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The Spiritual Dimensions of Exile South Sudanese Refugees in Arua Town, Uganda

Much mainstream war reporting on African conflict has tended to invoke barbaric portrayals of those perpetrating violence on the one hand, and those displaced and helpless, waiting for the assistance of interveners, on the other. Yet these simplistic portrayals do not seem reflect lived experiences of war, or displacement.

Recent academic research has revealed the spiritual, magico-religious entanglements involved in leading and waging war, and in coping with its effects. Of course, faith, religion and tradition are dynamic, flexible constructs. But they can provide a malleable nexus upon which leaders can construct legitimacy and mobilize support to wage war. Simultaneously, they can also provide important everyday idioms for daily-life in exile. Failure to account for these intimate understandings of responsibility, or collapsing motivations for war into rationality complexes, fails to fully portray the dynamics through which battlegrounds are navigated, as much as the ways in which understanding war constitutes lived experience.

African Conflicts, African Difference?

Until recently, compared to the attention given to understanding European World Wars and the Cold War, little international effort was made to document African wars. Often African conflict so confounds external observers as to provide an apparent alibi to dilute the analytical rigour of reporting and documenting violence in Africa—motivations of parties involved can be ill explained; death tolls and statistics are often disputed. Damning conclusions are frequently drawn from short field visits, where information may be biased, or heavily influenced by preconceptions rather than observations.

At present, a consensus seems to be that African wars are different from rule-bound, historical Western wars in two major ways: they do not simply represent a contest between armies of opposing sides, and often, civilians bear the brunt of violence, and are deeply imbricated in the dynamics of war.[1] The spatial limits of battlegrounds have expanded and ordinary people live or die within these expanded confines. These academic observations have been supported in the media by dehistoricized accounts of brutal military tactics, or violence against civilians. Those waging African wars appear to lack any semblance of order or sense, and operate devoid of consideration for civilian, or human life. The agency of those directly or indirectly affected by war is also removed: civilians are reduced to helpless statistics without futures or hope.

Often, analysts reinforce notions that African war equals chaos, catastrophe and breakdown; violence appears both pathological and inevitable. Writing may be sub-consciously imbued with echoes of a not so distant colonial project obsessed with classification and categorization. Different dynamics seem to be equated with African difference. Sensationalist accounts of African violence and swift denigrations of those involved allows the continent to serve yet again as a referent for an illusory European progress and modernity.

Spiritual Entanglements of Conflict

A primary praxis through which the othering of African populations has occurred results from the encounter of outsiders with entangled spiritual, magical or religious ideologies in conflict. These dimensions of social life are familiar to anthropologists, generally in times of greater stability. In parts of Uganda and South Sudan, scholars have described the centrality of invisible forces in daily life, including beliefs in ancestors, spirits, poisoners and ‘witches’.[2] For many, everyday life in African (and indeed many other) contexts is lived without definite boundaries between the visible and invisible, or the spiritual and material. Anthropologists have related the intimate connections of spirituality to the social fabric and functioning of communities. Moreover, spirits are tied as much to modern processes and post-colonial state-building, as to ‘tradition’.

Across East Africa, there has been a pronounced and continuing legacy of Christian mission work beginning from the late 19th century. Missionaries have vehemently denounced some traditional practices, but their impact in the realm of witchcraft and the spirit world has been more ambiguous.[3] In some cases, teachings that consistently condemn practices such as witchcraft, or offer exorcisms to members of congregations, have served to confirm the existence of these activities in society. Yet if these practices and beliefs happen during peaceful times, it makes sense that they reappear in different guises during war.

Spiritual ideas are often conceived as subordinate to political dynamics. Such a departure is in-built into Weberian, state-centric thinking, which is premised on the idea of separation between the state and religion. As such, our understandings of war remained coloured by a focus on political process or military dynamics. In some cases, this exclusion ignores how powerful spiritual orders affect conflict dynamics. In the South Sudanese war, Hutchinson and Pendle have brought attention to the important role played by Nuer prophets in interpreting the moral limits of violence, and the legitimacy of rival government leaders. Holding powerful regard amongst Nuer populations, these figureheads, they write, “invoke God’s superior powers to push back against the simplified, secularized, and objectified forms of violence glorified by rival government elites”.[4] Yet these activities remain invisible to external observers focused on state-building agendas and peace negotiations.

Histories of Displacement

South Sudan has been subjected to Africa’s longest running civil war. Over this time, the dynamics of the conflict, and the parties involved, have changed. The signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, followed by formal Independence in 2011, brought a hopeful peace to the nation. This was rocked in December 2013, when a new political power struggle broke out between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar. Since this time, there has been fighting in conflict zones across South Sudan, as well as in the capital, Juba, but also in Equatorian provinces, which had previously been more cohesive. For the South Sudanese, this prolonged and successive conflict has meant that many have now lived much of their lives in exile.

During this prolonged conflict, many have taken exile across the border in North-West Uganda. As of November 2017, hundreds of people were arriving daily to be processed at UNHCR reception centres, and admitted to camps. Here, those who have acquired formal refugee status are provided with basic food, housing and living rations—although the pace of movement is now putting a strain on resources of international agencies working in the border regions. Though most South Sudanese people are welcomed into Uganda by the authorities, humanitarian agencies and host populations, life in refugee settlements remains hard. Even for those given a plot of land, producing enough food to eat is difficult, medical services are virtually non-existent and many have started to engage in trade in order to survive.

But the experience of enduring South Sudanese displacement in Uganda is not singular. Because of the legacy of conflict in South Sudan, and the fluid nature of its southern border with Uganda, many have, over time, established commercial, or personal relationships in Uganda. As such, those who have cash, or access to it, reside outside camps. Many chose to live in Arua Town, where services can be accessed and some forms of business done.

This does not mean that these people have never endured life in refugee camps of settlements. Speaking to South Sudanese nationals living in Arua Town about their history, many spoke of pasts that had included periods spent under the auspices of humanitarian apparatus. Along with the material hardships of the camp, some vivid fears of different forms of witchcraft, and the challenges of living among strangers in camps emerged.[5] Because of the anonymity provided by the camps, I was told that it was not possible to know the intentions of those in close surrounds. Particularly, people were suspicious of those who acquired powers for bewitching a victim, to later profit from the healing of the inflicted sickness. One lady from Equatoria explained to me “it is a business for them”.

These fears took place in the context of wider fears about sickness and death—which are unsurprising given the increased rate of death within refugee camps. I was told that when deaths occurred, it was difficult to respectfully and appropriately bury bodies. A young man relayed, “When people die, people are often just buried in the homestead. This may be very small; in such cases, the body is buried basically outside of the door.” As a young girl when she was living in the camp, this lady, who now has a small business in Arua, remembered how these graves scared her:

“There is so much death in the neighbourhood it scares. When there is a grave there, and there is no big person there at night, you just want to run away. If it [is] someone you know—how do you know they will not wake up? If somebody has been transformed into something else it is dangerous.”

“Mismanaging the Light”: Spirituality among South Sudanese Communities in Exile

Whilst those now living in Uganda’s towns did remember the camp and its challenges, these individuals are, today, often finding dynamic ways to forge an existence. Such struggles are hidden from presentations of helpless refugees flooding into the country. Life remains difficult: for many, loss, loneliness and isolation from home have become an almost daily feature of life in exile. In the midst of this atomization, the Christian Church is often the most accessible institution. As South Sudanese people often rent housing, and do not live in coherent communities, the church provides an important means of creating networks. One man relayed: “with church, life became a bit easier, you get encouragement and ways to overcome temptations, problems—like when someone wants to fight with you, what do you do in that situation? How can you fit in this community?”[7] Beyond this moral support, different denominations of the church often provide spiritual consolation to everyday problems.

But beyond this expected repertoire of support, the church increasingly provides explanations for conflict, which seem to resonate with local groups. For instance, a lively Pentecostal movement in Arua Town holds monthly services to ‘Pray for Peace in South Sudan’, for South Sudanese nationals, particularly those hailing from Central and Eastern Equatoria. These meetings also serve as a source of information about ongoing conflict dynamics in South Sudan. Pastors address recent attacks and deaths. Services are translated into English and Arabic, and relevant bible passages are also translated into local languages by the congregation—the event is inclusive. An important part of the services is praying for the leaders of South Sudan, and those fighting in the country, who have lost their way. On occasion, sermons make specific reference to demonic forces and witchcraft activities that are believed led the leaders to violence.

But the role of the church is not just social. Often, biblical explanations for suffering are presented as a means of comprehending ongoing events. In some cases, biblical passages, for example Isaiah 19 and the prophecy of Kush—provide a direct parallel to lived experience. In others, preachers add their own nuance to biblical ideas. In one Pentecostal church, a pastor explained to the congregation:

“You have mismanaged the light. The Lord gave the South Sudanese independence and freedom, but in this period of peace, you turned away from God. You turned to money, you bought things and vehicles, and forgot the gift that our Father had given, you forgot the light that God had given.”

I found that Pentecostal and other religious leaders, and even South Sudanese people themselves replicated the ideas put forward in this church. This is a narrative of individual responsibility for conflict. Independence granted to South Sudan in 2011 is portrayed as a gift given by God. But, enjoying this new freedom, the pastor posits that people turned towards money and ‘sinful living’, away from God, and stopped praying. Peace will only be restored when ordinary people, in exile—not just those actively fighting at home—repent for their sins, in order to be forgiven by God. In this case, this message resonated with the congregation, who, speaking in English, Arabic and local languages, offered desperate pleas for forgiveness, in order for them to be able to return home.

At first glance, this take appears to place responsibility for violence onto those communities themselves displaced by these acts. But for some, this logic, rooted in the bible but transformed to resonate with local experience, provide a tangible explanation for the unexplainable. Through active repentance, during church services and at home, people are given a workable directive through prayers for peace to allow their future return.

As political understandings of aggression become increasingly frustrating, repetitive and exclusionary, for many South Sudanese, faith-based logics of responsibility provide those suffering from violence with a basis of acting, and asserting agency, which has been denied by legacies of war.

Shifting the Lens

As analysts and observers, we need a multi-dimensional understanding of the different modalities through which people understand and interpret ongoing violence, as well as attempt reconciliation, redress and societal-reconstruction after conflict. In South Sudan, resolution has been pursued in recent years in the form of a high-level peace-process between what have been defined as government and rebel parties. This has, however, ignored voices from the ground that decry the fractured nature of alliances and activities between multiple parties, and local conflicts on the ground.

The experiences of those caught in the midst of conflict tell us that life goes on during war. In spaces of active conflict, or geographies transitioning towards stability, communities are often engaged in struggles to forge meaningful and viable ways of surviving. People in exile do not helplessly wait for aid, or wait in suspended animation for peace: spiritual activities can prove restorative to those excluded by distant and frustrating political dynamics. Presently, there is a chasm between the logics deployed by individuals and groups to navigate daily life in conflict zones and during exile, and the monolithic reporting of mobile outsiders who enter the scene, only to swiftly leave with an angle which can be consumed by those expecting the expected—reporting tainted by ideas of Africa as a continent characterized by disarray, despair and death.

Imagining that African war equals chaos and total catastrophe portrays violence as both pathological and intractable. Shifting the lens to how African communities who have seen and experienced war interpret war may provide resources to begin to find tangible, urgent solutions to enhance the lives of people on the ground


Research for this article is drawn from a wider project Enduring Exile, supported by the Haycock Grant for research in Sudan and South Sudan from the British Institute in Eastern Africa, and the AHRC/ESRC PaCCS-funded Politics of Return at LSE. All images plus additional reporting by Katie G. Nelson.

[1] For example, Mary Kaldor, 2004, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, 3rd Edition, Polity Press; David Keen, 2008, Complex Emergencies, Polity Press: Cambridge

[2] This study has a long tradition, beginning with anthropological work conducted during colonial times including the paradigmatic work of Evans-Pritchard and his Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among The Azande (1937[1976]) and John Middleton’s Lugbara Religion (1960). In postcolonial era, this analysis was taken up among the Madi in the mid-1980’s in Tim Allen’s PhD thesis. In the aftermath of the Acholi conflict, the prevalence of spirit worlds in dealing with the repercussions of conflict have been widely covered.

[3] In the context of Toro, Western Uganda see Heike Behrend, 2011, Resurrecting Cannibals: The Cathilic Church, Witch-hunts, and the Production of Pagans, James Currey.

[4] HUTCHINSON, S. E. and PENDLE, N. R. (2015), Violence, legitimacy, and prophecy: Nuer struggles with uncertainty in South Sudan. American Ethnologist, 42: 415–430. doi:10.1111/amet.12138

[5] These spiritual insecurities were well documented in the instance of Ugandan displacement in a refugee camp in Kajo Keji by Barbara Harrell-Bond in her (1986) Imposing Aid. A more recent portrayal in Acholiland, is provided by Ben Merglesberg in his 2012, The displaced family: moral imaginations and social control in Pabbo, northern Uganda, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 6:1, 64-80, DOI: 10.1080/17531055.2012.664704 – based on his ethnographic work in Pabbo Camp.

[6] Baines, Erin Spirits and Social Reconstruction: Rethinking Transitional Justice, African Affairs, 109:436 (2010), 409-439.

[7] Interview in Arua Town 2017