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Rift Valley Institute

Making local knowledge work

Wendy James 1940-2024

By John Ryle

Wendy James, who died in Oxford on 27 April, was one of the outstanding anthropologists of her generation. In a trilogy of immaculate field-work based monographs she chronicled the culture and history of the Uduk people of the Sudan-Ethiopia borderlands, bringing this intriguing marginalized group into the written record. And when trouble came to the Uduk during the 1983-2005 war in Sudan she became an activist in their defence, arguing their corner in relief and development fora. 

Wendy James, with her fellow teacher Peter Adwok Nyaba and a student on the Rift Valley Institute Sudan Course on the Athi Plains, Kenya, April 2004. Photograph by John Ryle.
Wendy James, with her fellow teacher Peter Adwok Nyaba and a student on the Rift Valley Institute Sudan Course on the Athi Plains, Kenya, April 2004. Photograph by John Ryle.

Wendy was one of the earliest Fellows of the Rift Valley Institute. She and her husband, Douglas Johnson, the historian (also among the Institute’s first Fellows), were stalwarts of the annual Sudan Course – which became the model for subsequent RVI courses. They were among the contributors to The Sudan Handbook, the first full-length book generated by the Institute. 

A vegetarian, with a Quaker family background on her mother’s side, and rationalism on her father’s, Wendy set an example not only in scholarship and pedagogy but also in her even-handed and respectful attitude to others. It was always a pleasure to work with her, first when I was an anthropology graduate student in her classes at Oxford, then later as an RVI colleague. She brought a humane and often merry touch to her teaching. Those who attended the Sudan course, held in its early years in Rumbek, in Lakes State in southern Sudan, will not forget her performative talk on the social life of the gourd, or her eloquent plea – successful – to spare the life of a goat donated for culinary purposes by the local administration.

Wendy was born in 1940 and raised in the Lake District, keeping connections there all her life. Most of her academic career was at Oxford, where she taught anthropology from 1972 to 2007 and was Professor of Social Anthropology from 1996. She was a fellow of the British Academy, President of the Royal Anthropological Institute from 2001 to 2004, and in 2011 was appointed CBE for services to scholarship.

She died at her home in Oxford after a long illness. She is survived by Douglas, their children Fiona and Roger, and their grandson Soren.

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