Tarikh Tana (Our History) part 2: The Gospel of St Mark in Bari

Eye Radio and the Rift Valley Institute aired the second radio show about the South Sudan National Archives on Wednesday 8 November 2017, in coordination with the South Sudan Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports and UNESCO, with Norway’s financial support.

This edition looked at an extract of the Gospel of St Mark from a 1952 Bible, translated into Bari and preserved through the work of the National Archives. The extract describes a conversation between Jesus and his disciples on the Mount of Olives in which Jesus is preparing them for the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.

The Gospel of St Mark in Bari (An archive document from 1952)

The two speakers invited to discuss the historical context of this document were The Hon. George Bureng Nyombe, a Member of Parliament, historian and linguist, and Fr. David Tombe Leonardo, a Catholic Priest and Education Coordinator of the Archdiocese of Juba.

The show’s regular host Rosemary Ochinyi started by asking Fr. Tombe to describe the Gospel’s relevance to the Bari people when it was introduced in the middle of the nineteenth century. ‘When the missionaries came and talked about this concept of trouble and persecution,’ he responded, ‘people were very curious, because around that time this land of ours was a hunting ground [for ivory and slaves] … The people felt there was no way out of that suffering … The message [of the Gospel] uplifted the lives of people.’ But, he added, the Baris would become Christians ‘only gradually’.

Rosemary Ochinyi asked The Hon. Nyombe to elaborate on the context of the first Christian missionaries’ arrival in 1840s Gondokoro (Bari land).

‘Many powers had interest in the discovery of the river Nile,’ he said. The first explorers who managed to cross the Sudd did so in the 1830s, ‘followed by the traders’ and the ‘Egyptian empire builders’, and the so called ‘government men’, who were trying to impose the Turko-Egyptian domination to this southern-most part of the Sudan. The traders soon shifted from trading ivory to trading slaves. It is in this context that Christian missionaries arrived in the region, at a time when ‘the Baris were in a living hell’.

According to Nyombe, these ‘three forces in Gondokoro, [the Turko-Egyptian government men, the slave traders and the missionaries,] fomented crisis among the Bari clans. They began to form local alliances. There were some of the Bari clans who opposed the slave traders, others who were bribed, and that created absolute mayhem. So, by 1860, all the population had collapsed. Death was all over the place. People ran to other regions. Many were killed. Others were taken into slavery.’1

The Hon. Nyombe recalled how Lord Samuel Baker, who came into Gondokoro with the intention of putting an end to the slave trade, ended up fighting against the Bari. ‘For the first time in the history of Africa, canons and machine guns were used in Gondokoro.’

Some missionaries also tried to fight slave traders, but they faced the retaliation of ‘the government men, the Egyptian slave traders, plus other allies [who] chased the missionaries out of there.’ The mission was closed in 1860 and reopened in Rajaf in 1869.

Host Rosemary Ochinyi asked whether the missionaries easily convinced the Bari people to become Christians and what tools they were using to do so. Were they bringing comfort to the people in these years of great turmoil?

‘Maybe [they tried] to give people hope’ said The Hon. Nyombe. But ‘most Baris at the time did not differentiate between Muslims and Christians,’ because ‘some missionaries did collaborate with the slave traders.’ Moreover, the Baris were ‘turned off’ by the missionaries’ approach, which tended to consider them as ‘agnostics, almost nihilists’, disregarding their traditional religion and their belief in Ngun lo Ki (God). According to The Hon. Nyombe, only 47 Baris had been converted to Christianity when the Catholic Mission was reopened in 1869.

In fact, Christianity expanded a lot faster after the independence of Sudan from Egypt in 1956, as tensions between the northern and southern parts of the Sudan escalated into armed conflict. ‘When the Arabs assumed authority, after the British left, they felt it was Christianity that fomented that mental state, anti-Arab, anti-Islam,’ said The Hon. Nyombe. In 1964, the Christian missionaries were expelled from the Sudan, their schools were closed down and all their Bibles, documents and printing press were destroyed. The crackdown also targeted local languages, which no longer allowed to be taught. ‘You can see the implications,’ said Nyombe, ‘because all our people[‘s history and culture’] are oral and the language is the archive of any community.’

After the Addis Ababa Agreement was signed in 1972, there were attempts by the missionaries to come back to South Sudan, and to print new vernacular versions of the Bible. But these efforts proved unsuccessful as far as the Catholics were concerned. Little happened before the second Sudanese Civil War started. ‘It became so tough for us to import anything [after 1983]’, said Fr. David Tombe, holding a 1972 Bari Bible produced by the Anglican church. ‘Until today, we Catholics borrow this Bible from our Anglican brothers who speak our [Bari] language’ he said.

Rosemary Ochinyi read out some of the questions asked by the radio audience through text messages. One listener asked: how did Christianity continue to spread in South Sudan after the missionaries were expelled in the early 1960s?

The Hon. Nyombe explained that Christianity kept expanding because ‘it became politicized’. People would become Christians to ‘fight Islam’, as certain changes were introduced by force during the 1960s, such as working on Sundays. ‘The SANU [Sudan Africa National Union, led by the Southern politicians in exile] capitalized on the victimization of Christianity (…) Christian organizations in the neighbouring countries funded the students to go to school, and that later spread all over the South.’

Another female listener texted: ‘I’m proud of the Bari culture, but I’m against each tribe praying separately, how can we talk about national identity when we continue to draw lines between us?’ Fr. David Tombe said that her point was well noted, but ‘our diversity [is part of] the riches of South Sudan’ and that this variety of languages should not be seen as a division but as an opportunity.

This edition of the show also gave a chance to National Archives staff, Susan Keji, to explain how her and her colleagues preserve the documents in their possession. She explained how the old filing system of Sudan, established in 1975, was still in place and how the National Archives were still opening and cataloguing the confidential files from the ministries. She stressed that challenges were still facing the National Archives. Some regional files are missing, like those of Western Bahr el-Ghazal. The archives are currently composed of files dating back to before the SPLA/M war started in 1983.

The 16 November edition of the show will focus on the archive document, Instructional Pamphlet on Malaria in Bor Dinka, from 1948. It will air at 16:00 EAT on Eye Radio (98.6FM). 
 

Notes

1. For a more detailed history, see Douglas Johnson’s book, South Sudan: A New History for a New Nation, pp. 65–76.