Recently retired Professor of Social Anthropology and fellow of St Cross College, Oxford.
How did you develop an interest in the field of social anthropology and in African culture in particular?
I chose to read geography at St Hugh’s, but I had first become interested in Africa when my father taught at a university in Uganda in the early 1950s, and returned with wonderful slides and stories. A ‘hands-on’ introductory course at the Pitt Rivers Museum offered fascinating insights into the museum treasures and what they represented, and this sparked my interest in social anthropology.
Why did you choose to study the Uduk people in the Blue Nile region of Sudan?
A lectureship at the University of Khartoum offered the chance to fund my doctoral studies. Between 1965–1969 I conducted traditional ethnographic research among the Uduk people living in the Blue Nile region along the Sudan/Ethiopian border. The area was culturally and linguistically distinctive, but had little written history. Missionaries had been active there, and although they had been expelled in 1964 I was able to take advantage of their linguistic work and begin to use the language myself. What I found particularly interesting was how accurately their oral history tallied with archival records from the late 19th century. They had warm memories of the British bringing peace in 1902, and there had been no slave raiding in the region for 60 years, so it felt like a peaceful backwater, even though there was a civil war already underway in the far south.
Could you predict the lengthy conflict that lay ahead?
In 1969, the storm clouds were gathering but no-one anticipated the long years of displacement and suffering still to come. In Sudan’s second civil war between 1983–2005, many more people were affected, including those in the Blue Nile region. The Uduk and neighbouring communities spent up to 20 years moving from one place to another, back and forth across the international frontier. A new generation of children grew up in the refugee camps in Ethiopia, finally returning only by 2008. Since the secession of South Sudan last July, conflict has broken out again in the areas adjoining the new boundary with the South. The Blue Nile has been battered by ground and aerial attack since September, and thousands have fled once again.
How does repeated displacement change the distinctive cultural identity of a minority group like the Uduk?
In a mountainous borderland like this, minorities have often been able to find safe havens where they can survive, and remain distinctive, for a long time. Modern warfare is of course a new threat; and modern displacement can add to political tension. But while language can be a barrier, music allows different groups to bond more easily. What I learnt in the field is that all humans share a love of the give-and-take involved in work, games, language or music, and these things can survive in surprising ways. Cassettes of Uduk music now circulate, for example, in Salt Lake City in the USA!
What was your most memorable moment in the field?
In 1974 I took a sabbatical from Oxford and went to Western Ethiopia, as I wanted to study some of the minority groups on that side of the border. One day, I was walking with companions down from the highlands, to visit some villages near the Sudan border – I knew they spoke Komo, a language similar to Uduk. Suddenly we heard the distant music of beaten logs and flutes drifting up from the lowlands. It was such an astonishing moment, to hear something so familiar to me from several years back among the Uduk, on the opposite side of an international frontier and among a supposedly ‘different’ people.
You are now retired, but do you have any projects in the pipeline?
I am part of a team bringing out a fresh OUP edition of R.G. Collingwood’s Autobiography, together with his Log of a Voyage to the East Indies and letters from this journey in 1939. I am also working with Judith Aston, and with advice from the Pitt Rivers, to build a digital multimedia resource preserving my various audio and visual materials relating to the Uduk and other peoples.