The ethnographic archive: new Eastern Africa research in Durham

At the end of September, in the newly refurbished Palace Green Archives next to Durham Cathedral, researchers and doctoral students from across the UK, US, Europe, and from Sudan and South Sudan came together to discuss new research and reflect on shared methodological, theoretical, ethical and practical issues across history and anthropology in Eastern Africa and the Sudans.

With the keynote lecture given by Sharon Hutchinson, author of the seminal historical-anthropological text Nuer Dilemmas, several themes cut across the research papers and debates. Harry Cross (Durham University) and Matthew Benson (Durham University) explored pre- to post-colonial histories of public and private investment and taxation in Khartoum and South Sudan respectively; Johan Brosché (Uppsala University) and Peter Justin (University of Wageningen) used anthropological fieldwork in South Sudan to question boundaries of state/non-state and military/civilian in South Sudan’s history: all four papers contributed to a wider debate throughout the conference over what constitutes government and “the government” in the region and within our scholarship. Vikram Visana (Edinburgh University) demonstrated the utility of histories of political thought in examining ideas of governance in the region in a paper focusing on Harold MacMichael’s personal political theory while Governor of Sudan.

Several researchers used songs, images, bureaucratic records and poetry to explore this history of state control and the idea of a ‘social contract’ across the region. Ferenc Marko (Central European University) took up this question in a paper drawing together archival and anthropological research within the citizenship and nationality offices in Juba, South Sudan, examining the constant renegotiation and improvisation of colonial and post-colonial state control over migrants and citizens. Nicki Kindersley (Durham University) used new archival documents from South Sudan to explore the Sudanese post-colonial state’s understanding of its society, through a study of the post-war return migration management project of 1969 to 1974.  Katie Hickerson (University of Pennsylvania / UCL) used the early anthropological photography of the Seligmans to read the contested past of the Shilluk villages around Khartoum over the long twentieth century: far from being enclaves of Shilluk “tradition”, these displaced, migrant and ex-/slave communities challenged the central Sudanese state, emphasizing their experiences of violent subjugation by successive external agents in the face of colonial claims to benevolent and legitimate government. Zoe Cormack (University of Oxford) presented on the Dinka songs and poetry Godfrey Lienhardt translated in his field notes: including the song of Gol Mayen, a song decrying taxation, sung in front of a colonial governor who did not understand Dinka – and a Dinka audience.

Many papers focused on methodological innovations and challenges for scholars of pre-colonial to contemporary Eastern Africa today: Tarig Nour (University of Khartoum) demonstrated the possibilities of tracing pre-colonial social heterogeneity in Suakin (Port Sudan). Ali Bennett (UCL / British Museum) presented on the personal donations of Ugandan cultural objects by Apolo Kaggwa, the prime minister of the Buganda Kingdom in Uganda, and the amateur anthropologist Reverend John Roscoe, to Cambridge University and the British Museum: her paper explored the politics of power, knowledge and control of heritage inherent in these material histories. Presentations by Kate Bruce-Lockhart (University of Cambridge), Tom Lowman (Durham University), Osama Rayis (Africa City of Technology), Mohamed Azrag (National Records Office, Sudan), and Francis Gotto (Sudan Archive Durham) explored new technological possibilities, new holdings, and innovative routes to access in archives in Sudan, Uganda and the UK: the panel demonstrated that there are many unexplored archival resources vital to current political, theoretical and disciplinary discussions across history and anthropology today.

As convenors, we were excited to bring together scholars from across Africa, Europe and the USA. Our most lively and open session was a round table on personal positionality, race, responsibility and gender in research work, both ethnographic and archival, where we asked: how do we deal (or not) with our position in global power structures? When is it not appropriate to conduct research? How do we protect others, and ourselves? What information can we trust? How do we edit (ethically, practically and politically) for publication? And how can we best share information and resources in a difficult research terrain?

The conference concluded with a public exhibition of some of the most valuable materials from the Sudan Archives, and a closing summary by Sharon Hutchinson, who appealed for early career researchers to develop collaborations and mutual support in their work in the difficult academic and political climate for research in Eastern Africa today.

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