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For an anthropologist like myself raised on stories of the Nuer and Dinka (and the other tribes in the region), the latest news from the Sudan is jarring. These men fighting each other are not ‘soldiers’, they are warriors. They live in ‘tribes’ or ‘local groups’ ruled by kinship. And they fight each other in terms of historical animosities. But they are now armed (who armed them?), and the big players (the US, China, others) have oil ‘interests’ in the region. So the language has changed, this is a ‘state’, it should follow the ‘rules’ of international law, people can be charged with ‘war crimes’, etc. The US has soldiers stationed nearby to protect ‘facilities’. Thousands of UN ‘peacekeeprs’ as well as ‘attack helicopters’ are coming. All of this, clearly, is not for the building of ‘democracy’ or for some other higher moral purpose, but to create ‘stability’.
A Nuer ox, with tassels hanging from its horns, from Evans-Pritchard’s famous ethnography, The Nuer (1940)
Stability is the overarching goal of our time, perhaps the only widely-agreed-upon social goal any more, with the ultimate purpose in this case of allowing the oil to flow. This is what we foist on the rest of the world, this is what the US and the UN and the Chinese and the Russians, and especially their corporations do when they set their sights on resource extraction from a region clearly not ready or even desiring of such economic ‘development’. All in the name of our addiction to oil, to automobiles, to plastics, to pharmaceuticals, to pesticides, etc. Just watch, we will end up blaming one tribe or another for the violence, or some ‘warlord’, or some ‘faction’, or the ‘uncivilized’ behavior generally of Nilotic peoples. But are they to blame? For having their world turned completely upside down? By peoples with weapons, technologies, and goals they barely understand?
Nuerland in the rainy season with sorghum plots (Evans-Pritchard 1940).
I don’t mean to romanticize the Nuer or the Dinka. They are thoroughly modern peoples, capable of coming to comprehension of what now assaults them. But this was not their choice, and they are certainly not in control of what is happening. A few will be made superrich. The rest, you can imagine. And in a decade or two, when the oil’s gone, should we picture a peaceful democracy with schools and hospitals and cafes? Look at Nuerland. In the rainy season it is one great swamp. Where do you put the 7-11s?
I find it very hard to watch this. I want to look away. But then I realize that this is the same story that we read if we dare to read the colonial histories of Europeans throughout the world. Time and again the killing and the ‘civilizing’ and in the end some foreigners or their companies are left holding the prize, and the locals are reduced or tamed and left with little. South Africa, Nigeria, Indonesia, we can trace this back a long way, the Americas. We think this is history. This can’t happen today. But there it is. Right there, once again in my news feed. The Nuer, the Dinka, famous breeders of cows, worshipers of cows, are being set up to go the way of all those others before them.
Time to think again?
We in the developed countries should consider the impacts of our lifestyles. We did this. We are doing this, as I write. Isn’t it time for a reboot, a fresh look at the world, time to think smaller, to live more locally, to pedal instead of drive? A better world won’t come to us. Our government sure won’t hand it to us. We have to make it ourselves, from the bottom up, from the choices we make every day in what we do and buy. It’s starting. Many people and communities are beginning to choose more renewable lifestyles, more local, more self-sufficient. Transition Towns are an example, but there are many possibilities. There are guidelines here (on the Prosperous Way Down website) for how we can reorganize communities during transition to fit with the natural processes of land and water that sustain us (summarized here). Growing some of your own food is a good beginning. People are starting down that road. But don’t wait for politicians to lead us. We’ll have to show them, and show ourselves too (and that’s a big sell), that there is another way to live in the 21st Century. Start small. Show your neighbors. It’s worth a try. For the Nuer and Dinka, and all the rest.