belong to any ethnic, religious or political group. This means that the ministry of Culture and Heritage must address itself to identifying, documenting, preserving and celebrating the cultural practices that are common to all Southerners. The ministry, and indeed the whole government, must take South Sudan’s rich culture and its diversity as a source of strength, not a symbol for lack of unity. Our religious practices, dancing arts, marriage systems, our languages, our natural environment and unique ecological zones inhabited by tens of Southern ethnic nationalities, must be celebrated as the mix that makes South Sudan both unique and yet similar to the rest of black Africa.

One major obstacle to realizing this dream of nationhood, an obstacle that originates from the above-mentioned feeling of exclusion or domination of the state by some ethnic groups, is ethnic conflict. Our people have been at conflict with each other for sometime, but the conflicts of the recent decades, became more gruesome due to a combination feelings of exclusion, diminishing resources and the long hands of our detractors in the North. It will be a primary goal of our ministry to combat this ethnic violence, now that external forces will no longer have the ability to pit us against one another. Even though our people have often competed for resources, especially among pastoral peoples, their conflicts have always been purely economic and easily reconcilable through traditional mechanisms. To foster these types of reconciliation practices and rebuild these relations of mutual interest, the Ministry will attempt to highlight significant events in our history that celebrate these mechanisms. For example, it would be important to chronicle, preserve and display how religious practices and rituals that were used by our spiritual leaders to stem unprovoked violence. One way to do this might be the establishment of a “museum of prophecy” to be erected near Ngun Deng’s Shrine in Upper Nile. This would be done in such a way that moves Ngun Deng’s ideas onto the center stage, by showing that they had much in common with Ariathdit in Bahr el-Ghazal, Lirpiu in Bor, the Oracle of the Zande etc, to show the power of spiritual leaders as moral compass for our communities, that these old practices are not inferior to Christianity, or any other religion. This program would of course require a study to come up with the best possible plan of action.

Another way might be to review and develop, in cooperation with the ministry of education, our educational curriculum for primary through secondary school, in which the teachings of Christianity or any other religion of “the book” is done side by side with the teachings of local spiritual ideas, so that the younger generation of our people don’t shun our spiritual believes as signs of backwardness, as some have already began to do. Our traditional spiritual believes are not in competition with other religions, but are tolerant and accommodating, and we can learn a great deal from them in our efforts to coexist. One has to know where he is coming from in order to know where he is going. A nation that does not commemorate and celebrate its past surely cannot know where it is headed. How historical memory shapes ethnic conflict is something that we have forgotten in the immediacy of the moment. Nation-building is not just about physical reconstruction, provision of services, or material wealth. It is, in equal measure, about using our shared customs to prevent further escalation of conflict. It is also about upholding values, customs, and traditional practices that can be enshrined in national identity. Such practices and values need to be instilled in the individual.  How each one of us behaves becomes the face and reflection of our nation’s character. I am often gratified when traveling abroad and meeting foreigners who have worked in the South, whether aid workers from the Western World or labourers from East Africa, speaking glowingly about what a generous people Southerners are. This is an image we cannot afford to lose. We cannot afford to relax our self-criticism and reflection. And the best way to hold ourselves to our own standards is to teach our values to younger people, to remind ourselves of who we are as a people. We should be our own best judge and critic. Our nation will be the sum of our individual attributes. If you have individuals without moral integrity, you have a nation that ignores its own moral standards. These standards have to be self-imposed. And such morality cannot be put in us through laws and constitutions alone. Laws and constitutions are great to have, but they will not teach people how not to violate them. These moral standards need to be internalized by each citizen. Such a moral outlook can only be cultivated through parental guidance, schoolteachers, through religious leaders, and above all, exemplary political leaders, who uphold teachings of equality and mutual respect.

So far, I have been an observer of the dynamics of government, and one thing that I have noticed is a divide between those who have physically fought in the liberation struggle, who seem to feel a sense of entitlement to government privileges, and the rest of people who have made equal contribution to the struggle in variety of other ways, many of whom now feel excluded on account that they did not fight. This is natural for a young nation that has gone through destruction unprecedented in the history of the world since World War II, a nation that has lost millions of precious lives in the course of two protracted wars. It is also to be expected for a people whose resources have often been controlled by their opponents, who have experienced abject poverty due to exclusionary policies of the centralized foreign authority, a people who have lived under colonialism of one kind or another for over 170 years. This is a history that has to be recorded, exhibited, celebrated and taught in schools. Above all, it is a history that we know will provoke competing viewpoints within our ranks. But one we cannot allow to derail our national project. The struggle has been long and hard, but claims of nationalism that cause a rift within our ranks can be reduced through a specific project that we can call “South Sudan History and Documentation Project.” This is a project that will record our recent past, the history of the struggle as witnessed by ordinary people. It is a history that has stamped itself on our bodies, and could be commemorated with symbols of these bodies. A war memorial at the bottom of Jebel Kujur or the face of Jebel Lado, or on the Island of Gondokoro might serve this purpose. It will celebrate the heroes and heroines of our struggle, through memorials and statues, street names, war museums to be erected in different states and towns across South Sudan, such as Dr. John Garang Memorial in Juba, which I suggest the Ministry should take leadership in developing into a national symbol of the best kind, to show the price we have paid for our freedom. To this end, I also suggest that we recognize all our struggle leaders from Any-nya to Any-nya II to SPLA. I am told that there are 2 or 3 gentlemen from the Torit mutiny who are still alive. Would it not be the best gratitude our nation can express to them if we brought them out, dressed in uniform, and have them standing behind our president on the day our vote for separation goes through when we raise our flag? It would be a symbol of pride for all of us if we erect a monument of, say Samuel Gaitut next to Majier Gai, AKuot Atem, and Joseph Uduhu, standing in front of a public building in Bor or Malakal or Torit? How emotionally gratifying it would be to see a similar statue of William Nyuon Bany, Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, Tafeng, in Yambio or Juba.

The importance of cultural centers: One might be tempted to think that these are not really the priority in the face of growing poverty, lack of health care, child mortality, malnutrition and other such calamities. But some of the causes for this poverty situation are rooted in being a nation without deep collective psyche. One thing that is going to offer that opportunity to become a nation is to see our shared history, culture, and identity, all displayed side-by-side in cultural centers. To this end, two types of activities are of most immediate nature. The first is the construction of the national archive to be a center for preservation of our records, research and teaching about our past. It is a disgrace for our nation that the government of Central Equatoria state was allowed to displace the archive into a tent so that they can use the building as an office. Are the documents that are now in the tent and possibly being destroyed by exposure to the elements not our history?

The second activity is the national museum. This would display everything central to our everyday cultural existence, from healing practices to religion, to dwellings and architecture, language, music and dance, marriage and bridewealth, cooking utensils and the types of food we consume, bedding and headrests, war and weapons, photographs displaying the different faces of Southern tribes, systems of traditional governance, clothing, trades and crafts. It might be called the Museum of Ethnography, or simply the National Museum of Culture.

Nations that are culturally diverse also confront the question of finding symbols to rally around, symbols that transcend their ethnic, linguistic and political differences. Right now, South Sudan seems most divided by the fact that we do not have an indigenous national language. This is something that the Ministry might have to consult with other branches of GOSS about. In my view, developing a national language, whether it would be a hybrid of a number of local languages, similar to the Indonesian model, or adoption of English as everyday language, for government business, and medium of instruction in schools, will require open dialogue with all Southern communities. Perhaps a good approach to finding a solution will require the commissioning of a study survey to solicit ideas from a cross-section of Southern communities. I do not mean to suggest that lack of a unifying language means that we cannot develop as a unified nation, but it would sure ease and speed up our evolution into such a nation. It would lessen feelings of exclusion, domination by one or few ethnic groups, not to speak of the ease with which our people can communicate across their ethnic boundaries, given that peoples’ ability to communication means less conflict and far less suspicion of domination and favoritism.

There are many things that work against such a project. Obviously things are often easier said than done. An endeavor of this kind will depend on the commitment of all the Ministry staff, the whole government, and the resources that we avail for it. I have ideas about possible external funding sources for such a project, and with the Minister’s input and advise, we could start right away to seek international funding.

*Dr. Jok Madut is appointed to be the new undersecretary for the Ministry of Culture and Heritage

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