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Oxford University research adds depth to the understanding of Sudanese refugee crises, improves the quality of aid programmes, and gives emigrant youngsters the ‘hope to feel and aspire’.

Karmi transit camp, Ethiopia.  Two blind ladies enjoy listening to tapes of songs and dances from the 1960s.  Photo credit Sarah Errington
Karmi transit camp, Ethiopia. Two blind ladies enjoy listening to tapes of songs and dances from the 1960s. Photo credit Sarah Errington

Imagine: You live in a mountainous borderland of inner Africa. In the old days, the hills and valleys used to provide you with a set of options for survival when the imperial armies of one side or another came too close. You could easily move through the landscape, keeping up a shifting pattern of friendly alliances with neighbouring communities and chiefs. Today, the imposition of rigid state boundaries, concepts of exclusive state citizenship, and modern hi-tech warfare has robbed you of any safe haven. You may be forced to flee your homeland, and to seek safety in a refugee camp over one international border or another – perhaps several times in the course of your life. Some of your surviving friends and relatives seek resettlement far away in an unknown continent such as North America. Although there are challenges, and they struggle to fit in, it’s safe, and their children are safe. But as a parent there, you may suddenly realise you don’t remember any children’s rhymes, any of the lullabies your grandmother sang you to sleep with. You don’t remember the sounds of your village, the sounds of life that you grew up with, the stories that people told about the past, the fun of family life and the world you used to know. How would you feel?

The Blue Nile River emerges from the Ethiopian highlands into a region of scattered hills, home to a variety of indigenous language groups. Already marginal to the history of expansionist states to the north and east, what is now the Blue Nile regional state of Sudan is bounded on the south by the brand-new border with South Sudan.  The region has long seen movement as a result of trade, seasonal migrations, and local conflicts – along with peacemaking and the sharing of languages and cultural practices. But the rebel activity and government incursions of recent decades have brought unprecedented periods of suffering and flight, and at present there is no end in sight to political and military turmoil.  

As a native from southern Blue Nile I greatly wondered whether I will once have information such as Wendy's about my homeland stories and events.  I am very grateful to those wonderful people scholars who have given us a hope to feel and aspire
- Uduk former refugee

Wendy James, now retired as Professor of Social Anthropology at Oxford University, knows the area and its people well, having carried out ethnographic research among a variety of peoples on both the Sudanese and Ethiopian sides of this borderland. Originally based in Khartoum in the 1960s, she spent 18 months living with the Uduk people in their villages close to the frontier. James did more than act as witness to cultural practices: she learned the language, the importance of specific acts, social relationships and stories, and sought to understand people’s ongoing lives in the context of their historical experience. Since then she has returned to the region and re-visited the communities she used to know, charting not only the political complications of their entanglements in the spread of the Sudanese civil war, but their emotional and cultural responses to times of stress and suffering. After the Sudanese peace agreement of 2005, the great majority in Ethiopia returned to their original homeland in the Sudan; but with the secession of South Sudan in 2011, the struggle against Khartoum also returned to the Blue Nile. Faced with heavy counter-insurgency again, a good proportion of the Uduk people fled once more; either back to Ethiopia, or across to new refugee camps just inside South Sudan.

Conflict situations leave little time for in-depth research. Aid agencies have to concentrate on providing urgent basic necessities. In situations like this, a little knowledge can go a long way to improving the outcome of their programmes for the displaced. James has worked since the early 1990s with the United Nations and other agencies in both Sudan and Ethiopia, providing background on those who fled the Blue Nile at different times, and helping draw the attention of the international community to the impact of conflict on the peoples of the border region as a whole. Her visits, reports, and meetings have built on her earlier academic research, and enhanced her reputation for high quality, insightful analysis.

Since the return of violence to the Blue Nile on South Sudan’s secession in 2011, further agencies have engaged James to help them: Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) use her book, War and Survival in Sudan’s Frontierlands to inform staff and field teams; the Danish Refugee Council drew on her work to promote the importance of cultural history for minority groups; International Crisis Group references her work in their recent report; and Amnesty International consulted her for an influential 2013 report on war crimes in the Blue Nile State. The lead author of this report echoes many others when he speaks of James’ “unmatched insight [that] sensitised us to local perceptions and cultural sensitivities, enabling us to interact with inhabitants of Blue Nile in a considerate manner”.

For the individuals and families who now live scattered in the West, peace comes at a price: to escape conflict they had to leave their communities behind. This cultural fracturing is a painful process as migrants balance the need to make new lives with the desire to remember who they are. James’ audio-visual collection of stories, songs and daily life from the 1960s onwards through the succession of temporary camps from the late 1980s to the present has given these far-flung emigrants a link to their past. This link gives the rising generation especially the “hope to feel and aspire”, according to one of those who helped welcome them in America. 

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Voices from the Blue Nile

Department of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography