Can Archivists Save the World’s Newest Nation?
Can Archivists Save the World’s Newest Nation?

The Lone Archivist

Like many of his generation, Becu Thomas fled southern Sudan as a teenager in the 1990s. He grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda, then returned home in 2005 and got a job with the Ministry of Culture. Soon he began helping to rescue forgotten historical documents in hopes of one day creating a national archive.

When many of his colleagues at the archives fled to refugee camps in 2013, he remained in his office—a small shipping container, used to digitize archives, on the grounds of a Juba hotel—and listened to the familiar sounds of war outside. “We’ve never learned from the past,” he thought.

Every morning at 9 a.m., Thomas would resume working his way through 2,000 cardboard boxes of files, carefully unpacking a box and scanning the pages into his computer until 5 p.m.

The archives document colonization, marginalization, and the long struggle for independence. They lay out how government and tribal leaders used to run southern Sudan—how disputes were solved, taxes collected, crops harvested. Court records represent a body of case law. Census data provides a genealogical record.

In a shipping container behind the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, employee James Lujang stands amid unsorted archival documents. One day these papers will be in a national archives. Photograph by Dominic Nahr, National Geographic.

 

Thomas believed that these documents, spanning 1903 to 1983, could help guide politicians who’d come to power as soldiers, craft a common identity among dozens of tribes, even offer solutions to the current civil war by unearthing past conflict resolutions.

But as conflict raged outside Thomas’s office, funding for cultural projects such as archive construction and artifact collection was suspended. The archive director’s request for shelving has since gone unfilled; stacks of boxes routinely collapse under their own weight. A bill to manage the transfer of more recent records to the archives, solicit funding, and ensure public access has sat in South Sudan's Parliament for years.

The digital archive is meant to survive whatever happens next. Today, Thomas oversees the painstaking work for the nonprofit Rift Valley Institute, which spearheaded the project. He and a skeleton staff work through boxes of files in the shipping-container office, using 10 donated scanners. It will take about three more years before every document has a digital copy.

Work on the archives and museum has been suspended—again. But South Sudan’s preservationists have not given up hope. Sitting in the digital-archive office in August, Thomas typed out a text message: “I am still here to keep the candle burning amidst darkness.”