JUBA (Reuters) - South Sudan’s independence last July was forged through years of hard-fought rebellion in the bush, so it seems fitting that the world’s newest nation still keeps much of its history in a tent.
The weather-beaten brown tent in a roadside government compound in the capital Juba goes unnoticed by most passing drivers and pedestrians. Musty papers, files, books and photos, some honeycombed with termites, litter its stifling interior.
But this unassuming collection of paper, which would probably not qualify for a jumble sale in the West, holds part of the historical memory of Africa’s most recent state, straddling the White Nile and its vast Sudd swamp.
Piled higgledy-piggledy on the grimy concrete floor and on old tables, or bursting out of sacks, the documents in the tent are a treasure trove of records dating back to the early 1900s, when Sudan and its remote South was under Anglo-Egyptian rule.
The collection of civil service files and official reports tracks the southern territory’s history through unified Sudan’s independence in 1956 and the years that followed which saw back-to- back civil wars fought by African rebels - now South Sudan’s rulers - against governments in the largely Muslim North.
The papers, languishing under canvass for several years since a 2005 North-South peace deal, have survived fire, war and the elements. They are the core of what will be South Sudan’s National Archives - that is, once they are rescued and housed in a new building promised as an independence gift by Norway.
“There is no nation without history,” said Youssef Fulgensio Onyalla, 48, senior inspector for Museums and Monuments at South Sudan’s Ministry of Culture and Heritage which is racing against time - and the termites - to recover and preserve the archives.
“Thank God, we are working to bring the archives alive,” said Onyalla, who studied archeology at the Lebanese-American University in Beirut before returning to his home nation.
The National Archives form part of an ambitious project, still in its infancy, to endow the emerging nation with a panoply of cultural heritage institutions, including a National Museum, National Library, National Theatre and Cultural Centre.
These cultural aspirations may seem lofty, even unreal, in a newborn African nation of more than 8 million people that despite its oil resources is one of the least developed on earth, and where more than 70 percent of the population are illiterate.
But South Sudanese officials say forging a national identity out of a complex patchwork of more than 70 ethnic groups, some of them traditional historical foes, is as important a part of nation-building as constructing roads, schools and clinics.
“You can’t strengthen a state without strengthening the minds and hearts of the people,” Undersecretary for Culture Jok Madut Jok, one of the country’s most respected intellectuals, told Reuters.
Forging this national consciousness is no small challenge in a nation where ethnic enmities over cattle, water and grazing rights, exacerbated through the centuries by slave-raiding and in recent decades by the brutal civil war, still trigger outbursts of bloodshed.
“It’s something that will take a generation ... countries are not born, they are made,” said Jok, who has a PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
The need for a sense of nationhood has become all the more urgent as South Sudan’s guerrilla commander-turned-statesman President Salva Kiir urges its citizens to brace for continuing hardships in the face of persisting military and economic confrontation with northern neighbor Sudan.
Patriotism runs high among ordinary people in Juba and South Sudan’s independence from Sudan last year, the result of the liberation struggle fought since 1963 that killed more than 2 million people, is a powerful agglutinant of national identity.
“The challenge is to transition to being a member of a nation state, rather than a citizen of an ethnic group. Most people are loyal to their ethnic ties,” Jok said.
Juba abounds with Kenyans, Ugandans and citizens from other neighboring states but most locals, when asked where they come from, proudly respond “I am South Sudanese”. Many would struggle to sing the new national anthem, whose words are in English, however.
References to the spilled blood of the nation’s “war martyrs” are a staple of major speeches and the bearded image of independence hero Dr. John Garang, a Dinka warrior and U.S.-trained founder of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), peers down from the walls of most government offices.
His face also adorns the new South Sudanese banknotes.
“What binds South Sudan together is that they gained independence, but there was something here before, and there will be something after,” said Elke Selter, a culture program specialist working for UNESCO South Sudan.
Salah Khaled, the head of South Sudan’s UNESCO office, believes that tapping into common cultural traditions, for example funerals and marriages, and oral histories is one way of seeking common traits and customs among the country’s diverse peoples.
“We need to find the common denominator between them,” Khaled said.
As a way of creating a collective identity, Jok has devised the idea of a travelling cultural exhibit of artifacts like cooking and farm utensils, weapons and musical instruments.
This will traverse the nation, picking up new items and at the same time showcasing South Sudan’s great variety of ethnic groups - the Dinka, Merle, Nuer, Bari and others.
“It’s the embryo of the national museum ... You put them all together and say ‘this is what they are used for’... People will see the commonality, but also the diversity,” Jok said.
In the strength-sapping heat of the archives tent, even a cursory inspection shows the wealth of historical record it contains - a gold mine of potential knowledge for historians, researchers, students and, one day, tourists.
In English and Arabic, set down in neat but florid handwriting or typewritten, the files reveal the minutiae of Sudan’s colonial and post-1956 independence bureaucracy in the South, including budgets, personnel and official reports on topics from maps and minerals to land and tribal disputes.
Colonial era correspondence on yellowed paper from 1935 requests a meeting to discuss “matters affecting the Madi fishing in Sudan waters”, an example of tribal issues that local district commissioners were often called upon to deal with.
A large amount of documents in the tent refer to the 1970s, a period when South Sudan was governed by a High Executive Council during the rule in Khartoum of President Jaafar Nimeiri.
A dusty painted portrait of Nimeiri in military uniform is propped up against a table in the middle of the tent.
Faded official black and white photographs strewn about show visiting royalty, including the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and Britain’s Princess Anne.
In one corner stand grime-covered shields of the Nuer tribe, native spears and a basket of the Bari people.
South Sudan has approached Sudan requesting the repatriation of archives and documents pertaining to its history.
But some are sensitive, for example security files on the Sudanese army’s operations in the South during the long years of civil war, or maps or treatises on oil or mineral deposits, which could become vital evidence in the South’s ongoing disputes with the North over where the border is and who owns the oil.
Rummaging among the papers, journalists find what appears to be a 1957 map that covers the now disputed border area in a file riddled with termite holes and encrusted with the burrowing insects’ earthy secretions. Onyalla carries it away for study.
His team has begun the task of moving files from the tent to more hospitable premises in Juba, cataloguing and storing them.
One third of the archives have already been transferred in an initiative backed by Norway and the United States. The U.S. embassy provided funds to supply protective cardboard archive files and electronic scanners to copy documents.
But there is an urgent need for more money.
UNESCO’s South Sudan office, which is also helping the new country tackle its enormous educational deficit, is drawing up a cultural strategy that can be presented to donors.
But it is a tough sell at a time when aid budgets are being pared back and South Sudan’s government needs to pay for infrastructure, health, education and defense.
“In a country where everything is a priority now, how can arts and culture compete with the construction of a school or a clinic?” South Sudan’s cultural champion Jok says ruefully.
Additional reporting by Hereward Holland; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall