The Coming of Connectivity as the coming of the Town – By Naomi Pendle

A newly stocked village market demonstrates the influence of the more accessible 'town' on rural life in South Sudan.

If you walk northwest for about two hours away from the county capital market in Warrap state and climb the leafless tree near the last trio of thatched huts, your mobile phone may flicker into signal.  For the last few years, people in this county in Warrap have been trekking to access the phone network from the mast in a town across the river.  A few broken bones have been attributed to accidental descents and others have cut trees down to prevent phone users traipsing across their gardens.  There is now a promise that the county’s own phone network will be functioning by the end of February 2013.  The installation of the phone mast and a booster a few hours drive away makes this promise a real possibility.

Yet, the increasing connectivity has prompted local discussion about its likely challenge to local authority arrangements and compliance with the normative order they uphold.  The growing connectivity is perceived as bringing with it the values and authority of the town, interrupting the home villages with further complexity and plurality.

Through the last decades of war and peace in rural Warrap, local structures of power have been constantly negotiated.  Yet, connectivity offers alternative, easy access to the town’s ideas, people and power.  The late John Garang’s famous adage was that the “towns should be brought to the people, and not the people to the towns”.  Irrespective of the desire for town-like development in the rural communities, the moral and social influence of the sphere of the town is viewed with more skepticism.

The local discourse often distinguishes between the town (“geu”) and the home (“baai”).  The latter refers to those who both physically remained in the rural, home communities and also continued to be predominantly subject to its social influence and its local leadership including family elders and Executive Chiefs.  Often the only de facto public authority, these local leaders still maintain the local social order. The town refers to those who have moved away from the rural home community and have come under the influence of other social spheres often associated spatially with urban centres.

The change in the social sphere of influence was associated with their physical movement to a different locality outside the more familiar and consistent home.  Yet, with growing connectivity, even people who remain in the home villages have more access to the town.  Most of the behavior associated with the town is considered of moral and legal disrepute by the rural, home context.  The distinction between the people of the home and the town is often applied in common discourse to young men.

As one Executive Chief explained, “During the war the educated people came to us and said that we could free ourselves from the North, so we joined the SPLA.  Yet, because we were fighting, we realized our sons were no longer being educated, so we sent them to the towns to be educated.  But in the towns they learnt to disobey us.  Now all they want to do is sit around, drinking beer and smoking shisha.  The young men of the town only cause us problems.  The boys who never left the villages of the home never drink and they still listen to us”.

Connectivity has been slow to come to this county.  This is despite hosting a significant population and having representation in the national government.  The county also possesses one of the most popular grazing lands in Warrap State that routinely experiences cattle raids across the Unity-Warrap border.  The lack of connectivity has long been claimed by local government officials as a cause of the continuing insecurity.  Yet, the network has still been slow in coming.

The long-whispered rumour has been that the network had been prohibited from this county by its leaders’ fears that the coming of connectivity would expose these rural communities to the ideas and values of the town, undermining local norms and leadership.  For example, people rely on daughters having no premarital relations to maximize the claim on dowry.  Phones were feared to enable secret meetings and misbehavior in contradiction to these local laws, prompting a widening of youth rebellion from local leadership that is usually associated with the town.

Speaking in hesitant but perfectly formed English, an aging chief sits adjacent to the door of a long-closed market shop.  The dilapidated market in front of him used to be an epicenter of trade when the SPLA occupied this area in the 1990s.  Then the local authority was in constant negotiation with the SPLA and immigrants seeking trade or refuge.  Yet, local politics and the distance of the market from the gravel road prompted its decline.  However, with the phone network booster located in this village, it still remains a key location in the county as various spheres of influence collide.

Having been a chief for decades, he is renowned for his firm grasp over his community.  Yet, he wants to complain to me of the lyrics he hears blasting from the phones of the young men of his village.  Educated during the British Condominium era, he understands the lyrics that he hears even if the young men who play them do not.  He describes his intention to gather the Executive Chiefs from the surrounding area to enforce a ban on such music from these phones.  He perceives the lyrics as contradicting the home’s basic values.  The ban will reassert his authority even over these imports from the town.

The previous isolation of the rural, home community from the town can be exaggerated.  Formal education, employment, army service, the search for wartime refuge and national politics all took people away from their rural homes.  Through family networks and returning migrants, the home communities have already started a long negotiation with these sources of influence.  Yet, the coming of the phone network will increase the connectivity with those who have left.

Without a mobile phone network, Thuraya satellite phones have been a rare resort for essential, rapid communication.  Yet, the expense of such phones made them only accessible to the occasional government official, international NGO workers and the nephews of senior national figures to allow them to manage their domestic affairs from a distance.  This phone connectivity was often utilized to support relationships of power with people at a state or national level.  Yet, the cost of these phones made these relationships the preserve of the elite.  In contrast, mobile phones are already the commonplace asset of many families in the village and will provide new, wider access to avenues of authority as well as the social influence of the town.

Road construction has also increased connectivity in the post CPA era and started to bring the town to the home.  Four years ago the road was constructed from Wau to the county capital.  Previously, in the wet season, if the road through the forest was even passable it could take days to reach the county and a further shoulder-high trek through a swamp to reach the county capital.  The only two trucks that then regularly made the journey traveled as a pair – prepared to pull and dig each other out when their heavy wheels sunk too far into the mud.  Most people, if they had to make the journey, went on foot or peddle bike, but the majority never went to Wau.

Now, the gravel road makes the county capital just three hours away from Wau.  Paying passengers pile into commercially run cars that traverse up and down.  The village market is filled with not only dried fish and excess sorghum, but also shoes, fridges of soda and piles of sweets.  Arabic speaking traders as well as local women sell their goods in this well supplied market.  In turn, a steady flow of cattle is moved towards Wau.  Buying cattle from the auctions around the county, those who trade in cattle then herd them to Wau for sale and slaughter.  The trade has become routine enough for a local taxing system and a market along the way to be designated as a trading point.  Plus, people travel to Wau for school, hospital treatment and business.  Those discontented in the village have the option to move away.  People claim a growing number of women escape to Wau when they are unhappy with their marriage. New choices usually only associated with the town are now found in the home.

It is still unclear whether connectivity will bring the development of the town to the home.   As one Executive Chief explained, “A phone is no better than a spear.  In itself, you cannot eat it.  It just depends what you can do with it”.  Yet, the coming of connectivity does add to the plurality of sources of authority and options of legitimacy to which the rural communities are exposed.  With the coming of connectivity comes the growing influence of the social sphere of the town and a new negotiation of power for the authorities of the home.

Naomi Pendle teaches at the University of Bahr el-Ghazal (Wau) and Marol Academy (Warrap State). She writes a regular Letter from Warrap State for Making Sense of Sudan.

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