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Today's African Woman! Human Rights Champion and Single Mother
By Suzanna Jambo
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Jungle Chronicles and Other Writings: Recollections of a South Sudanese
By Atem Yaak Atem
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A real journalist must serve the truth, even if that means becoming unpopular or inviting hatred from those related by blood, political or ideological bonds.
- Atem Yaak Atem
Sudan from which South Sudan split in 2011 has been known for its years of political and social upheaval since the end of colonial rule. The two countries are so intimately linked to one another by their history that anyone writing about what has become known as the Sudans cannot hope to provide a meaningful context without reference to that shared past. This is what the author has done in this volume of his memoir. From time to time, the stories here refer to Sudan, Southern Sudan, Southern Region and finally South Sudan, names of territories likely to cause confusion to a general reader. The first two were used to designate the third southern part of Sudan- known during colonial days as the Sudan- before the partition of the country in 2011 into the now independent republics of Sudan and South Sudan, respectively.
Over the ensuing six decades, the country was embroiled in two bloody civil wars. Because the peripheral regions, among them Southern Sudan, lagged behind the North especially in education, the British authorities handed political, economic and security instruments of control over to the Northern intelligentsia who went on to exclude the rest of the Sudanese from share of power and wealth- with most of the country’s natural resources in the South. When the representatives of the neglected regions demanded a constitutional setup that would safeguard the interests of their people, the Northern ruling elite ignored that. Instead they further alienated the regions by declaring at independence Sudan as an Arab nation that had to be built on the basis Arab culture with Arabic as the official language of country and Islam as the source of legislation.
As the country had- both Sudan and South Sudan are still multicultural societies and home to an estimated 600 mainly African languages and dialects- a bewildering cultural, religious and ethnic diversity, those policies further alienated the rest of the Sudanese. The South in particular rejected what its leaders regarded as Khartoum’s drive for a total assimilation and making other Sudanese second class citizens in their country. The stage was set for a chronic disagreement over the constitutional status of the country. That led to the loss of trust between the two regions which in later years developed into an armed resistance. For its part, the central government resorted to military- using the rebellion as a pretext- as a means to intimidate and bring the region under control. Violence spawned violence. Occasionally, Southern Sudanese insurgents turned their guns against one another for control and direction of their rebellion against authorities in Khartoum. This was the genesis of the two bloody civil wars, famine, massive community displacement, destruction of the environment and ecosystem and near-constant political strife and instability.
With a searing honesty characteristic of the world’s premier journalists, Atem Yaak Atem examines the attempts of various political interest groups to find a mutually acceptable and lasting peaceful solution to the armed conflict over the years. As an active participant in his country’s second civil war of 1983-2005- as the founding director of Radio SPLA, rebel movement’s main mouthpiece, and speechwriter for the SPLM/A, Dr John Garang- Atem recalls historic events of the time and his interactions with prominent members of the insurgency, such as the moment’s former deputy leader, Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, Yousif Kuwa Mekki, among others. Atem’s close proximity to the SPLM/A top hierarchy often brought him into contacts with some of African heads of state, local and international journalists, and not surprisingly, spies posing as diplomats as was the case with an Egyptian official who claimed he was a special envoy from the former Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak. The author narrates in this volume the account of that fiction-like encounter.
In this collection, the author also examines a host of societal topics about South Sudan whether during the war or when the region was experiencing interludes of tranquillity.
Although he strongly advocates social change and modernisation of system of governance that incorporates models that have worked elsewhere in the world, he nevertheless, argues a case for the preservation of some elements from social mores that have served rural communities of his South Sudanese society well over millennia. Among those norms and practices is the special care traditional society gives to its vulnerable members. During lean times, for instance, able-bodied members would forego their share of food to be served to children, the sick, women in general and lactating mothers in particular. Another value system he supports is the old-age long culture which does not only criminalise theft but also stigmatises thieves, a practice that was more effective as a deterrence than the penalties meted out by customary courts.
Despite acknowledging positive aspects of traditions and customs, the pieces are not a work of praise- singer of ideas or personalities; in some pieces he is vitriolic and impatient with some conducts by some urban South Sudanese either at home or in the diaspora. As a member of South Sudan’s educated and ruling elite, he readily accepts his share of their shortcomings, a responsibility he admits no member can escape whether one is personally involved or not. He has singled out for criticism the widespread, perennial and irritating “Sudan’s Time Syndrome”, as disregard for punctuality is popularly known. “Virtually all South Sudanese at home and abroad turn up for work and classes on time. But come scheduled social functions or meetings they organise, they are more likely to turn up very late, sometimes as late as four hours at a stretch. This is not only inconvenient to invited non-South Sudanese guests; it is absolutely embarrassing to say the least”, he laments in an article contained in this book.
This does not mean that the author seeks to criticise or ridicule everything and everyone in his own society. He remembers with great fondness several people – mostly former teachers, academics and current writers- many of whom he regards as role models for inspiring and teaching him to become a writer. These individuals- as diverse in background as they are in their fields of respective expertise- include the distinguished historian Dr Douglas H. Johnson, creative writer Professor Taban lo Liyong, the peerless authority on Dinka people and cultures, Dr Francis M. Deng, late British journalist and trainer, Frank Burton; and last but not least the former law lecturer and politician, Natale Olwak Akolawin, who first introduced the then-young journalist to the craft of editing on the job.
At once strident, courageous and enlightening, Jungle Chronicles is a fascinating and ultimately uplifting snapshot created by a highly-experienced and skilled journalist who has tremendous confidence in his country and its people to forge their own pathway to cohesive and productive nationhood.
Atem creates a blueprint for the revitalised South Sudan to progress as a cohesive, unified nation. He stresses the need to retain the traditional in the face of progress, highlighting the continuing role of rural people who constitute over 90 percent of the country’s population- the sole producers of food for urban dwellers- and that at this transitional phase of nation building, the educated elites cannot afford to side-line chiefs and their custom-based systems. For the time being, traditional leaders can’t be simply wished away; only time will determine their relevance and role in when the new institutions of governance become well established and are effective, efficient and in tune with modernity.
In regard to the development and maintenance of strong international relations, Atem emphasises that these relationships should never be merely paternalistic or co-dependent, but help the South Sudanese to help themselves.
Atem Yaak Atem has covered – and commented on- the affairs of his country, Sudan and later, South Sudan, for four decades, including his role as a senior journalist. Some of those writings appear in this collection; they capture the essence of his non-chronological, four- volume memoir, of which Jungle Chronicles (which he considers a “starter” is the first instalment.
Jungle Chronicles is required reading for anyone interested in politics, societal South Sudan and for anyone following the rebirth of this vibrant nation, which, far from defeated and helpless, is going to rise like the phoenix from decades of turmoil.
From the Preface by Rachel Kear
The New Dawn South Sudan
By Acuil Malith Banggol
USD $22 Pre-order