Kwanim Pa – The Making of the Uduk People

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Last updated: April 13, 2019

‘Kwanim pa is an anthropological study based on Wendy James’ fieldwork in the Blue Nile Province between the Northern and Southern regions of the Sudan, near to the Ethiopian border.

Branching out from her academic base at the University of Khartoum where she held a Lectureship in Social Anthropology, James bases herself in the village of Waka’cesh in Northern Pam’be. It is from here that she travels to neighbouring villages, collecting tape-recorded material, from 1965 to 1969. Her focus is upon the Northern Uduk community, known locally as ‘Kwanim Pa (or ‘people of the homeland’) hence the title of the book.It is a populace that has previously been left unnoticed in ethnographic literature, despite the geographical prominence of their homeland – between the Nile valley and Ethiopian plateau. James describes the Uduks’ lives today and how they are built upon past upheavals and disruptions due to varying local and political developments both in the Sudan and Ethiopia, in both the nineteenth and the early twentieth century.

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Unfortunately the future was no more considerate in light of the civil war in Sudan in 1956, facing the Uduks with further hardship.As a result the Uduk people have had to slowly build upon the effects of such events in order to achieve the more stable, self-sufficient community that they have today. However there remains a feeling of uneasiness in the present day contentment, a concept that James acknowledges directly effects all aspects of their community life today and she uses this as her primary focus within the text.

Accordingly, an ethno-historic approach is taken which makes ‘Kwanim Pa distinctive from other texts as James’ constant awareness of how the past is intertwined with the present makes the text rather unique.This allows it to be more than a mere descriptive account of what the ethnographer experiences, and instead allows the reader to be aware of why such events and experiences in the community should take place. This provides the reader with a more comprehensive perspective, which in turn means a more accurate insight into the community is gained. Indeed, the Uduk people are strengthened by such historical events, and the lessons they have learnt are grounded in their moral beliefs in such areas as substance, trade and exchange, and inter-relationships around which the book is based. This allows them to progress towards a more positive future.

A future based upon ton gana (p. 234) (true matters) and embedded beliefs as a result of past events. In order to achieve her aim of inter-linking the past and the present successfully, James’ opening chapters provide both an ethnographic and a more theoretical and historical context, which then leads the reader smoothly into the main body of the text focussed upon her research. The book is split into eight sections in total ranging from ‘Events, Memories and Myths’, and ‘Women and birth groups’ to ‘A Historical View of the Uduk’, thus covering all areas necessary given the historical focus of the book.The only possible area that is not expanded upon is religion and ritual, yet James acknowledges in her preface that this shall be published in a separate text. Throughout these chapters the maintenance of the community remains central, whether through kinship ties, subsistence or through cultural events and beliefs. Each of these has at its heart, the desire to strengthen the resilience of the community to ensure their continued existence, which presents them as an admirably active and determined people.In turn we learn of a community that rejects trade and commerce and instead revolves around the cultivation of crops which they can trade for other resources, and the ‘remaking of the homelandi?? (p.

234) through women’s fertility. Indeed, James’ development upon women’s fertility forms one of her most successful chapters that links past events to the present, as we learn of the many female deaths during the raids, which has led them to value women’s fertility and reproduction greatly in order to ensure their future existence.The detailed chapter on the Gurunya ritual, emphasising the importance of biological continuities supports this.

By presenting the historical formation of such beliefs in the wider context, the reader begins to warm to the Uduk community and their beliefs, and respects the importance placed upon matrilineal lineage and the triviality of the accumulation of profit. One of the most gripping and vivid descriptions given is that of the distinctive event of female jousting, as we are granted entry to observe events which would usually take place secretly in the early hours of the morning.This gives the book an interesting dimension by providing a step-by-step description, thus providing a clear glimpse of an alternative culture. It is such intricate descriptions that allow the reader to truly picture the scene exactly as the ethnographer would have seen them, and the reader takes on the delightful role of being an all-seeing third party. The Gurunya belief, which is based upon a local story, is highlighted in a subsequent chapter and forms one of the most fascinating and deeply descriptive accounts of many such stories provided within the text, by way of direct transcriptions from local people.This particular account emphasises the community’s sense of collective identity as support is gained from each other to ensure a precious life in the community is not lost.

A close-knit community life is maintained, and although separate from the outside world, it is complemented by the close relations of the community itself. It seems that such tales form an integral part of their history and so are vital in creating the modern day description of the Uduk.Local accounts provide further intricate detail and verification to James’ interpretations. Indeed, they have an important role in allowing the reader to learn about local beliefs directly from those that are effected by it rather than James’ own interpretation.

However, at times the abundance of direct transcription from such local accounts, combined with the vast use of local terms means at times one is forced to question whether they are all justified in being included, and makes it a somewhat taxing read on occasion.Indeed, the sheer density of information means that the reader never loses sight of the academic focus of the book and the objective stance of the ethnographer is immediately acknowledged from the beginning, as our introduction to her precedes the main body of the text. This perhaps suggests that she is immediately distancing herself from the text, never losing sight of her purpose to study the Uduk people rather than to bond with members, and this comes across in her formal style of writing. Therefore, the book is more scholastic and would not be recommended to those who require a more personal and reflective account.

Whilst this allows the study to remain focussed, it immediately somewhat denies James access to the more private, internal operations of the society, only known to true members. This can be seen in James’ investigation of birth groups, when an ethical problem arises and some of the Uduk are under the suspicion that she is trying to break people apart. James’ objective style can be contrasted against other ethnographies such as Raymond Firth’s “We, the Tikopia”(1936) as reviewed by Geertz (1988) who emphasised the “this happened to me” (p.

3) approach. Whilst the ethnographer here has a very definite position in the text, James is much more observant describing the Uduks’ experiences amongst themselves rather than her own involvement. However, this does not deter the reader from the belief that she has ‘been there’ (p. 16) as Geertz prioritises, but it means that whilst we can see what she saw by way of her descriptions, we cannot feel how she felt, as this is considerably disregarded (Geertz 1988).The reader is left feeling somewhat disappointed that we do not learn of how James’ experiences affected her, as it seems that at times the academic rigidity of the book hinders entrance to a more heartfelt account.

None the less, the immense detail and information provided allows the reader, if so desired, to form their own bonds and judgements rather than being influenced by the author’s views, which can indeed be a great risk within more emotive ethnographic accounts.It also would have perhaps been useful to learn more about how James collected her data in order to strengthen her findings. Although it is briefly mentioned that a tape-recorder is used and one can presume that a participant observation approach was in effect, it would have been interesting to read about the more intricate details. Nonetheless, James’s attempts to show how historical events can affect the Uduks’ life today are successful on the whole.A successful balance between the theoretical and ethnographic is maintained, as James draws upon both archival research and her intensive fieldwork material. This allows her to create a sympathetic and sensitive account of an otherwise unfamiliar community in a historical context.

Indeed, on finishing the book one is left with a real sense of having gained a true insight into the functioning of the community today, and how this is built upon past upheavals, whilst simultaneously hoping that a more promising future will be met.

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