Photograph by Dominic Nahr, National Geographic
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Crowds celebrate in southern Sudan in this undated photo. It may have been taken shortly after a 1972 peace deal was signed, which ended a 17-year civil war. A decade later, fighting resumed.
Photograph by Dominic Nahr, National Geographic

Can Archivists Save the World’s Newest Nation?

Meet the archivists, folklorists, and curators fighting to preserve South Sudan’s history—and end its civil war.

JUBA, South Sudan — In a classroom off the main dirt road of a sprawling UN camp, a man in a leopard-print tunic is standing by a whiteboard, explaining to a dozen students how 64 tribes can coexist in the world’s newest country. On the board he’s scrawled, “Cultural Diversity in South Sudan.”

“We have good diversity here,” says Deng Nhial Chiok, “but we need more security. We want to hear our languages—the 64 languages of South Sudan.”

Chiok is the senior inspector of folklore and festivals at the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports. He is also a product of the young country’s rich diversity, born to a mother from the Dinka tribe and a father from the Nuer.

When a civil war erupted in 2013—just two years after South Sudan declared its independence from Sudan—it pitted the two ethnic groups against each other, and the traditional Nuer scars on Chiok’s forehead made him a target.

Three years later, he lives and teaches amid a sprawl of white tarp-covered huts and teahouses in the heavily guarded Protection of Civilian camp in Juba, the capital city. Chiok and his students are among the 2.5 million South Sudanese displaced from their homes by a conflict that has turned the once hopeful young country into one of the world’s most dire humanitarian crises.



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Yet even as the nation teeters on the brink of civil war and famine, a cadre of brave archivists, curators, and folklorists are working to preserve and protect the culture and history of South Sudan.

Chiok, a 49-year-old anthropologist, is one of them. In twice-weekly cultural heritage classes, he tries to ensure that a generation raised in refugee camps will inherit the folktales, dances, and history of their ancestors. When Chiok’s students raise their hands, they grapple with how to preserve this identity in the chaos of war.

After two years of classes, many of Chiok’s lessons have been committed to memory by his students. Over and over, they say that if they don’t learn their own history, they risk repeating past mistakes. “In 2011,” says an older man in the class, “our government did not integrate cultures. So we’re starting now.”

The Cultural Philosopher

In 2011, South Sudan declared independence from Sudan, splitting Africa’s largest country in two. Soon after, Jok Madut Jok, then the undersecretary of culture, began to tackle the task of uniting one of the world’s most diverse populations—10.5 million people living on one of the world’s least developed patches of land—after decades of war.

At the time, South Sudan was perhaps the only country in the world without any cultural institutions (even Somalia has at least two museums). A national archive, Jok thought, could help solidify a national identity and preserve the country’s cultural heritage for future generations.

“This freedom we enjoy today has such a big price on it,” says Jok, recalling the half-century struggle for autonomy by an African-Christian south against the Arab-Muslim north—a struggle that left two million southerners dead and millions more exiled.

So when a Norwegian diplomat asked Jok about a gift for the new country’s independence, he suggested an archive. Norway agreed to finance the project. Soon, a museum and a theater were also proposed, and the Ministry of Culture set aside a plot of land for the complex. The cultural cornerstones Jok envisioned began to take form.

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In a shipping container behind the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, employee James Lujang stands amid unsorted archival documents. One day these papers will be in a national archives.

Thousands of historic documents that had been rotting in basements across Juba were moved into a large tent. Every day workers would slip on masks, gloves, and lab coats to begin organizing the files for a future archive.

To fill the museum, UNESCO teams went from village to village, collecting musical instruments, weapons, and beaded jewelry. Then, in each region, they would have a festival and invite neighboring tribes to learn about one another.

“An archive, museum, theater, national languages—these things show that despite our tribal, political, and regional differences, above all we have the shared history of a collective struggle to create one nation,” says Jok. The institutions would serve as a reminder of the blood spilled for South Sudan’s independence. But, he adds, “before we even started, our leaders forgot.”

In December 2013, a power struggle erupted between President Salva Kiir, of the dominant Dinka tribe, and Vice President Riek Machar, from the smaller Nuer. The next day, soldiers moved across the capital executing civilians. Now, a new civil war pitted South Sudanese against South Sudanese.

No ground had been broken on the historic cultural complex, so artifacts collected for the museum were sent to the Nile River Museum in Egypt for safekeeping, while the archival documents were moved into a rented house.

The Lone Archivist

Like many of his generation, Becu Thomas fled southern Sudan as a teenager in the 1990s. He grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda, then returned home in 2005 and got a job with the Ministry of Culture. Soon he began helping to rescue forgotten historical documents in hopes of one day creating a national archive.

When many of his colleagues at the archives fled to refugee camps in 2013, he remained in his office—a small shipping container, used to digitize archives, on the grounds of a Juba hotel—and listened to the familiar sounds of war outside. “We’ve never learned from the past,” he thought.

Every morning at 9 a.m., Thomas would resume working his way through 2,000 cardboard boxes of files, carefully unpacking a box and scanning the pages into his computer until 5 p.m.

The archives document colonization, marginalization, and the long struggle for independence. They lay out how government and tribal leaders used to run southern Sudan—how disputes were solved, taxes collected, crops harvested. Court records represent a body of case law. Census data provides a genealogical record.

Thomas believed that these documents, spanning 1903 to 1983, could help guide politicians who’d come to power as soldiers, craft a common identity among dozens of tribes, even offer solutions to the current civil war by unearthing past conflict resolutions.

But as conflict raged outside Thomas’s office, funding for cultural projects such as archive construction and artifact collection was suspended. The archive director’s request for shelving has since gone unfilled; stacks of boxes routinely collapse under their own weight. A bill to manage the transfer of more recent records to the archives, solicit funding, and ensure public access has sat in South Sudan's Parliament for years.

The digital archive is meant to survive whatever happens next. Today, Thomas oversees the painstaking work for the nonprofit Rift Valley Institute, which spearheaded the project. He and a skeleton staff work through boxes of files in the shipping-container office, using 10 donated scanners. It will take about three more years before every document has a digital copy.

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Joseph Abuk, co-director the South Sudan Theater Organization, translated Shakespeare’s Cymbeline into Juba Arabic. The play was performed at London’s Globe Theater in 2012.

The Moral Playwright

As archivists save the country’s physical documentation, folklorists like Joseph Abuk chase an invisible heritage.

In South Sudan, only a quarter of the population is literate; stories are passed down orally. But after 60 years of war, two generations have either grown up outside the country or been displaced within it, often separated from their families. Elders fear these stories, and their lessons, will soon be lost.

An old tale in the Mundari tribe tells of an evil lion who abused his young human wife. One day she fled to a river and asked it to part. The river agreed—on the condition that she not eat its children, the fish. She accepted and moved safely across. When the lion arrived he, too, accepted these terms. But once he entered the river, the greedy beast broke his promise: He ate his fill of fish, and the river swallowed him up.

“This is what happened here,” says Abuk, a 69-year-old playwright and poet, sitting in a long conference room of the South Sudan Theater Organization. “People came in and promised to do this and that, but when the money arrived they grabbed it.”

Abuk refers to the widespread corruption that has funneled most of the international aid meant for nation-building into personal bank accounts. In 2012, just a year after independence, Kiir, the president, reported that officials in his own government had stolen four billion dollars.

South Sudan failed to follow the moral lessons of the old tales, says Abuk, his voice rising. “The rulers of South Sudan are not guided by cultural values.”

But Abuk and the actors in his theater troupe have now started teaching the art of storytelling to children, weaving in morals of tolerance and reconciliation during performances in the country’s displaced-persons camps.

“Those things that people call primitive actually offer guidance,” Abuk says. “If we threw away all folklore we’d become too foolish.”

The Cultural Guardian

“In 2013, where did our people go?” Chiok asks his classroom in the UN camp one morning. The students, many of whom made the dangerous journeys themselves, shout out the names of countries: “Sudan! Kenya! Congo!”

Before the civil war, Chiok’s house in Juba was decorated with artifacts, books, and clothing he’d collected over 30 years of travel. People often came over to learn about the customs of South Sudan’s many tribes. But when Chiok fled to this UN camp, his house and collection were set alight.

After a few months in the camp, Chiok realized that the youth seemed unaware of—even uninterested in—their history and culture. Most had grown up in foreign refugee camps. Some didn’t know their parents’ backgrounds. Others had been given foreign names.

“Many young people migrate when they’re very young and have no cultural guidance,” he says. “They become lost people, having neither the values of South Sudan nor those of the country they ran to.”

Chiok decided to intervene. Now his classes examine everything from marriage rituals to globalization's effect on South Sudanese culture. “When the world becomes one place,” he says, brandishing a beaded staff, “traditional nations are told, ‘Do this, don’t do this.’ The challenge is that modernity is coming. Don’t wait for it to come. Participate in change.”

On the board, Chiok also lists controversial traditions: female genital mutilation, polygamy, human sacrifice. For Isaac Loang Koang—a Nuer tribesman in the class whose forehead was spared ritual scarring when his father sent him off to school in Khartoum—a nation coming together must agree to jettison its divisive tribal traditions.

Koang, 28, says he also relishes the chance to learn what he missed when he left his family’s village. “Culture is passing by a generation because our country has been in war,” he says. “In war your relatives are killed, and you’re displaced. To become you, you need these things.”

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After living in in Britain, Akuja de Garang returned to her family’s home in Juba in 2004. She’s since built it into one of the world’s largest collections of traditional South Sudanese artifacts. On the wall is a beaded corset from the Dinka tribe.

The Private Curator

Today, much of South Sudan’s history remains outside of South Sudan. In Durham, England, filing cabinets hold thousands of pages of colonial-era records. The rest is still in Khartoum, despite a 2012 agreement that stipulates the return of cultural and archival materials to the south.

Though a wealth of South Sudanese art and documents are displayed in glass museum cases across the globe, foreign institutions aren’t likely to return the treasures to a nation with nowhere to put them. The closest thing to a museum in South Sudan is the home of Akuja de Garang.

The stylish 41-year-old entertains a stream of visitors in her high-ceilinged house in Juba, where women’s lip plates, beaded corsets, and wooden carvings are scattered on the walls and tabletops.

“I always had an interest in culture,” says de Garang, who fled southern Sudan when she was eight and returned in 2004. “But there was nothing written, and it was dying out with older generations. Preserving it was not a priority.”

During a decade working across the country for the United Nations, the fashion designer and education activist would pack small humanitarian planes with crafts. Now hers is likely the largest collection in the country.

On South Sudan’s first birthday—July 9, 2012—de Garang invited traditional artisans to her inaugural Festival of Fashion and Art for Peace. Ornamental staffs, beaded corsets, and brass pipes represented tribes from across the country.

But now, with violence looming again, many of these craftspeople have fled their homes. And, says de Garang, it’s become increasingly difficult to acquire their unique goods.

An Uncertain Future

After a promising ceasefire in 2015, South Sudan began picking up the pieces of unfinished cultural projects.

This June, the government ratified three UNESCO conventions to protect monuments, intangible heritage—including folktales and dances—and cultural diversity. UNESCO staff and government representatives started considering sites to nominate for World Heritage status. They imagined that someday tourists would flock to the Sudd, one of the world’s largest marshlands, or Boma National Park, home to an annual antelope migration that rivals the Serengeti’s.

But in July, on the eve of the country’s fifth birthday, the air over Juba was black with smoke. The president and the vice president, backed by their loyal troops, had resumed their power struggle.

For weeks soldiers in Juba killed and raped with impunity, targeting minority tribes, foreign aid workers, and local journalists. The country director for UNESCO was shot multiple times and eventually left the country. Since July 9, nearly 200,000 people have followed suit.

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In Juba, a dancing, acting, and singing group called the Black Star Cultural Dancers re-creates traditional dances for performances.

Construction of the archives and museum has been suspended—again. But South Sudan’s preservationists have not given up hope. Sitting in the digital-archive office in August, Thomas typed out a text message: “I am still here to keep the candle burning amidst darkness.”

Behind the Ministry of Culture compound in Juba are two corrugated metal containers. One is filled with floor-to-ceiling stacks of unsorted documents, fraying maps, and government documents. The other holds paintings, baskets, bundles of arrows, and wooden statues destined for the national museum. An enormous animal-hide shield rests near the door. The weight makes the floor sag.

Someday, Jok believes, these pieces of South Sudanese history will be displayed. In an office at the Sudd Institute, a think tank he founded in Juba, he grapples with what will happen if the young country’s trials continue to be written in quicksand.

“My biggest fear is that if this history is not documented by the people who lived it, the next generation might fall into it,” says Jok. “Surely nobody wishes for what we’ve gone through: war, exile, famine. One way to save our children from going through that is by reminding them how we got here.”

The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Nina Strochlic’s reporting from South Sudan.