In this post Nicki Kindersley discusses the creation of the South Sudan National Archives, highlighting how the collections will not only help to inform academic research but could also serve as an important ‘nation-building’ project. Nicki worked as a coordinator for the South Sudan National Archives project from mid-2012 until mid-2013. You can find out more about her work for the archives and her PhD research on her blog:
South Sudan is not an obvious country to have a national archive. The country became independent in July 2011, after decades of civil wars and maladministration. Most administrative towns were violent garrison bases, and the capital city, Juba, has seen its paper history stuffed into sacks and stored in basements and sheds for thirty years.
The continuing semi-existence of these regional government papers, the oldest of which date back to 1901, is due to Douglas Johnson’s efforts in the 1970s and early 1980s, when he spent his post-doctoral fieldwork (and some of his Fulbright cash) on collecting the papers that survived the first civil wars across South Sudan, under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture in Juba. By 2006, after the second civil wars ended in 2005, the papers were collected into a tent in the centre of the city, where they continued to rot in sacks and piles. Termites have enjoyed a good portion of South Sudan’s historical record.
Members of the South Sudan National Archives project begin the process of sifting and organising the country’s historical record © Nicki Kindersley
The salvaged documents are unfortunately fragmented, but they still make up 100 years of the history of attempting to govern southern Sudan. The strength of the collection is from the 1930s to the end of the 1970s, spanning the first civil war, with just under half the documents in Arabic. Some of the most valuable material is on law, traditional justice and local courts; internal and international borders and raiding; ‘tribal’ files on local issues at district level; and hundreds of government files on security and intelligence, documenting local resistance and collaboration in the first civil war and the lead up to the second civil war, when the documents end. These files are immensely valuable – particularly the District government files, which provide detail unavailable in any other collection, and which was previously thought to be lost. They are counterpoints to correspondence, personal records and more generalised, province-level administrative records in the Sudan Archive Durham and Khartoum.
The history of South Sudan on the move © Nicki Kindersley
The papers – which now constitute the South Sudan National Archives – are probably the least-loved, and most bizarre, “development project” in South Sudan today. But South Sudan needs these papers. As well as providing a surprisingly still-full and detailed history of southern Sudan’s local politics and conflicts since the beginning of British “pacification” and administration in the 1900s and 1910s, they form the basis of a national institution that could provide educative support for the country’s universities, an evidential basis for on-going border disputes and inter-ethnic conflicts, the foundation for the proposed national museum, and most importantly, a communal and inclusive foundation for national solidarity and shared experience. It is rare to find a “nation-building” project that has such substance.
In 2012, after two trial projects excavating the papers and training local Ministry staff, the Rift Valley Institute (RVI), in collaboration with the South Sudanese Ministry, the British Institute in Eastern Africa, and US Ambassador funds, the Norwegian government provided funding for a six-month project. With the Director and staff of the then-National Archives, I worked as the coordinator on a massive rescue project, sorting and handlisting the papers, and (with the RVI) digitizing the most valuable documents, to thwart the march of the termites.
The USAID tent, which from 2006 provided the first post-war home for the archival collection © Nicki Kindersley
The archives, which were fully handlisted and roughly searchable by the end of March 2013, are now in semi-permanent storage in Juba, with an interim building nearing completion, and a design for a final National Archive building completed. The archives consist of some 10,000 files, of which around 60,000 pages have been digitized. The greatest success of recent work has been the training and organisation of a core National Archives staff, led by director Youssef Onyalla. The dedication of the inspectors Thomas Becu, James Lujang, and Nyarek Yohannes has meant that, despite extreme violence in South Sudan since the end of 2013, the work of digitization and preservation has continued – in contrast to the abandonment of the archives in the previous civil wars.