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Rift Valley Institute

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Sudan: problem of preserving the past

The archives of southern Sudan are stored in a tent. Photograph: Maggie Fick

A story in the Guardian about southern Sudan's dilapidated archives and the restoration effort spear-headed by the Rift Valley Institute

This is our archive," Youssef Fulgensio Onyalla says wistfully as he pulls back the tarp covering the metal door and opens the large tent that stores the majority of the historical documents that survived his country's long brutal civil wars.

Onyalla, the deputy director of the southern Sudan archives, does not seem proud to show off this collection. The reason is obvious. The tattered records of southern Sudan are in a shambles. Spilling out of aged cardboard boxes. Piled high in stacks. Stuffed in burlap sacks. All thickly coated with dust, and seemingly deteriorating further by the minute inside a tent that heats up like an oven on days like this one in the southern capital Juba.

From the perspective of the five-year old southern government, created after the north and south signed a peace deal to end their latest civil war, now is the time to begin shaping national symbols and preserving the historical memory of the south. Top on the list of to-dos for the culture ministry is kickstarting the stalled archives project.

"The issue of archives is very important to us as a government because it is about our history. Unfortunately our archive's in a very bad situation," said the minister of culture and heritage Gabriel Changson. "Thanks to USAid, we have a temporary shelter … they put up a tent. That is where we keep all the documents of southern Sudan since the colonial days. Now we are struggling to preserve them. Most of them, or at least part, have been destroyed by these poor storage facilities, some by rains."

Soon, the Rift Valley Institute, a non-profit research group, will begin a project to help the archives staff digitise the stacks of dusty documents filling the stifling hot tent. USAid is providing funding to create a permanent shelter, but the details have not yet been worked out. Professor Douglas Johnson, a well-known Sudan expert, will begin the work next month, which Changson says his ministry enthusiastically supports.

Near the entrance to the archives, there is a billboard with a picture of the late southern hero and rebel leader Dr John Garang. The photo seems to have been taken while he was walking, and the billboard is emblazoned with the slogan: "The Final Walk to Freedom". Getting the south's remaining archives out of a tent is the first step.

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