Globalization, understood by critics to result in the homogenization of difference through gradual economic (and thus political) assimilation, is neither as ubiquitous nor as omnipotent as those who decry it believe. Indeed, as if countering one generalization with another somehow resolved the issue, globalization is often declared as one of, if not the greatest threat to cultural diversity. There is no doubt a grain of truth in this, as is often the case with such generalizations. Perhaps the most flagrant error with so sweeping a claim, however, is its overestimation of the actual geographical reach of current patterns of globalization. In Africa alone, certain internecine conflicts have effectively sealed off their victims and perpetrators from all outside influence, globalization included. A second overestimation made by the above claim concerns the capacity of globalization and assimilation to extinguish cultural difference. Once again, internecine conflict is a far more efficient leveler of difference than any influence from without, be it a colonial presence or northern pressures to ‘democratize’, to open markets, to conform to Human Rights accords, etc.[1] Such conflict foments its own type of leveling by violently reducing different forms and expressions of cultural life to the same base and dehumanizing level whereby survival alone becomes a daily risk, a daily struggle.

In the humanitarian disasters of southern Sudan and Somalia, globalization does not figure among the concerns brought on by ethnic conflict. In both of these conflict areas, famine, drought, and geographical displacement are the significant factors accompanying the constant threat of insecurity. Even to the uninformed observer, it is clear that any one of these attendant factors is sufficient to cripple the self-sufficiency of a rural population, whose trade practices and specific modes of subsistence are often unique reflections of their own local geography and socio-cultural framework. Many rural populations in southern Sudan currently find themselves in a protracted state of aid dependency: a loss of self-sufficiency far more damaging to socio-cultural vitality than globalization’s processes of leveling through assimilation.[2]

In southern Sudan, self-sufficiency and sustainable livelihood in times of peace are achieved through specific practices, or “survival strategies,” which have their root in the local customs and cultural beliefs of the various southern ethnicities. Due to the population displacement provoked by the combination of constant insecurity, recurring drought, and a dwindling cattle population, these survival strategies can no longer be deployed with success. Once displaced, affected groups face even greater difficulty in surviving on their own, as long as insecurity and drought continue. Throughout the 1990s, dependency on international relief services for day to day survival has increased sharply. The life-support system of emergency aid in southern Sudan is a forced necessity in view of ongoing combat, displacement, and the pressures of scarcity.

It is of crucial importance, I believe, to relief efforts in Sudan and to policy makers concerned with the Sudanese plight, that the self-sufficiency of southern Sudanese be appreciated as an achievement of the socio-cultural survival strategies described in the following pages. The possibility of a return to self-sufficiency lies in a assisted recovery of these survival strategies, which are socio-cultural in origin and nature. Relief strategies often focus on the socio-economic dimensions of humanitarian crises, and overlook the importance of the socio-cultural dimension. The present study criticizes this tendency and defends a socio-cultural interpretation of the southern crisis: in addition to the contingent factors of ongoing violence and natural disaster, humanitarian efforts undermine local self-sufficiency by ignoring the socio-cultural dimension of southern livelihood.

To support this position, I argue that in southern Sudan, the effects of displacement, insecurity, aid dependency, and natural disaster have combined to effect a profound socio-cultural loss of self-sufficiency. The urgency of this loss is not empirically measurable or quantifiable in socio-economic terms, but can only be understood through a deeper knowledge of the central place held by survival strategies within traditionally self-sufficient southern cultures.[3] Nevertheless, there is an important risk associated with such an approach. A foreseeable trap in the appreciation of “indigenous knowledge,” identified by Alex de Waal, has served as a point de repère for the present study. He writes,

It is becoming fashionable for foreigners to admire rural people’s skills, but there is no indication of it becoming fashionable to recognize, let alone admire, the skills and ethics of local politicians and government officials in countries such as Sudan. There is a danger that admiration for rural people’s knowledge and skills will become another stick with which to beat the government, which will result in little good.[4]

* * *

International relief organizations may be effective at spotting potential humanitarian disasters, and responding quickly when victims cannot survive on their own. Socio-economic factors such as mortality rates, nutrition levels, and food security are just some of the indicators used by NGOs to gauge the level of crisis and the type of humanitarian intervention required. By focusing exclusively on these more quantifiable dimensions of a crisis, however, we overlook an equally central concern: with what indigenous means might affected populations reclaim their self-sufficiency in the long term? Further, how might aid agencies facilitate these survival strategies, instead of the current approach of importing mass quantities of food and medical supplies to save lives today only to face more aid dependency tomorrow? In the words of another Sudan observer, “[T]he greater danger is that [non-indigenous] ‘crisis management’ will itself further erode the capacity of the societies of northeast Africa to rebuild their own strategies of survival.”[5] An initial step towards a possible solution to the recurring problem of aid dependency in Sudan and similar crises lies in re-evaluating the relation of self-sufficiency to cultural vitality and long-term survival. Simply stated, relief operations are focusing on the day to day survival of victim populations, while they should be aiming to help restore their self-sufficiency.

Understood as the successful application of socio-cultural survival strategies, self-sufficiency is not the mere by-product of a politically forged balance of power, nor would it spontaneously materialize should the present conflict suddenly cease. Crop failure, epidemic, drought, group displacement, and the violence of sporadic cattle raiding among southern groups are all familiar features of rural life in southern Sudan, and long predate the advent of the current conflict.[6] Surviving these extreme fluctuations is a function of socio-cultural vitality and successful survival strategies. Yet as long as we fail to see self-sufficiency as a result of practices rooted in socio-cultural identity, practices paralyzed by aid dependency, humanitarian efforts in southern Sudan are aiding and abetting the forces of conflict responsible for the ‘leveling’ and ‘equalizing’ of southern cultures. If this trend continues, dramatic as it sounds, humanitarian efforts in the south risk accomplishing the primary goal of the northern campaign—the assimilation and elimination of southern difference—with greater efficiency than the northern military itself.

As stated, it is the socio-economic emphasis of the international aid community that is being contested here. Such an approach accounts for the broadly “material” relief strategies of many NGOs who, with reason, equate short-term survival with the fundamental physiological needs of the quotidian: shelter, clean water, sufficient nutrition, and preventative measures against epidemic outbreak. Long-term survival cannot be secured by such forms of support, however, which will continue as long as donor funds continue to flow, and wartime conditions remain. Yet the recovery of self-sufficiency, necessary for long-term survival, is not contingent on the removal of external impediments alone—conflict resolution, return to traditional homelands, sufficient rainfall—but requires relief agencies to begin cultivating a deeper socio-cultural understanding of southern peoples.

International NGOs are not alone in framing the humanitarian dimensions of the ongoing crisis in Sudan in socio-economic terms. Academic and institutional scholarship on southern Sudan also focus on the socio-economic consequences of displacement and conflict, as these aspects are generally more visible and quantifiable for non-Sudanese, and allow a definite, culture-irrelative sense of the crisis to be conveyed to donors. Of course, statistical assessments and historical background are an essential aid in grasping the humanitarian dimensions of a conflict, and are fundamental in determining the level and kind of emergency relief response. We know, for example, that since 1983 conflict between the Khartoum-based National Islamic Front (NIF, formed in 1989 by current president Omar Al Bashir) and the divided Southern People’s Liberation Army (SPLA-Mainstream led by John Garang, and the breakaway SPLA-United led by Riek Machar) has resulted in the deaths of over one and a half million people across the southern region.[7] The southern population in 1994 was estimated at 4.5 million, whereas the pre-war population is estimated to have been between five and six million (this includes the typical annual growth rate of three percent for African countries at peace). Mortality in 1993 alone was calculated by the United Nations at 220,000 persons.[8]

In terms of displacement, the Women’s Commission of Refugee Women and Children estimated in 1993 that as much as 85 per cent of Sudan’s southern population had been displaced.[9] According to the 1996 World Refugee Survey, approximately four million Sudanese had been internally displaced by the end of 1995, and 465,000 were refugees in neighboring countries.[10] Of these four million internally displaced, 1.8 million are located in encampments around Khartoum, where the Sudanese government continues its policy of squatter-camp demolition and forced relocation.[11]

As important as this information is, it does not inform us in any way about the nature and degree of socio-cultural loss—a dimension of existence fundamental to the survival and well-being of southern populations. To base donor appeals and forms of humanitarian assistance exclusively on the above information, is to assume that quantifiability confirms the greater significance of what is measured, or that empirical data, percentages, and mortality rates attest to the priority of the measurable over the less palpable consequences of a crisis. In a slightly different context, the historian Robert Waller echoes the perspective adopted here in an article on the effects of disease among the Maasai in the late 19th century: “Disasters [. . .] expose, at a particular point in time, the inner workings of a society and illuminate the basic values and assumptions which inform its actions and govern its relations with outsiders.”[12] Indeed, it is the less palpable consequences of the Sudanese crisis, those resistant to quantification, that exact their toll on “the inner workings of a society.” It is precisely these inner workings that constitute the socio-cultural dimension of existence.

Two forms of knowledge constitute the socio-cultural framework of indigenous crisis response, or survival strategies, as applied by affected southern populations. First are the survival strategies or practices themselves, resorted to in times of crisis or peril. Second are the institutions of identity that inform, sustain, and express these strategies within a population and across generations. These two socio-cultural components combine to form the indigenous framework of crisis response strategies, or “safety net,” that has traditionally sustained populations throughout periods of adversity.

To reiterate briefly, the safety net consists both in the survival strategies employed by displaced persons or groups in crisis, and in the institutions of identity which infuse and propagate the symbolic and material objects, practices, values, and beliefs, of a particular socio-cultural identity.[13] Of course, the two components of this safety net are distinguishable only in theory, not in practice. Survival strategies are inseparable from the institutions of identity responsible for their retention, perpetuation, and dissemination within a group. As the two main components of this socio-cultural safety net, survival strategies and the institutions of identity that inform them are thus mutually inclusive.

The activation and deployment of survival strategies occurs only in crisis situations, when individuals or groups are forced to abandon normal subsistence activities due to insecurity or extreme environmental adversity, as in the drought-induced famines of Darfur and Bahr al-Ghazal (1984-88). When forced to turn to the safety net for survival, populations are actualizing latent forms of knowledge, ones preserved and perpetuated through the institutions of identity to which they belong, though perhaps not manifest in quotidian life. In terms of the community itself, the safety net includes social ties and bonds of kinship through which resources may be acquired. In southern Sudan, family, clan, and tribe are the most concrete institutions of identity, and are essential to the safety net on two distinguishable levels.[14] First, institutions of identity embody the beliefs, values, symbols, and quotidian practices of a given community. At the same time, institutions of identity serve as the repository of survival strategies to be used in times of crisis. These two levels combine to form the nexus of crisis response strategies in times of extreme scarcity and peril.

Recent literature on displacement and conflict in Sudan shows an increasing awareness of the role and implementation of this safety net, and its rootedness within the socio-cultural fabric. In the article, “Starving Out the South, 1984-9,” Alex de Waal describes the activity observed during the Darfur famine as a:

safety net that rural people fall back upon when they faced with repeated harvest failures. Some of these survival strategies [are] age old, such as gathering wild foods, relying on the charity of richer neighbors and patrons, selling animals to buy grain, and (for pastoralists) migrating with their herds to distant pastures. Following these strategies demands considerable knowledge (of the properties of plants, and of the availability of work), and a readiness to migrate huge distances.[15]

Deploying these survival strategies in times of emergency, a population may be drawing on knowledge unique to their socio-cultural identity. A practice such as wild food gathering, for example, is often limited to local geography and climate. Knowledge of local ecosystems, growth cycles, and edibility is essential to successful food gathering. In times of crisis, rural populations are occasionally forced to displace to distant, unfamiliar, or urban terrain, rendering that specific form of knowledge obsolete.

Consensual displacement has figured historically among the traditional survival strategies of many southern Sudanese groups when faced with conflict, extreme drought, or famine, and should be distinguished from forced displacement. In the passage cited above, de Waal mentions “a readiness to migrate huge distances,” referring to the traditional practice of consensual displacement. Consensual displacement is especially important for cattle owners whose herds require the watering and grazing found only on the receding wetlands or toic during the dry season. This tradition of periodic migration to cattle camps, or wut, is central to the survival of southern pastoral ecology.[16] It is important to note that this practice is not exclusive to cattle owners, but constitutes a socio-cultural thread in the web of general crisis response strategies in periods of extreme drought and crop failure.[17] In southern Sudan, moreover, there exists no facile distinction between pastoralists, agriculturalists, or hunter-gatherers. Indeed, it is precisely the blurring of these boundaries, and the flexibility of a people to move between these modes of subsistence, which constitutes an important survival strategy in itself.

Group cohesion is threatened in forced displacement, and often results in the short or long term dispersion of family and community. This dispersion extends equally to livestock, a mobile resource, in the event of cattle raiding and looting. Dispersion due to conflict may also rupture the social ties and kinship lines that form central threads within the safety net. The consequent failure of survival strategies to meet nutritional demands may occur abruptly or gradually, just as the family and community ties through which resources might be obtained can be ruptured immediately by conflict, or dissolve gradually over the course of forced displacement. Rarely do these eventualities arise in the case of consensual displacement. Breakdown of the safety net thus results from two distinct variables: one human, the other environmental. The former is due to the degree and extension of violence and insecurity, the latter to the status of environmental conditions (drought, flooding, etc.). In either case, the socio-economic impact of these changes are visible and palpable to victims and humanitarian observers, while their socio-cultural impact may be less apparent.

Although de Waal’s description of survival strategies is specific to the famine conditions of Darfur in 1984-5, it is clear that the practices of the safety net may arise not only in times of drought (or other environmental adversity), but whenever quotidian subsistence practices are no longer viable. Indeed, it is the fact of “repeated harvest failures” in de Waal’s Darfur account that triggered the turn to survival strategies, not the drought itself. This is a non-trivial distinction, because we cannot assume survival practices associated with the safety net to emerge only when subsistence practices are threatened by natural adversity. Conflict is just as effective a force in shutting down quotidian subsistence practices. Raiding and asset-stripping between tribal groups, well-chronicled among Nuer and Dinka between 1991-93 in northern Upper Nile province,[18] generally involves looting cattle, destroying crops, pillaging villages, and other resources such as granaries. Men are often killed, while women and children may be taken captive. Whether the catalyst be conflict or drought (or their combination), the socio-cultural safety net emerges whenever populations are forced to abandon their subsistence practices. The success of the safety net and its array of crisis response strategies, however, depends on a number of factors.

We have distinguished between human conflict and natural forces as sources of the failure of subsistence practices, and a turn to survival strategies. Under what conditions, then, is this safety net most viable, and when does it fail? Further, what are the socio-cultural consequences of this failure, whether due to forced displacement or to prolonged conflict?

De Waal compares mortality figures from famines in the Darfur and Bahr al-Ghazal regions with an eye to the success of survival strategies in each case. It appears that between the two famines, the absence of conflict and insecurity in Darfur allowed for the successful application of local survival strategies there, resulting in a lower mortality rate than in Bahr al-Ghazal. In the Darfur famine of 1984-85, where conflict was not a factor, approximately 100,000 perished. In the longer Bahr al-Ghazal famine of 1985-88 where raiding insecurity were persistent factors, 250,000 perished in 1988 alone.[19]

The reasons for this difference are clear. Famine conditions in Bahr al-Ghazal first arose in 1985 when over 600,000 people were forced to flee by Arab murahalin militia raids in the northern Aweil district of the region.[20] By 1986, massive destruction and looting of cattle, grain stores, and seeds were sustained by resident populations,[21] forcing further displacement to distant towns in Darfur and Kordofan provinces (Nyala and Babanusa, respectively).[22] Cattle raiding is a form of asset stripping particularly debilitating for both quotidian subsistence modes and the crisis response strategies available to southern cattle owners. Besides their importance both to the symbolic framework of cultural life and as a mode of exchange, cattle are a mobile resource essential to survival in difficult times. Prendergast writes, “the widespread famine affecting northern Bahr al-Ghazal in 1986-88 resulted not from the poverty of the Dinka concerned but from this natural wealth in livestock.”[23]

Victims of the Bahr al-Ghazal famine were thus overwhelmed by persistent murahalin cattle raiding, and prolonged insecurity throughout the region forced their distant displacement. Accordingly, they “were not only deprived of the economic basis of their way of life, but also prevented from following the survival strategies that would have staved off starvation.”[24] Asset stripping in the form of cattle raiding during the Bahr al-Ghazal famine was also a significant factor in causing the Upper Nile famine of 1991-92.[25]

Unable to exploit the various resources of their safety net because of conflict and extreme asset-stripping, the Bahr al-Ghazal mortality rate in 1988 alone was two and half times that of Darfur in 1984-85. Darfur’s higher survival rate, in what was considered an equally formidable famine, “was a testament to the skill and tenacity of these rural people when faced with apparent disaster.”[26] It was recourse to their safety net, unobstructed by conflict and forced displacement, which enabled Darfur residents to survive famine in relatively higher numbers.

What socio-cultural consequences are discernible among groups whose safety net and survival strategies have been debilitated through a combination of conflict, displacement and extreme asset stripping? Is higher mortality the sole result, or a dramatic increase in aid dependency? More optimistically, is the safety net itself capable of adapting to the rapid changes, ruptures, and stresses of contemporary life in south Sudan? Having thus determined conflict as the primary obstacle to a successful safety net, we now turn to the status of the crisis response mechanisms within the current climate of aid dependency, ongoing conflict, and forced displacement.

We have seen that certain survival strategies like wild food gathering are far more effective within a natural environment whose edible seeds, roots, and leaves etc., are familiar to the population. Wild food gathering is thus site-specific in that its successful practice depends upon a high degree of resident familiarity with local bioregions. Although wild food gathering is severely limited by the present conditions of displacement and conflict in south Sudan, prolonged conflict and frequent displacement have not eradicated this particular strategy from the reserve of crisis response strategies.

Evidence against the loss of indigenous survival strategies under the current conditions of conflict, forced displacement, and aid dependency is observable in the ways displaced southern groups have adapted to humanitarian aid practices over the last ten years. Consider, for example, how displaced populations have adapted wild food gathering to life around the NGO-sponsored food distribution centers throughout the Bahr al-Ghazal and Upper Nile Provinces.

Relief food imported by Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) is sometimes brought in overland, but is generally airdropped during the rainy season, and airlifted to southern landing strips in dry season. During airdrops, bags of grain are dropped from C-130s passing overhead, many of which explode on impact, scattering sorghum and maize across the dropzone. As intact bags are cleared and organized for general distribution, the loose, individual grains—otherwise abandoned—are collected from the dropzone by women and children. Though they may also receive rations through official channels, dropzone “harvesting” has become a regular practice in crowded food distribution points such as Akon and Thiet in Bahr al-Ghazal, the “Hunger Triangle” (Ayod, Waat, Kongor), and Nasir in Upper Nile.[27]

This adaptation of an indigenous survival strategy (wild food gathering) to OLS dropzones requires no small amount of familiarity with the conditions and dangers involved. Civilians are sometimes struck and killed by falling bags while hiding in the tall grasses alongside or within the dropzone. Assuming the risks of their precarious hiding places, they gain quicker access to the spilled grain, thus increasing their daily “harvest.” This is seen as a worthwhile risk, as the grain they stand to collect off the ground is sometimes far greater than the rations offered by official grain distributions.

Further evidence of the adaptability of survival strategies despite the ongoing insecurity and general uprootedness of the civilian population also stems from the presence of humanitarian efforts in the south. In Waat and Ayod of the Upper Nile Province from May to October 1993, OLS Food Monitors observed between 10,000 and 20,000 people to arrive on foot, in addition to the already swollen numbers of the resident population.[28] Word traveled quickly to residents around Kongor and Bor, where relief activities had long been suspended due to sustained interfactional fighting. Consensual displacement, a traditional survival strategy mentioned previously, continues to aid in survival, given favorable conditions and a known surplus of emergency food.

Thus far, the role of survival strategies has been considered in isolation from their cultural background, those institutions of identity forming the socio-cultural safety net. We turn now to consider institutions of identity and their place in socio-cultural survival. The cohesion of kin relations and social ties is fundamental to a successful safety net, although they do not always survive in conditions of prolonged conflict or forced displacement. Indeed, many of the survival strategies mentioned by de Waal require a significant degree of group cohesion, without which the safety net of kin relations ceases to exist. Wild food gathering, for example, although it is feasible at the individual level, is far more efficient in larger groups.

An effective safety net is possible only on the basis of a coherent socio-cultural framework, one that fosters and acknowledges forms of supportive interaction and assistance, such as kin relations, asset borrowing through social ties, or cultural obligations on richer members to give alms in times of scarcity.[29] However, the network of social ties and kin relations are easily disrupted by conflict and forced displacement. Their dispersion is evidenced by the number of unaccompanied minors not only in the refugee camps and displaced congregations of southern Sudanese, but in other Great Lakes crises as well.[30]

In a recent article on the relation of displacement to Human Rights abuses in the south, Jemera Rone discusses the role of social ties as long-standing threads in the socio-cultural safety net.[31] Besides inter-tribal trade in ivory and cattle, Rone explains, southern peoples have traditionally inter-married as a means of acquiring otherwise inaccessible resources, and as a means of “extending the kinship safety net.”[32] As is often the case in marriages between southern peoples, the bride’s family receives cattle in exchange for their daughter. Here, however, inter-marriage allows not only the acquisition of additional resources but establishes valuable social ties and avenues of assistance in the event of future shortages.[33] Yet we cannot conclude from this that natural adversity and the demands of survival wholly determine the logic of intermarrying practices. In any case, it is clear that as varied and deep as the support relations of kin and community may be, they possess no lasting resistance against the disruptive forces of conflict and forced displacement.

Strains on the institution of extended family and community are manifest in a variety of socio-cultural contexts. War in the south has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of widows and orphans. Over the course of the war, the pre-war tradition whereby male relatives of the deceased father assume responsibility for widowed wives and children is less frequently practiced. With so many males in combat (or deceased), displaced households are frequently run entirely by women. Of this consequence, S.E. Ibrahim writes, “the evasion of customary obligations to widows and orphans is an example of disintegration caused by impoverishment.”[34] Impoverishment, in this case, is the result of conflict and forced displacement, in addition to the cumulative effects of drought and famine.

Cattle being a central fixture in the economy, livelihood, and symbolic framework of many southern groups, their devastation is not without its own socio-cultural consequences. Cattle represent far more than a simple means of subsistence for southerners. They are also an important staple in the symbolic order of value, tradition, and belief, and thus represent a central thread in the institution of southern identity. Cattle do not simply mean wealth; they are used to mediate marriage, religious ritual, disputes, and grant social or political status. For displaced southerners without cattle, a substitute for this form of (symbolic) economy is not easily found, as potential substitutes already carry their own network of signification.[35] Potential cattle substitutes, such as cash in the case of marriage and paying bride-wealth, inevitably carry stigmatized associations. Ibrahim points out that prostitutes are traditionally paid for in cash, hence the unsuitability of cash in the framework of exchange associated with marriage.[36]

A further consequence of conflict and displacement to institutions of identity within southern Sudan is seen in the militarization of culture, and in the undermining of traditional authority structures resulting from forced displacement and conflict.[37] Further, aid distribution and relief strategy is decided between NGOs, OLS, and the SRRA or RASS,[38] who rarely consult local village chiefs.[39]

Many observers also describe a displacement of cattle from its central place in Dinka and Nuer culture by the lure of battle and military hardware. Cattle raiding and asset stripping between southern groups may predate the current phase of conflict, but an increasing tendency to identify southern culture with the hardware of battle signals a shift in traditional forms of symbolic identity. With the SPLA now split along ethnic lines,[40] cattle raids and village devastation carried out between southern factions have come to be seen as part of the war movement. A 1993 Vanity Fair article captured this shift among male youth as perceived by an older man:

What you must realize about a boy like Atek, [. . .] is that he has lost forever the grounding of his culture, [. . .] cows. Cattle in the Sudan provide the basis of families. Cattle connect parents to children. Cattle are pledged in marriage arrangements. Now a boy like Atek thinks that the center of culture is guns. It is all turned upside down.[41]

Southern Sudan is threatened with the potential for even graver if less quantifiable losses at the foundational level of socio-cultural identity. The adaptation of certain survival strategies to the artificial support system of emergency food aid may be taken to indicate a certain resiliency in the safety net. Socio-cultural identity, partially defined by the set of practices we have referred to as the safety net, appears to persevere in a rudimentary fashion despite ongoing ethnic conflict. Nevertheless, prolonged conflict is clearly capable of undermining traditional authority structures and eroding the symbolic framework of values, traditions, and beliefs. This dimension of socio-cultural identity is being replaced by an identification with violence and military hardware. That southern interfactional struggles are utterly at odds with the original political motives sparking the conflict with the NIF, and in truth are achieving the work of the latter through self-inflicted violence, is even more tragic.

Restoration of autonomy and the long-term survival of southern populations should be conceived by aid agencies as contingent upon the revitalization of the survival strategies that ensure a people’s livelihood, both symbolically and materially. The vitality of a socio-cultural framework should be recognized as contributing to the survival of the individuals themselves, given the parity of self-sufficiency and the socio-cultural framework. In defense of humanitarian aid, however, it in no way aims to bring about a leveling of cultural difference, for saving lives is clearly essential to cultural preservation.

List of abbreviations used in this article:

GOS: Government of Sudan

IDP: Internally Displaced Person

NGO: Non-Governmental Organization

NIF: National Islamic Front

OLS: Operation Lifeline Sudan

PDF: Popular Defense Force

RASS: Relief Association of South Sudan

SPLA/M: Southern People’s Liberation Army/Movement

SRRA: Southern Relief and Rehabilitation Association

SSIA/M: South Sudan Independence Army/Movement

UN: United Nations

WFP: World Food Programme

The author is a researcher with Médecins Sans Frontières and is currently completing his doctoral dissertation, “Humanitarianism and the Limits of Solidarity,” for the Philosophy Department of the New School for Social Research in New York. The views expressed herein are is own.


[1] An obvious objection to this claim is that international pressures to democratize, form opposition parties and hold elections, for example, can facilitate a formal expression of long-standing intra-tribal tensions, setting the stage for civil war itself. At the outbreak of the Rwandan conflict in 1994, the author was told repeatedly by both combatants and innocents that international “pressuring” of their tribal divisions into democratic political parties had set the flames for the genocidal eruption between Hutus and Tutsis. The author also heard this line of explanation from nationals in the early stages of the Somali war (1992-3).

[2] The term “socio-cultural,” however pale and generic, is preferable in view of its prior application to cultural identity in relation to conflict and displacement. For previous use of the term, the reader is referred to S.E. Ibrahim’s “War Displacement: The Socio-Cultural Dimension,” in War and Drought in Sudan: Essays on Population Displacement, ed. Eltigani Eltigani (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1995), pp. 35-47.

[3] Contrasting the socio-economic and the socio-cultural consequences of displacement, Ibrahim writes, “[. . .] little attention has been accorded to displacement as a social process that transforms existence, its socio-cultural dimension has also been grossly overlooked,” and, “The impact of displacement on the displaced themselves is generally trivialized or disregarded. Only their need for employment, food, and medical relief receives attention,” Eltigani, op. cit. pp. 35, 41.

[4] Alex de Waal, Famine that Kills, Darfur, Sudan, 1984-1985 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), p. 226.

[5] Douglas H. Johnson and David M. Anderson eds., The Ecology of Survival: Case Studies from Northeast African History (Boulder: Westview Press, 1988), p. 24.

[6] In a similar vein, D. Johnson and D. Anderson write, “Indigenous survival strategies are the cement of rural life. Their failure or collapse in the 1980s does not imply that they are inappropriate, or that something better can be speedily thrown up in the name of aid or development, but rather tells us something about the extent and degree of the mounting crisis in the region over the past two decades. The historical experience of the more distant past illustrates the ways in which disasters of similar magnitude have resulted in the subsequent reconstitution of rural life, new networks being gradually constructed to replace those shattered by drought, famine or epidemic,” The Ecology of Survival, p. 24.

[7] For a brief but informative account of the infamous Bor rebellion and the formation of SPLA-United (or the breakaway Nasir faction) in April, 1991, see Millard Burr and Robert Collins, Requiem for the Sudan: Water, Drought and Disaster Relief on the Nile (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995), p. 299-301. For a concise yet thorough account of the developments leading to the contemporary crisis, see Douglas Johnson, The Southern Sudan (London: The Minority Rights Group, 1988).

[8] These figures are cited in Jemera Rone, “Displacement Related to Human Rights Abuses and Aid Manipulation by the Military Parties to the War in Southern Sudan,” Creating Surplus Populations: The Effects of Military and Corporate Policies on Indigenous Peoples, ed. Lenora Foerstel (Washington, DC: Maisonneuve Press, 1996), p. 188.

[9] Cited in John Prendergast, Crisis Response: Humanitarian Band-Aids in Sudan and Somalia (Chicago: Pluto Press, 1997), p. 49.

[10]1996 World Refugee Survey (Washington, DC: U.S. Committee for Refugees, 1996), p. 68.

[11] “Sudanese government officials have sought to remove the squatters and displaced families from the Khartoum area for years. Approximately three quarters of a million persons were forcibly removed during 1992-94, often at gunpoint,” 1996 World Refugee Survey, p. 70. For an account of GOS forced relocation policies against the Nuba, see John Prendergast and Nancy Hopkins, “Greed and Holy War in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains,” Crisis Response: Humanitarian Band-Aids in Sudan and Somalia (Chicago: Pluto Press, 1997), pp. 30-43. For a detailed account of all parties and their role in the conflict up to 1994, see John Prendergast and Jemera Rone, Civilian Devastation: Abuses by All Parties in the War in Southern Sudan (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1994).

[12] Robert Waller, “Emutai: Crisis and Response in Maasailand 1883-1902” in D. Johnson and D. Anderson eds., The Ecology of Survival: Case Studies from Northeast African History (Boulder: Westview Press, 1988), p. 74.

[13] S.E. Ibrahim, ibid., p. 43. See also the collection of articles in War Wounds: Development Costs of Conflict in Southern Sudan. Sudanese People Report on Their War, ed. A. Abu Zeid, et. al. (London: Panos Institute, 1988).

[14] The question of the genesis of tribal identity is a complex one, which space does not permit us to treat here. That the notion of “tribe” (Shilluk, Dinka, Nuer, etc.) is non-indigenous is undisputed. The debate concerns the relative primacy of the political-historical or the ecological-historical as the ‘source’ of tribal identity. See A.W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism. The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[15] Alex de Waal, “Starving Out the South, 1984-9,” Civil War in the Sudan, eds. M.W. Daly and A.A. Sikainga (London: British Academic Press, 1993), p. 162.

[16] See discussion of the wut, pastoralist migration and periodic flooding as a traditional mode of consensual displacement in D. Johnson, “Adaptation to Floods in the Jonglei Area of the Sudan: an Historical Analysis,” in The Ecology of Survival, pp. 173-192.

[17]The historical, pre-war dimensions of these “migratory” practices have been examined in the works of Douglas H. Johnson, among others. D.H. Johnson, “Political Ecology in the Upper Nile: The Twentieth Century Expansion of Pastoral ‘Common Economy’,” in J. Galaty and P. Bonte, eds., Herders, Warriors and Traders. The Political Economy of African Pastoralists (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991), and J.B. Webster, Chronology, Migration, and Drought in Interlucastrine Africa (New York: Africana Publishing Co., 1979).

[18] See Prendergast, op. cit., pp. 50-53, for a thorough if brief account of the many players and motives in the inter-ethnic violence of 1991-93 in Upper Nile Province. Of course, Dinka, Nuer, and others are themselves the object of ethnic cleansing campaigns by the GOS.

[19] De Waal, ibid., p. 163. See also Burr and Collins (pp. 45-77) regarding the political dimensions of the famine in northern Bahr al-Ghazal, and the efforts and failures of Operation Rainbow, precursor to the current Operation Lifeline Sudan.

[20] For an in-depth discussion of the murahalin and other militia groups in Sudan today, see A. de Waal, “Some Comments on Militias in the Contemporary Sudan,” Civil War in the Sudan, eds. M. W. Daly and A. A. Sikainga (London: British Academic Press, 1993), pp. 142-155.

[21] “Sudan Aid reported that 250,000 to 300,000 Dinka in villages located north of the Lol river had been forced south by the Rizayqat milita after dry season raids. The Baqqara raiders continued their destruction of a pastoral way of life. . . ,” Burr and Collins, p. 47.

[22]Burr and Collins also note that “for the first time since the outbreak of the civil war, large numbers of southerners began to appear in Khartoum,” p. 48. See M. Burr, Khartoum’s Displaced Persons: A Decade of Despair (Washington, DC: US Committee for Refugees, August, 1990). Also, H.A. Mahran, “The Displaced, Food Production, and Food Aid,” War and Drought in Sudan: Essays on Population Displacement, ed. Eltigani Eltigani (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1995), pp. 63-74.

[23] Prendergast, op. cit., p. 47

[24] De Waal, “Starving Out the South, 1984-9,” Civil War in the Sudan, eds. M. W. Daly and A. A. Sikainga, p. 162

[25] Prendergast notes that in the period of Nuer raids on Dinka areas of the Upper Nile province following the SPLA split in April 1991, the UN estimated 50,000 persons were displaced, and 20,000 killed from 1991-93 in the Kongor area alone. He continues, “The savagery of the asset-stripping and the willful destruction of property distinguishes these incidents from ordinary cattle raids of previous years. They are similar to the raids on Dinka villages in Aweil District [of northern Bahr al-Ghazal] by Baqqara militias,” op. cit., p. 48.

[26] De Waal, “Starving Out the South, 1984-9,” ibid.

[27] Observed by author from 2/93 to 10/93 as a Food Monitor for the World Food Programme. Jemera Rone also notes this adapted mode of food gathering; see her “Displacement Related to Human Rights Abuses and Aid Manipulation by the Military Parties to the War in Southern Sudan,” Creating Surplus Populations: The Effects of Military and Corporate Policies on Indigenous Peoples, ed. Lenora Foerstel (Washington, DC: Maisonneuve Press, 1996), p. 194.

[28] World Food Programme report, copy held by author.

[29] For an account of almsgiving in the Darfur famine and its relation to Islamic ethos, see De Waal, Famine that Kills, pp. 193-204.

[30] Among the 160,000 Rwandan refugees in northern Tanzania in 1996, some 12,000 were unaccompanied minors (1996 World Refugee Survey, p. 71). Further disintegration of family structure undoubtedly occurs at the hands of the SPLA itself. Prendergast in Crisis Response discusses the SPLA’s (both sides) ongoing policy of forced conscription of male youth, further contributing to the social alienation wrought by conflict on p. 53.

[31] Jemera Rone, “Displacement Related to Human Rights Abuses and Aid Manipulation by the Military Parties to the War in Southern Sudan,” Creating Surplus Populations: The Effects of Military and Corporate Policies on Indigenous Peoples, ed. Lenora Foerstel (Washington, DC: Maisonneuve Press, 1996), 188-203.

[32] Rone, ibid., 191.

[33] Pierre Bordieu describes “marriage strategies,” which are “inseparable from the whole set of strategies for biological, cultural, and social reproduction,” as being determined not by “calculating reason” or the “mechanical determinations of economic necessity,” but by the “dispositions inculcated by the conditions of existence,” The Logic of Praxis (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 160. See especially “The Social Uses of Kinship,” 162-199.

[34] “War Displacement: The Socio-Cultural Dimension,” in War and Drought in Sudan: Essays on Population Displacement, ed. Eltigani Eltigani (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1995), p. 45. Ibrahim also mentions the growing problem of street children in Khartoum in conjunction with this breakdown of family structures.

[35] In a New Yorker article, “The Invisible War,” William Finnegan presents an unsettling snapshot of this form of socio-cultural alienation: “And yet the saddest thing I saw in the [squatter camps around Khartoum], somehow, was the homey touch of a pair of tremendous, lyre-shaped Dinka cattle horns stuck on the mud wall of somebody’s tukul,” p. 71 (January 25, 1999).

[36] S.E. Ibrahim, op cit., p. 43. Ibrahim sees this process of alienation, the “undermining of tribal values” and collapse of the symbolic order as potentially liberating, provided there exists a socio-economic foundation, which southern IDPs presently lack. He writes, “Social revolutionary potential looms in the proletarianization of the people and the undermining of tribal values and social organization,” p. 45. Such a view is tantamount to praising the homogenizing effects of war, and condoning the destruction of socio-cultural identity.

[37] See Prendergast, op. cit., pp. 55-6, where the SPLA is cited as the primary cause (among others) of the erosion of traditional authority.

[38] South Sudan Relief Association, the humanitarian wing of SPLA Mainstream, and Relief Association of South Sudan, of SPLA United (now known as South Sudan Independence Movement, or SSIM).

[39] Aid agencies, despite their supposed neutrality, are dependent on military intelligence provided by rebel leaders. This is not convention but circumstantial necessity.

[40] SPLA-United is not exclusively Nuer, however, as Dinka generals have also left Garang’s movement and sided with Riek Machar, enabling Riek to recruit Bahr al-Ghazal Dinka. Prendergast elaborates this aspect of SPLA-United on pp. 53-54.

[41] Roger Rosenblatt, “The Last Place on Earth,” Vanity Fair, July 1993, p. 88. Cited in Prendergast, p. 53.

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