Urban Now

A Human in the Face of Borderliness and Urbanisation in Juba, South Sudan

by Maciej Kurcz (Author)
©2021 Monographs 272 Pages
Open Access


The subject of the study is the spontaneous city spreading process of Juba after the end of the civil war in South Sudan (2005). The book presents the complex dynamics of transformations within the new urban settings of post-war Juba. The viewpoint taken while describing these phenomena is the adaptation of an average migrant to a new urban environment. This was not an easy task. At that time the city was characterised by extremely harsh living conditions, harsh even for post-war South Sudan. Despite the difficulties, the city’s development was visible. The phenomenon of borderlineness – the closeness of the state’s borders – appeared to be helpful in this process. It influenced the effectiveness of human activities, it is an answer to the spontaneous city spreading processes – it brought danger, but most of all, infinite possibilities. The presented material comes from the author's ethnographic research conducted in Juba in 2007 and 2008.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Juba on the Political and Cultural Borderland: African Borderlands
  • African Borderlands Yesterday and Today
  • South Sudan’s Borderlands
  • Juba and Its Surroundings
  • The City of Juba: Its Foundation and Modern History
  • Juba: A City that Attracts Migrants
  • Migration to the City
  • Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons
  • “Returnees” as Migrants to the City of Juba
  • First Accommodation
  • Spatial Structures
  • The Dialectics of Space
  • The Legal Situation of Urban Lands: “Struggle for the Rights to the City”
  • Formal and Informal Structures
  • The “City”
  • Hai Jalaba
  • Informal Development: The Example of Munuki and Gabat
  • Residential Space Arrangement
  • Infrastructure Underdevelopment and Its Condition
  • Urban Transport
  • Commercial Spaces
  • Customs Souk and Konjo Konjo
  • Sacral Places
  • Islam Versus Christianity
  • Movement in Space
  • In an Urban Street
  • In an Urban Minibus
  • “To Alleviate Boredom”
  • In Search of Urban Beauty
  • Urban Family and Its Dynamics: The Growing Importance of Marginalised Groups
  • The Dynamic Structure of the Family
  • Continuation of the Traditional Models of Family Life
  • Marriage Rules
  • Single Women: The Feminisation of the Urban Family
  • A Day in the Life of a Woman
  • The Generation of Young Women
  • Voluntary Associations: Forms of Women’s Organisations
  • “Street Children.” The Situation of the Youngest and the Youth
  • The Professional Situation of the Citizen and Economic Strategies of the Family
  • In the Light of Previous Research on the City of Africa
  • Primary Livelihood Strategies in Juba
  • Woman and the Family Budget
  • Gathering and Motorcycles
  • Former Refugees and the Labour Market
  • Mobility of Repatriates
  • Humanitarian Organisations and State Administration. Hierarchical Structure of Professions in the City
  • Foreigners and the Monopolisation of Trade and Services
  • Women from Neighbouring Countries. Criminalisation of Economic Strategies in the Borderland City
  • Changes of Ethnicity
  • Ethnic Structure of Juba
  • Strengthening of Ethnicity. The Struggle for Influence Between Particular Communities
  • Non-Ethnicity
  • Language and the Overcoming of Ethnicity
  • New Identities. Examples of Former Refugees and Displaced Persons
  • Religion in the Modern City
  • Christianity and Urbanisation in Africa
  • Muslims of Juba. Strengthening Group Solidarity in Juba
  • Christianity under Attack. Situation of Tribal Beliefs
  • Christianity as a Factor Supporting the Struggle with Everyday Life
  • “Born-Again Christians”
  • Millenaristic (Messianic) Ideas
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Series Index

←14 | 15→


Africa looks totally different than it did ten years ago. It is enough to mention that many lengthy conflicts ended. Many countries have made a clear turn towards democracy. Africa is not stabilising as much as it is exuberantly developing. This can be seen, for example, from the perspective of an ordinary person. People – quite literally – are becoming wealthier: the culture of consumerism is omnipresent, particularly electronic mass media. Ordinary observers would say that this is the result of having adopted a western development paradigm: democracy and a liberal economy. True: in the 1990s Africa adopted many elements of the Western model, often under compulsion, according to the principle: “assistance, but only in return for reforms.” However, we should remember that those reforms were conducted at a huge cost, which my fellow countrymen, citizens of the former Eastern Bloc, never even dreamed of in their darkest dreams. What is more, the policy of former metropolises more frequently brought about the strengthening of authoritarian rule than the promotion of democracy. So, in fact, the changes observed are a bottom-up process enforced, for example, by the deformalisation of the economy and the development of spontaneous entrepreneurship. This activity – while a necessity in the period of structural reforms in the 1990s – enabled entire segments of the society to move up the social ladder, especially the most marginalised groups: women and young people. As the greatest beneficiaries of the development of informal economy, these groups are really changing Africa.

Although the situation in many areas has considerably improved, many problems still remain relevant. Democratisation – meaning regular and multiparty elections – is not tantamount to the creation of a democratic society. Democratically elected representatives do not rush at all to ensure the greater transparency of political life in their countries. The need to redefine democracy in Africa is considered about right now: moving from purely ostensible forms to greater participation in social processes of broad masses of the society. The rise of extremism on the continent is a cause for concern, especially in connection with the popularity of “new” religious movements: Pentecostal churches or Islamic fundamentalism. The redefining of democracy also consists in breaking away from the dichotomous perception of African culture, the division into what is “traditional” and “modern.” Today, the former is more frequently appreciated, since scholars noticed that traditional institutions – such as the gacaca people’s courts in Rwanda or village purification rituals in Mozambique – are much more ←15 | 16→important for African democracy (Arnfred and Utas 2007). Africa does not have to learn democracy; the renaissance of traditional culture suffices.

A common consensus prevails among the majority of scholars that the future of Africa is connected with the city, especially large capital cities.1 This is where the life of the continent concentrates now. Looking at such cities as Cairo, Addis Ababa, or Khartoum is enough. All of them are metropolises of several million inhabitants. They are also unquestionable centres of the most important processes for contemporary Africa. Both good and bad. Through them happens intercultural communication. Africa is connected to a global system. As a result, the dynamics of change is usually greatest here. Cities are also laboratories of modernisation, areas of transformation that undergo the processes of negotiation, adaptation and transmission. In turn, HIV/ AIDS, extremism, homophobia, poverty, and crime are just a few of the many negative phenomena usually met in cities. They are, above all, urban phenomena. Therefore, African cities are an extremely fascinating testing grounds.

Despite an unlimited number of problems, an African city has become an area of positive changes, largely in the economic and social spheres. The city generates poverty, but it also is the best way to avoid poverty. The city offers for the most part decent education and healthcare. It is an arena of political demands and grassroot activism, which truly changes the African reality for the better. The city is a space of multiple possibilities where, like nowhere else, one can climb up the social ladder. To some extent the African city may be compared to a new “Wild West;” a borderland of progressing expansion and colonisation where people can change their fate in a good direction. Like many years ago in the American Wild West, what happens in the African city is a “clash of cultures,” styles, and worldviews A new, urbanised society emerges from these processes in the form of a new, urban Africa. The reality of the city is not easy or even just. Iron rules govern here, in this case sanctified by capitalism. Not everyone will become someone here, but some will succeed. This is the work of belief in the power of money and entrepreneurship. The city is also a borderland as an escape from the gloomy and hopeless reality of the African province. A young man may feel in the city like a man of the world, drink bottled beer, and fulfil artistic yearnings. Finally, the city is a place of disorder, but also of numerous adventures, where ←16 | 17→something happens all the time; the city never falls asleep, never ceases to surprise, and hence may satisfy the expectations of practically everyone.

Since the beginning of my professional career, I have dealt with only one country, Sudan. I found myself there for the first time in 2000, still as a student of Ethnology and Archaeology of Jagiellonian University. At the beginning, I performed scientific observations in villages on the Nile of Northern Sudan, in cooperation with Polish archaeologists and, later, independently. I returned there several times: in 2002, 2004 and 2005. The most visible outcome of my trips were two MA theses (in Archaeology and Ethnology) and a doctoral dissertation. I conducted ethnographic research in Sudan again in 2007 and 2008. However, that time the area of research was Juba: the capital of the rebelled South and one of the southernmost city centres of Sudan.

The more I know Sudan, the more it interests and fascinates me. Halfjokingly: this is MY African country. However, I do not consider this as a weakness or an expression of unhealthy fascination. Is the largest political organism of Africa not the best place for long-term African studies? In my opinion – IT IS. Not without reason referred to as “little Africa,” Sudan offers nearly unlimited possibilities to study African cultures. Moving from the North, we come across a zone of deserts that gradually changes into a savannah and, finally, in the South the landscape is dominated by swampy wetlands of the Nile, overgrown with rich tropical vegetation. The ecology of Sudan corresponds to its cultural diversity. For instance, suffice to consider the shepherding culture that we meet here both as pastoral nomads engaged in camel breeding – characteristic much of the Sahara areas – and semi-nomads, herders of longhorn cattle, typical of African pastoralists south of the desert zone. In old-fashioned terms of race, one finds there Caucasoids (who call themselves Arabs and represent the white population living in these areas before Islam appeared) and Negroids are among them: the latter are burly Nilots from the Upper Nile basin, whose “kin” live in neighbouring African countries.

My research in Sudan was a slow process of discovering the culture of North-Eastern Africa, an intellectual and empirical north-south journey. A British author of Sudanese origin, Jamala Mahjouba, once compared Sudan to a multi-layered anatomical atlas in which, page after page, a new set of meanings appears (Piskała 2010: 180). The same was my experience. The discovery of one “layer” revealed the richness of subsequent layers and made me continue intensive studies within the area. An ancient cultures’ “page” became a reason for becoming interested in the “page” of North Sudanese peasants’ daily life. In turn, this page disclosed the one called “South Sudan” to me. This path is not particularly exceptional; I would call it “orientalist” or “postcolonial.” Many researchers followed ←17 | 18→it, along with typical globetrotters or characters of adventure novels. From colonial times, the road to Sudan led from North to South, from the antiquity and steep pyramids in the middle of the Nile valley to the diversity of cultures of Sudan’s South.

Modern Sudan is a fruit of colonialism. It is also true that from time immemorial this area – extremely diversified in terms of ecology and culture – seems to function as a certain whole: an always open route linking the African interior with the Eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea, but also with West and East Africa (for more about Sudan’s historical relationships with countries west of Darfur, see Fadl Hasan 2010). In the past, this corner of the continent was an arena of turbulent events, often full of xenophobia and chauvinism towards the African population from the South; for many decades a slave-hunting region for the Muslim world. Irrespective of its character, these contacts were always extremely stimulating for both sides North and South Sudan, while their outcome was an extremely diversified, sometimes even unique, culture. In 1977, a famous work by the British historian W. Y. Adams was published, Nubia: The Corridor to Africa, and it seems to me that Sudan is still “the corridor to Africa.”2 Less figuratively, it is a country with multidimensional features of a borderland, where meet “white Africa” and “black Africa,” Arabic-and English-speaking, Muslim and Christian Africas, but it also is an Africa of nations and ethnic groups. Sudan connects these worlds, but it also separates them. I believe that the dialectics of a “borderland” better corresponds to the reality of Sudan; it better fits analyses of its cultural phenomena (a similar view is presented by Mazrui 2006). For instance, let us consider the issue of circumcision of female genitals, locally called “pharaonic circumcision.” This is a symbol of identity that visibly separates South from North Sudanese. At the same time, it is a frontier institution, which literally and figuratively protects against influences of the external word, in this case: the African interior. At the same time, customs set the boundary between moral principles of one’s own and a stranger’s group. For the Muslim population, it means the cult of virginity and extreme patriarchalism. The men’s costume – the snow-white jalabiyya – is less radical but equally meaningful in this respect. This type of clothing is such a strong carrier of identity and status that even today Muslims from the North are called jalaba in South Sudan. Each borderland is a marginal area – located on the outskirts of a culture or society – where the influence of individuals is subject to distortion and mutation. There is a commonly ←18 | 19→known notion of the “marginal man,” introduced in the context of migratory processes by American urban sociologist Robert E. Park. The “marginal man” is an individual of lowered status, rooted in cultures of two different groups. This man seeks acceptance: a possibility to participate in the life of the main society. This is not an easy task, though. He does not fully feel a member of the new community, since he cannot or does not want to break away from his original identity. As a result, he lives – as it were – on the margin of two cultures and two societies (Park 1928: 892). In many respects, many of Sudanese citizens – and the state itself – identify themselves precisely with this model. However, this is not the case of any sort of exclusion or lack of acceptance. In the case of Sudan, marginality is abeyance between two cultural circles, “bulwark” status, that of a frontier – with all its consequences: the continuous need for self-determination but also an extended and variable identity. Sudan is an African country – and it simultaneously strongly aspires to be part of the Middle East. Due to its geographical location, it remains on the margins, too far away to fully participate in the Middle Eastern reality to which it wants to belong. Sudan does not have a solid enough legitimacy to enable its full cultural participation in this system. This apparently hopeless situation motivates Sudanese cultures and makes them unique: a variation of Middle East culture, unusually conservative and hybrid at the same time.

In common imagination dating back to the colonial times, Sudan is a two-part country, informally disintegrating into two different wholes in terms of ecology, ethnicity, culture, and even race (North and South).3 With its whole diversity, North Sudan is inhabited by the peoples of Caucasian origin, mostly calling themselves Arabs, and professing Islam in its entirety. In turn, South Sudan has a decisively more complicated ethnic structure: it is composed of an enormous mosaic of peoples largely still following “traditional” family and tribal relationships. People of that area, in great majority black, are culturally and politically connected with the African interior, East Africa in particular. Finally, in opposition to the North, South Sudan citizens are mostly followers of the Christian faith.

←19 | 20→

There is no symmetry in the history of contacts between these areas. One of the centres – let us call it “northern” – has always tried to dominate. The history of areas within the boundaries of modern Sudan is marked with this phenomenon. This is also a fact of considerable importance for the understanding of the cultural landscape of past and present Sudan. Modern Sudan is not a totally artificial creation. Since ancient times, we have seen attempts at building a political organisation in the Middle Nile valley with its centre near the Nile. Kerma, Napata, Meroe, Christian Nubia, or, ultimately, colonial and modern Sudan, are all tangible evidence of the viability of this idea throughout centuries.4 A close link between geography and politics – characteristic of the entire African oecumene – influenced social relationships by strongly linking status to space. Most of pre-colonial Africa countries were not uniform, so Sudan is no exception. The state was usually composed of a metropolitan region, a political centre that usually possessed natural assets such as a strategic location. However, each state also consisted of much more extensive peripheries. Recruits, food, or natural resources came from there. State power was sporadic on the peripheries. These were areas conquered during military raids. The main export “goods” of those areas were slaves who were mostly intended for long-distance trade or as separate slave guards. The peripheries also benefitted from this arrangement. They could enjoy all sorts of privileges, from security to participation in profits from trade. Many countries of pre-colonial Africa were organised this way (e.g. Mali, Songhai, or Kanem-Bornu; Tymowski 1999: 96–99). The situation was similar in the case of Sudan. During the Funj Sultanate, such peripheries were undoubtedly the Nuba Mountains, southern Gezira, the borderland with Abyssinia, and the swamps and lagoons of White Nile. In turn, the Fur Sultanate (Darfur) – organised in the western part of Sudan in the seventeenth century – had its peripheries in the very south of Dar Fartit (today’s western Bahr al-Ghazal; Johnson 2011: 2).

Slavery is another key to understanding the social relationships within the areas of Sudan. Slavery on the African continent had a broader social and political context. In Africa, it was tying people not to land – as in medieval Europe – but ←20 | 21→to a ruler. Hence slavery, violence and restriction of liberty were tools with which rulers exercised power. Slavery guaranteed wealth to the state, and thanks to it, the state could reproduce itself: it increased its human resources. However, a certain number of slaves always integrated or even assimilated, for instance through religion. Therefore, slavery affected African societies in two ways: through slavery people were deprived of their status, but they were also given a totally new status, one that was extremely relative.

A dichotomous division was perpetuated into the centre and peripheries, privileged and marginalised groups, white and black, masters and slaves already in the pre-colonial period. The nineteenth century is particularly important in this respect as it was a time of great changes. In the ideological dimensions, certain areas of Sudan became something we may call a slavish borderland. Slaves in northern provinces came mostly from the South, hence the local colloquial use of the words “slave” and “black” became synonymous. This brought about a polarisation of the society based on race and the common identification of non-Arab and non-Muslim part of the population with low status, or even its absence. Slavery became a part of the “stranger” concept. In other words, there emerged a nearly closed system of hierarchy (Makris 2000: 26).

Hence, due to reasons outlined above, the “Greater Sudan” project will most probably never come to fruition. After many years of war, the state is disintegrating and, in the nearest future, South Sudan will declare independence. The tradition of the North’s domination over the South is the main source of the division, by acting from the position of strength, but only dressed in more modern clothes: nationalism and religious fundamentalism. Thus, the secession of the South will be the end of one of the stages in the history of Northeast Africa. It may break not only the ring of violence and aggression against the inhabitants of southern peripheries but also the dynamic culture-forming processes, which since the ancient times have decided about the specificity of those regions (Figures 1–2).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2021 (March)
ethnology african studies urban studies ethnographic research borderlands studies South Sudan
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 272 pp., 39 fig. col., 2 fig. b/w, 5 tables.

Biographical notes

Maciej Kurcz (Author)

Maciej Kurcz, Ph.D hab., cultural anthropologist  assoc. prof. at the University of Silesia in Katowice. His research interests lie in culture dynamics in modern Africa both in the context of rural societies and urban centres. He has been engaged in researching Sudan since 2000. He has written 50 papers on Sudan in Polish and English. He is currently working on an ethno-archeological project entitled “Soba – the Heart of the Kingdom of Alwa”.


Title: Urban Now
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
270 pages