News / Africa

South Sudan Archivists Battle Rats, Termites, Time

South Sudan's archives, including photographs, documents, books, and papers are seen inside a tent in the capital Juba, May 18, 2012.
South Sudan's archives, including photographs, documents, books, and papers are seen inside a tent in the capital Juba, May 18, 2012.
Hannah McNeish
JUBA, South Sudan — As South Sudan approaches its first anniversary as a nation next week, officials are working on creating an archive to begin defining the nation’s history of struggle for independence.

In a steaming hot tent in South Sudan’s capital, papers that have survived rats, termites and almost five decades of civil war burst out of overstuffed sacks and litter the floor between mountains of files that contain a new nation’s entire history.

Archivist Yusef Fulgensio Onyalla heads a team tasked with turning these documents and shards of paper into archives.  They cover everything from maps and constitutions to cases of suspected witchcraft and the magazine subscriptions of former British rulers.

He is determined to preserve the history of South Sudan.  The country split from the north last July after almost 50 years of civil war that killed some two million people and forced the population to fight or flee.

“These documents are very important for us to write South Sudan’s history.  Before the war, we were taught all Sudan’s history, but there is nothing specific about South Sudan,” said Onayalla.

In 2007, two years after a peace deal ended the war, Onyalla led a team to rescue hidden documents found in places like dank basements and damaged by bats, cockroaches and rain.

What was salvageable is now housed in a large white tent -- donated by the U.S government -- and sitting next to one of the capital Juba’s busiest streets.  It was meant to be a temporary storage place, but these historical documents continue to suffer because of a lack of funding and the political will to go through them.

“A lot of deterioration happened like you can see here.  There were some files here and some termites attacked them and then we brought the spray to kill the termites and we lost a lot of important documents,” Onyalla noted. "Where termites once munched, nesting rats are now shredding."

It is a race against time before creatures and climate swallow South Sudan’s past.
These papers are becoming increasingly important, as the new nation battles Sudan about unresolved issues of disputed territory and oil-rich borders that, in its first year of statehood, briefly took the new nation back to war.

Onyalla says that maps have been found this year that show the boundaries of southern districts -- documents that the government hopes might help it win its case about land claims at arbitration if talks with Khartoum don’t succeed.

Thomas Becu, who returned from Uganda in 2006 and started archiving, thinks that it is vital for the South Sudanese to learn about their own history to build a national identity from the rubble of bloodshed, poverty and separation.

"It is my hope to see that it's really well preserved and really well recovered.  I think it will benefit not only the South Sudanese and the whole world to know, this new nation, where it belongs to, and what are their internal problems, maybe before independence," said Becu. "And after independence also."

Nicki Kindersley is one of three advanced history students from U.S. and British universities on a six-week project to try to clear the tent.  She rifles through these forgotten, crumbling documents to discover history on a daily basis.

“This is an incredible chance to do a national archive project and it's just such a shame that it stops and starts, and you start seeing some of the fabulous info that’s in there, but then you worry that some of it will be lost,” Kindersley stated.

One of the aims of the project is also to try and encourage the fledgling government -- starting from scratch to create basic institutions and a legal framework -- to pass legislation on record keeping.

Kindersley says this would grant archivists access to military and local government records from the war and central government records from 2005 to make sure that South Sudan’s history does not disappear again. “Otherwise, we risk having the same problem as we did during the early 1980s where we have lots of different centers with papers, that if anything goes wrong will be firewood, basically,” she said.

Until then, archivists sweat it out for hours a day, digging through reams of history, scanning and boxing it to ensure that South Sudan can understand its past before dictating its future.

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Comment Sorting
by: Godfrey Tsvuura from: Harare
August 01, 2012 11:05 AM
Very disheartened by the situation in South Sudan. I am an Archivist by Profession. Please responsible authorities, may you see the importance of keeping archives. Archives help to build the nation's future. In most cases, archivists are looked down upon and archival services taken as backyard function. very disheartened, may God help the Archivist who shape future society.

by: Courage from: Accra
July 12, 2012 2:06 PM
it is most disheartening to read such things. Am a records officer and it breaks my heart read all this especially in Africa. This should also also be a priority of regional and sub regional bodies.(AU, ECOWAS)We cant afford to loose our records.

by: TermitesHQ from:
July 08, 2012 12:36 PM
There is a similar situation in Timbuktu, Mali whereby the historical record over several hundred years is at risk due to conflict and neglect. Most of the potentially priceless relics and archives are stored by families in trunks and cases where little is done to protect them from the elements.

Pests like termites can be a significant problem when the storage conditions are not ideal. An iron box may be helpful in keeping out rats, but not termites. In fact, not long ago a man in India lost around $200,000 to termite damage that occurred in his bank lock box. It shouldn't be difficult, when people pay attention, to detect and devise ways to kill termites in the setting mentioned above.


by: Maria Leelavathi
July 06, 2012 2:44 AM
Am reminded of a portion of the book SHAPING A FREE SOUTHERN SUDAN (page 231) by Severino Fuli Boki Tombe Ga'le where he writes that the President of the Sudan African National Union (SANU), Mr. Joseph Oduho gave him all Movement's recent documents - in heaps, like paper thrown into a waste paper basket saying, "You are exprienced in office work and an administrator; you take care of them".
Again on page 235 while writing on SACDNU (SANU) Documentation he writes: "The documentation had been kept up to then in such a haphazard way that to read them was next to impossible. I set out to make an index. i bought over 60 filesand sorted out the documents into different headings. I picked out confidential files which could not be accessible to all and sundry and bought two iron boxes for their safe keeping. I began filing and paginating, adding references where necessary."
Today with improvements in technology and with a good team of committed archivists which have been together, i hope the documentation and archiving will be accomplished.All the best to the team. Perhaps they can be given an iron container with AC fitted?!
In Response

by: Fred from: VA
July 06, 2012 1:01 PM
Do they have access to scanners and solar power?

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