South Sudan Safari - Episode 3
Special Interview with Dr. Alfred Sebit Lokuji on the Importance of Culture
Welcome to South Sudan Safari, I am Victor Lugala. In our first special interview, you will learn one or two things about the importance of our languages and culture from one of the key facilitators of Chiefs and Traditional Leaders’ conferences, Dr. Alfred Sebit Lokuji. He was interviewed by the Director of Gurtong Trust Peace & Media Project, Mr. Jacob Akol.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
Jacob: It is my pleasure to welcome you to this programme. To my first question. How can we use our cultural differences to unite us as South Sudanese?
Dr. Lokuji: I will give you a very simple example. It might be a naïve one, but since I have been interacting with members of other ethnic communities, some of the great things I have discovered are in fact what have been practiced as very normal.
A very simple one for example, is about the Dinka who have a very scientific way of killing mud fish. Here in Juba, when I was a young boy, Dinkas used to come to the market with strings of fish, in particular, mud fish and generally we didn’t know how they went about getting such massive catch. About five years ago someone described to me the method by which they did this; studying the water flow and then building a sort of a dam using grass and creating channels through which they forced fish to move upon being chased by another team that is in-charge of guiding these fish down those channels. Then there was another person whose duty was to keep a close watch on the fish passing and would go for the bigger fish and spear them out. and get them out and I think that is highly scientific.
The other one that has really impressed me is that the whole world sees the relationship between a man and a woman as only one of two people. The moment a third man is introduced, that becomes the end of the world more or less for that relationship.
But then, for much of the world including some in our own societies, the introduction of a third woman is less like chaos. I was most fascinated to learn in most of the Dinka sections that when a woman reaches a certain age when a woman feels she cannot be of full service anymore to the family, she undertakes herself to get a young woman to be the wife of her husband and her role changes a little bit to one of supervisory nature and this younger woman takes over and she produces children for the family. It is mind boggling, for those of us who come from societies where the relationship between co-wives is one of hostility, to discover that in our midst is a society where there exist very strong relationships between co-wives.
Jacob: What is the role of traditional leaders and chiefs in bringing us together?
Dr. Lokuji: First and foremost, they are the only institution we know and many of us know. When you talk of the District Commissioner, he is a visitor, talk of any government official; he or she is a visitor. They are not local residents and are usually strangers and therefore have to be introduced to the way we think about certain things. In spite of over 50 years of independence, the government has left us on our own and has inherited the practices of the colonialist; it has not really reached the level of the household except indirectly. I believe that many people in South Sudanese households have never talked to a government official.
Jacob: Do traditional leaders and chiefs recognise these powers that they have?
Dr. Lokuji: That’s a difficult question to answer for one simple reason. The moment you are a chief, from the day you are chief, you realise there is something hovering over your head, and it is this government am talking about; the constitutional, and the modern day state structure. But when they are dealing with their people, they feel that they are very powerful and they know that they are the instruments for maintaining peace and tranquillity within their societies.
So if they look at their level, they know they are very powerful, but when they look up to the structures above them, that could be from the state upwards, they realise that they are powerless and subordinate to the higher authorities.
Jacob: What is the advantage of bringing them together like has been going on in these conferences?
Dr. Lokuji: I think there are a number of things that have happened in the past.
One of them is that almost any government at will can do anything to the leaders including the dismissal of a chief. When in the traditional setting, this is not an easy thing to do and you cannot do it for political reasons; there has to be very hard reason why a community will rise up against a chief. But within the political arena, a chief can simply be dismissed for being too vocal politically or for not being supportive enough to the political system.
Another thing that we have experienced in the recent years is the election of chiefs that is strange for many communities. There are certain families or clans that tend to dominate leadership since most chiefs come from there. There are reasons for that and this is not a time to defend or rather find fault for it as the Americans say ‘if it works why fix it?’ Hence, what I am saying is that if the chiefs traditionally have been working very well, why would anyone want to fix or change anything about it? For that reason, they are play a very important role in the society, and given the fact that they are accepted by the people who are more at ease with their role and have embraced their leadership. They have also adopted mechanisms to solve any issues they feel uncomfortable with.
Whereas in modern government, when certain systems do not work, what mechanisms are there to face them? Do you take a gun or go shouting at the governor? I don’t think people know how to work on changing certain systems in the modern government.
Jacob: There are people among us, particularly the so called educated Africans and others, who look down upon our traditions and customs as being backward and that the chiefs are the custodians of this backwardness so they should not be helped at all or given power because if you do, you are actually keeping our people back, what would you say to these people?
Dr. Lokuji: That is one of the most unfortunate assumption that people can make. Backwardness or forwardness is a state of the mind, so if it is in your state of mind that you are backward, you will see anything that you think will reduce your status and you will call it backward because you think people will say that you are backward because you are associated with it.
But if you can appreciate the strengths of traditional society. If you can begin to appreciate the poetry in traditional singing, if you can appreciate such wonderful ways of doing things such as in traditional societies, not like in the west where for instance, if you want to enjoy music, you got to have a band then you have people watching it and only listening on another side.
The traditional context here mixes everybody; the musician, participants and listeners within the same theatre, a live interactive theatre. I don’t think you can find anything more wonderful than that.
This notion that people in the traditional system are backward, I think, comes from the absence of modern amenities like running water, electricity and entertainment among others. If you are used to running water or if you are used to having a hot shower or getting medicine from the shop, when you visit the village and you cannot get the aforementioned, you call this primitivity or backwardness.
If you cannot find hot running piped water in the villages, I strongly think that what you should ask yourself is why those things are found in towns and not in the villages. So for instance, in terms of distribution of justice, equity and meeting of basic needs, who is more primitive; the one who doesn’t have hot water or the one who makes it difficult for everybody to have the hot water? That is my rejoinder and I would say that if you contribute to making it difficult for the modern amenities to come to the village, it is you who is primitive because you are preventing everyone from enjoying the same basic rights.
So primitivity or modernity should not be defined in terms of accessing the tools of modernity. There should be no questions about who should access these things. Everyone should access them. With that, I want to conclude by saying that the Japanese have been noted to be a typical example of people who have maintained their culture all through. In the terminology of any other people we may call them primitive because when they have their meals, they still sit on the floor. You go their living rooms and you are welcomed to sit on mats on the floor and you have dinner with people sitting on the floor and not using tables and chairs. However, it is common knowledge that we have a lot of complicated technology coming out of the Japanese. Would you want to say that or would these people want to say that those who stick to their culture are primitive? Are they ready to call the Japanese primitive because they stick to their traditional culture? Look at the way they greet each other, look at the way they bow to each other, even an elderly person bows when they are greeting anybody else. I think we have a lot to learn from them.
Jacob: Are there any aspect of our traditions that we should discard?
Dr. Lokuji: I think there are definitely certain aspects of our traditions that need to be discarded. I will however, not focus on them now. The Americans with all their technology have things they need to discard from their traditions just like the Europeans who also have things they need to discard.
There are reasons why we have these cultures and this is not the time to discuss these reasons. However, to give examples, I think there are elements of our culture that we could discard; the notion of equality in the public arena.
People always recite statistics when they want to show why is it important for us to accept and allow a woman to participate in everything. If woman constitute 50 percent of the population and statistically in many societies, I am told it ranges between 51 percent and 55 percent. If we deny women opportunities to do other things that men do that means that we are preventing over 50 percent of the labour force from doing certain things that we say should only be done by men.
Moreover, I think that is a minus for us. Without being specific, if you go through the various cultures, there are aspects of Bari culture that should be discarded just like there are aspects of Dinka culture that should be discarded. So even when I talk about the fact that we should give a woman her place, there are ethnic groups which have already given women their place.
An amusing example is where you go to the Toposa group and you would find that it is the woman building the house. Similarly, you go to the Bari and find a woman on the roof trying to build a house. People will laugh and ask themselves the question; what kind of man has married this woman?
But here are the Toposa, you know it is a woman who builds the house while the Bari think that the woman should not do. These are diverse scenarios since what one ethnic community feels is ideal is not true of another ethnic community. What the Bari think a woman should do is not the same as what a woman should do in the Toposa ethnic community. So there are variations and therefore I cannot provide a blanket rule that we should change certain aspects in all our culture and that we should change selectively.
The change in culture is not by wit. It is not that we issue laws that should be changed immediately. They are changes which should take place as a result of a mental process, where the mind begins to reject certain behaviours as odd. However, this is done through the process of enlightening people; why would you not want a Toposa woman to get on top of the house and build? I mean, it should be done through dialogue. Why would you want a Bari woman to get on the rooftop to build? This can only be done through logic or division of labour. I think one can make the point that way.
Jacob: As an educator, what does education play in this role? What’s the role of education particularly at the lower level?
Dr. Lokuji: I want to emphasise that education is not about condemning certain cultural aspects as people tend to perceive it.
Jacob: Am actually talking about formal education.
Dr. Lokuji: That is what I am talking about too. The first thing that formal education does is that it separates those who can read from those who cannot read. That is very unfortunate because reading and writing are tools for acquiring knowledge and the acquisition of knowledge by the way, is not tied to just these two. You have for instance heard about the old masters who learnt through sitting around the wise and over the years they learnt. In fact, why we say that old men are the wise people in our systems is because they have been around to learn not through reading and writing, but through watching and observing and analysing issues.
One most unfortunate thing is that we consider reading and writing the distinction between the modernised and the primitive. I think we should bring back the notion that the letter is a tool. I think that if we do that then we can recognize that that tool enables, facilitates and may speed up things but it is not to create divisions or establish dichotomies which when closely examined might fall to pieces.
Jacob: So are you proposing that our children should now be able to listen more; sit around and listen to wiser people and not necessarily learn from books and so on?
Dr. Lokuji: You see, the point I am making is that am not opposing learning the letter and arithmetic. Our children should learn that and learn very well because that is the tool to learn more without necessarily sitting at somebody’s feet because once you learn how to read and write, you can do a lot of discoveries yourself. However, I think that what I am about to say underlines the fact that reading and writing alone does not make you intelligent. For instance, I am a PhD holder but many people think that I am very stupid and they have every right to think so. This is because of the judgments I make sometimes. I know for a fact that I have a lot of colleagues who are PhD holders but they don’t impress people, some of whom may just be secondary school graduates. That tells you that there is something wrong when you attach so much importance to the certificate. Obviously, the Masters degree holder and the Bachelors degree holder perceive themselves as inferior to the PhD holder. Moreover, there are other considerations that come into play and it will be interesting to share this. There are certain things or behavioural characteristics that are so important that when a PhD holder does not display them, his or her image becomes tarnished; what are these?
I will appeal (laughing) to my colleagues who are said to be the most wise because of this thing called a PhD to begin to recognise that one should not display one’s self as a master of everything, which I think is part of the problem.
Jacob: The issue of languages. There are so many of them and it has been said that maybe they should be left alone and let those which cannot survive die off. What do you say about that and what about those who argue that some languages will die off naturally anyway, and that there should be no effort at all to save them?
Dr. Lokuji: All I can say about that is that if a language is going to die, don’t engineer it; don’t be charged with its murder and let it happen out of processes, be it economic, social and historical that bring that about but do not become a party to killing a language.
However, if you are part of a language culture or a language group, the way you make that language survive is by making it vibrant; by making it the medium through which many things take place, bet it in political discussions, music, entertainment and recording of history. If it takes place using your language as a medium, then I cannot see how your language is going to die.
However, if every time you want to say hallo to the president, you have to use a certain language and not your own, or when you want to say you are thirsty or when you want to say you are sick, you have to use another language that is not your own, then you have yourself to blame if your language dies.
Jacob: As South Sudanese, how good are we in learning our other ethnic communities’ languages instead of our own mother-tongue?
Dr. Lokuji: I think we are and I am sorry to say and I want to apologise all those South Sudanese who will disagree with me. I think we are doing badly in learning other people’s languages. When left to ourselves, we are capable of learning other people’s languages.
My father who never went beyond primary three (3) knew about four other languages that are not Bari. He spoke Lotuko and the variations of Lotoko that includes Lokoya and Lopit. He spoke Acholi and of course colloquial Arabic and Madi without negating himself as a barrier. But we are poor in learning other people’s languages especially when we begin to visualise ourselves as civilised as town people. Part of the problem, which I am not going to lay squarely on the Arabs, is that we did not do anything to reverse the perception that a person who is relatively modern should speak Arabic. Hence we have our young people, especially those in the urban areas trying to speak Arabic with sophistication and you never find them speaking their own mother-tongues. This goes back to what we were talking about before; a demonstration of self denial.
You deny the fact that you are a Bari and begin to associate speaking Bari with being primitive. This is like telling the Japanese that speaking Japanese implies being primitive, which they will find extremely absurd. Similarly, there is the perception that if you speak Dinka you are being primitive and therefore if you are a modern Dinka, you should be speaking French or English or Arabic. That is what prevents us from learning and appreciating our mother-tongues. As a person who speaks my mother-tongue, and I think many of my colleagues from different mother-tongues know that the best jokes and the best conversations you can tell and enjoy is in mother-tongue. You cannot do it in English or Arabic.
Jacob: Literacy remains very low in South Sudan as much as it is in the entire Africa. Can we really increase literacy without writing in our own mother-tongue?
Dr. Lokuji: You know am very happy that you bring in the element of mother-tongue into it. Literacy, what is literacy? Literacy should be functional literacy, I mean even people who are dealing with adult education begin to talk of functional literacy, meaning what you are learning to read and write should relate directly to what you do, what you speak on a daily basis.
Taking an example of a farmer in the village who is to learn functional literacy, you don’t need to be talking about a hoe. Why don’t you talk about the hoe in mother-tongue? There is a word for it, and so when you teach a person how to write ‘hoe’ using the mother-tongue word, that is functional literacy.
The greatest problem with many of our people who went to school years ago and have become more or less illiterate now is that the literacy was always considered to be in English; literacy in a foreign language. This is so because had it been literacy in the mother-tongue, the functionality of that literacy is something that they would be living with throughout their life. When they go home and they speak in their language, if the written word is their language, even the children would begin to know it... But if I want to leave my wife a note to say “am gone” and she doesn’t know English, she doesn’t have the functional literacy of my being able to write to her in my mother-tongue that am gone. You can see how even communication within the family breaks down because literacy has to do with foreign language literacy rather than mother-tongue functional literacy.
Jacob: So we should do more to write in our own mother tongue?
Dr. Lokuji: We should do more to write in our mother-tongue, and to be fair, if you were raised in Britain and all you know is English, then functional literacy for you is to know how to write in English. But if you are using mother-tongue on a daily basis, then by all means learn how to read and write, first in the mother-tongue then you will see how easier it will be when you want to learn a new word or a new concept and you don’t know the vocabulary to explain what this new concept it is in that new language you are learning, you can explain it in the mother-tongue.
Jacob: What is the role of the government in this?
Dr. Lokuji: The government is a facilitator and the government has a very important facilitating role. I don’t know what to say beyond that.
Dr. Lokuji: With regards to policy, I feel that this is the role of the government. It is the government that has the organisational methods of achieving these goals. These range from training teachers locally and abroad, producing local tools as well as extending institutions to villages. The government is like the team manager that gets all the players together and maybe re-divides roles for the team members who at the end of the day must score! The government is the team organiser and should never make itself the player.
Jacob: Alfred, is there any particular point you would like to add especially with regard to traditional leaders?
Dr. Lokuji: The first thing I want to say is that we should never forget our identity since it is very much part of the definition of our health. When I know who I am, I can remain healthy, but if I wake up and am not even sure about my identity or even liking myself; if I find myself too dark and begin using skin lighteners, or if I find myself unhappy with my hair and begin focusing a lot on it then what am really engaging myself in is a set of mental problems that are not easy to diagnose.
Furthermore, we even don’t have professionals to tell us when we are not adjusting well to society and to ourselves. As I said earlier, part of being healthy is recognising the cultural backgrounds where we come from because they are like fresh air in us; they are like the oxygen that keeps us alive and vibrant. They are the water we use in watering the plants and it is known that when a plant is healthy, it is green and sways when the wind blows. However when the plant is missing basic necessities like a conducive environment for it starts to weaken and it is usually a matter of time before it dies.
To me, that is how important our traditions and cultures are. I am fully cognisant of the historical processes that culture changes, but it is a historical process; it is nothing you and I can plan on now for instance, we cannot wake up one day and decide to eliminate the Dinka community tomorrow! That is too dangerous for us. Can we do that?
We would be engaging ourselves in folly of untold proportions beyond what Hitler was trying to do to non-Germans. That is what I compare to denying traditional system the authority that rightfully belongs to it.
Jacob: Can you speak in your language? Could you send greetings to Gurtong in your language?
Dr. Lokuji: I greet you all listeners of Gurtong and staff (Speaks in Bari). Now, if you are a Bari, you may find some grammatical errors there and of course it will be my pride to know that someone knows better Bari than me and would like to correct that.
But by saying this in Bari, many more people who do not understand the conversation that has taken place begin to say I heard Bari today on a Gurtong program, did you hear that?
And they will start talking about who said that. It becomes a source of pride and diversity; I think it’s something that underlines what we have been talking about all along; that our cultures are that important.
Jacob: Let me indulge you a bit. Do you have a short song in Bari that you can sing?
Dr. Lokuji: (Laughs) Yes, there is a common song that the Bari of the various dialects used to sing quite frequently. I heard the chiefs sing it in Yei at the traditional leaders’ conference. The essence of the song is that we are all one family and anyone who is against this family either in wishes or actions or in intent or action, will be the one to face problems and not the whole family. The Bari sing it like this…if you will allow me to indulge (he sings in Bari)
Yi a mora pele geleng yi a Bari. Yi a mora pele geleng yi a Bari. Ko logolong a rube mede nanyit a 'demon toto wandu, yi a mora pele geleng, yi a Bari.
Which translates to mean: We are united, we come from one womb, we are the. Bari anybody who has ill wishes about that may face Gods wrath.
Jacob & Dr. Lokuji: (They both laugh)
Jacob: Alfred, thank you very much, Thank you very much indeed.
Dr. Lokuji: It was a pleasure.
Dr. Alfred Sebit Lokuji talking to Jacob Akol in our first special interview for South Sudan Safari. Until next time, it is goodbye from me Victor Lugala.
The programme was produced by Jacob Akol and assisted by Clement Lochio Lomornana. South Sudan Safari is a radio series for Gurtong Trust Peace & Media Project. The series is funded by the NORAD through the Norwegian Peoples Aid.