The Anyuak and the Ethnographer

In 2017 Conradin Perner published his second volume of memoirs, completing a four decade spanning publication nightmare of his ethnographic fieldwork reports among the Sudanese Anyuak. Together with his 8 volumes of the Anyuak ethnography Living on Earth in the sky (“ [in which] I have discussed every aspect of their life”, Preface Vol. 1), this travel autobiography Why did you come if you leave again? : the narrative of an ethnographer's footprints among the Anyuak in South Sudan, gives an exhaustive and intimate portrait of ethnographic fieldwork in the period 1976-1983. The memoirs were self-published and can be consulted online in the ASCL library (ask at the desk).  These two major achievements complemented his already impressive 4 volume Anyuak grammar. Actually, his whole oeuvre is just a mere introduction and background to the Anyuak (oral) literature, which is the author’s original field of interest.

The author explains the reasoning why he separated  his ethnography into an analytical account (written in a third-person authoritative voice) and into a personal narrative written in the past tense:

“The reason for such a thematic separation of theory and experience is the fact that not everybody is interested in my life amongst the Anyuak in general and my relationship with the Anyuak king in particular; I found it therefore more suitable to complete the monography by another separate book where the Anyuak are seen in the light of my personal experiences and where I shall relate how my research work on the Anyuak finally turned into a research on myself". (Vol. II, p. 15)

The thoroughness of this approach is often intimidating but the reader is warned at an early stage. Perner writes: “I am aware of the fact that my  method […] may discourage those who are unwilling to waste their precious time by reading this lengthy monograph, but I preferred to comply with my own beliefs rather than to respond to the criteria of a hurried reader” (Preface Vol. 2). The final volume contains “the long history of the Anyuak Ethnography and its publication” in which the author writes with a great sense of understatement:

“The reader of a book cannot imagine the difficulties one may face when trying to find a publisher for a book which is not likely to become a bestseller. All [publishers] rejected my request, arguing that nobody would print a book of 4000 pages; however, they said that they were prepared to publish a summary of my work. I refused that proposal, explaining that the Anyuak monograph actually represents a summary of my research.”

Conradin Perner (1943) is a Swiss scholar with an academic background  in the field of literature. After completing both his Lizenziat  (Zu Gunnar Ekelöfs "Eine Nacht am Horizont", 1968) and his dissertation (1974) on the same Swedish writer, he was employed as a lecturer in French literature at the University of Khartoum. His interests in language and poetry found  a similar subject for him to look into: oral literature. After some initial explorations and literature surveys, he decided he would study the Anyuak’s literature of the Southern part of the Sudan and Ethiopia. Due to international circumstances, Perner was forced to stay during this period of his fieldwork on the Sudan side of the Anyuak territory. He had spent most of the time in the royal village of Otalo and his major source of information had been King Agada.

After his time in the field, Perner was mostly active in peacebuilding and with humanitarian work. He has lectured at a number of African and European universities and has worked as a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Africa, the Indian sub-continent, Afghanistan and Central Asia, as an advisor and consultant for the ICRC, UNICEF and UNESCO and as a peace advisor for the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs. In recognition of his scientific and humanitarian work, Perner was awarded with the first honorary citizenship of South Sudan on the day of independence in July 2011.

The ethnography
Conradin Perner attempts  in 8 volumes to describe a complete overview of the culture and history of the Anyuak, a South Sudanese ethnic group consisting of between 50 and 80 thousand adults, according to the author. The separate volumes are entitled The sphere of spirituality (1); The human territory (2); The human being (3) A personal life (4) The Anyuak village, centre of civilization (5) The political bod,  power and authority (6); Spheres of action (7) and Anyuak histories (8). Each volume has a detailed table of contents, a list of stories and/or songs but no index, which makes it often difficult to look up information on related subjects.

The Anyuak: living on earth in the sky contains a considerable number of pictures, mostly in black and white, much to the author’s regret who preferred to have them all in colour. Fortunately his self-published memoirs come with many colour plates. Processes and techniques in areas as diverse as housebuilding, agriculture, scarifications, canoe building are illustrated with clear photographs, thanks to his investment in a Nikon F3 camera, arguably the best camera available at that time.

Volume IV is supplemented by 41 music and sound recordings, introduced by 10 pages of background information, explanations of each recording and a paraphrase of the songs as well as names of the players and singers. Cross references to particular sections in the ethnography illustrate the ethnographic context. This CD contains just a minute part of his total recordings as both Perner’s ethnography as well as his memoirs are replete with songs, tales and riddles. For example, when he discussed the problem why the subsistence farming Anyuak employ cattle names as praise names for male adults (just as their pastoralist neighbours the Nuer and Dinka do), his description is illustrated by 12 completely transcribed and translated songs in which ox-names play a role.  

The final volume comes with a useful bibliography but is restricted to publications and sources up till 1983 (the time of the manuscript’s completion), and is also published online.

His dense description of Anyuak culture is almost completely stripped of any theoretical framework. Occasionally the author describes the spiritual role of King Agada in strikingly Durkheimian terms (“when praising the king, the people were actually talking about themselves,” (Ch. VI) but without referring to more theoretical discussions of divine kingship in Africa. He does engage quite regularly in a debate with Evans-Pritchard who wrote a book on the political system of the Anyuak based on a 2,5 months period of fieldwork  in 1935. The title Perner chose for his ethnography (The Anyuak: an analytic account of the history and culture of a Nilotic people) is remarkably similar to Evans-Pritchard work on the neighbouring ethnic group (The Nuer:  a description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people). Perner has been unrelentingly criticial towards the British nestor of social anthropology: “Like all statements of EVANS-PRITCHARD about the Anyuaks (and especially those in which he compares the Anyuaks with his beloved Nuers) even this one has to be taken with caution. ”(Vol. II, p 280).

Perner’s memoirs Why did you come if you leave again? : the narrative of an ethnographer's footprints among the Anyuak in South Sudan contain ‘just’ 540 pages. It is a subjective account of his personal reflections and his problems with his assistants, as well as long descriptions of his travels and excursions, his depressions and feelings of loneliness (“even the landscapes looked poisonous, full of vermin and absolutely boring in their sallow monotony”), and difficulties in obtaining research permits, visa and food.

The reader gets to know Perner’s partners and informants he worked with. They have names, faces, characters and individual agendas, which was not always beneficial for Perner’s fieldwork objectives. For example, at some stage his relationship with King Agada becomes endangered when Perner’s assistant proves to be a hindrance to the king. It is only after Perner starts to work with someone else, that the king becomes cooperative again.

In this autographic account we learn a lot about the Anyuak, but  in a different way than in the ethnography. For example, when both Perner and King Agada become stuck in the mud on their return trip because the rainy season had already started, Perner was able to hire girls to carry his luggage to the village. Carriers were paid with cash and beads. The king, however, had to remain behind with all his belongings as he could only pay with a bar of soap. No one was willing to help the stranded king. This is a clear case of limited royal authority.

Perner explains why all of his photographs seem to have been taken in sunny circumstances:

“Perhaps it is because rain can be so ugly and is so difficult to capture with a camera. It held true for me: I couldn’t really take good pictures of the rain, it was too dark, too fast, too remote, too compact and too transparent at a same time.” (Ch. XIII)

Some of Perner’s documentary efforts were not appreciated by the Swiss public. To his surprise Western audiences did not like his first ethnographic film footage which was about the removal of a child’s six lower incisors, an operation that took place just before harvest.

“Fortunately the result of my filming would be to my satisfaction. The film lasted only two minutes and was of excellent quality. To my regret, people in Europe didn’t enjoy this documentary. “ (Ch. XIII)

But above all, the author gives a candid portrait of his continuing struggle to get  a complete picture; to capture everything in the most objective manner:

“Often, I returned to my place empty handed, sometimes even angry. I was seldom left to myself, the children following me were often a nuisance, making my work difficult. They ran after me, making such a noise that it was impossible to make normal contact with other people, to engage in discussions, or to make observations. My recordings were especially disturbed or even disrupted. Sometimes I got the impression that I was rather documenting an ethnographer’s desperate attempt to record information than documenting some special event. Sometimes my work failed not because of the children’s presence but because people just did not want to talk, in spite of the fact that they were just lying idle under a tree, dozing, or smoking.“ (Ch. IX)

Whereas publishing fieldwork memoirs together or after the ‘official’ monograph is quite common among cultural anthropologists, nonetheless, rich accounts of this size are very rare. It certainly deserves a place in fieldwork preparation classes and in courses on the history of anthropology.

See also:

From Participant Observation to the Observation of Participation: The Emergence of Narrative Ethnography ," Journal of Anthropological Research 47, no. 1 (Spring, 1991): 69-94

Other ASCL titles on the Anyuak


 Gerard C. van de Bruinhorst