Interview with Enrico Ille

By Nanne op ‘t Ende
November 26, 2007 and February 14, 2008

Enrico Ille is an Anthropologist from Germany. He studied at the Martin-Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg. He researched historical narratives among the Nuba in Tira Mandi (see some of his photos from the area )and he is presently in Sudan for research among Nuba migrants in Khartoum. In an email interview he talks about his work, about belonging and about the Nuba identity.

Photo by Enrico Ille

Q. Can you please give me your full name, the place you were born and the date you were born? Enrico sounds Italian, but you are living in Germany… In this age of migration I think it is interesting to know someone’s roots and wanderings, as it makes us realise how home can be anywhere; would you like to tell me more about your background from this perspective?

A. My name is Enrico Ille, I was born in Halle (Saale), Germany. My family is throughout German, even from a rather limited area in central Germany. My name contains a reference to the famous Italian singer Enrico Caruso, thus it has more to do with parents’ aspirations than with roots and routes.
Apart from that I do not think that home can be anywhere in the sense of belonging, which is an expression for a very complex feeling. A lot of, but surely not all, migrations are forced movements, if forced by violence or by lack of substantial resources or by other things, and these forced migrants have to deal with where they land. To find a home is much more difficult than that.

Q. I set out to study Anthropology once, nearly 20 years ago, and I quit after a few months. Seeing the documentary ‘First Contact’ about Papua New Guinea and reading about the Yanomami gave me the misperception that anthropology would be all about primitive peoples and societies. At the same time I figured it wasn’t much use in understanding others, because whether you participate or not, you are still trying to make sense of other people’s behaviour from a certain (academic) frame of mind that somehow must find categories and descriptions that will fit in the (western) scientific world back home. You are an anthropologist: what did you expect from anthropology, what does it mean to you? Or, if that is too abstract: why were you attracted to it? And why did you continue once you had a taste of it?

A. Well, it is an old debate about primitiveness of Others, although it was a long way before it was indeed debatable and not just matter of fact. The crucial question is what part of human life we look at when we speak of ‘primitive people’. When a Yanomami fells in love or gets angry, I do not see why his desires and feelings are primitive in comparison to the desires and feelings of an IT expert in Silicon Valley. At the same time I would agree that a computer is a much more complicated tool than arrows. Therefore it has to be asked what category is relevant for a judgement about the Other: Is it for instance individual well-being or the GNP or something else?
The same thing could be said about ‘understanding’. Does ‘understanding’ mean that the Other becomes predictable or that I just look at his or her face and know what he or she thinks? Then I am afraid I fail even to understand a lot of people I meet in Germany. In the end, one never escapes to be part of a dialogue, what differs are the bases of this dialogue, the positions of the ‘speakers’ to each other, the time and effort spent on this dialogue, and things like that.
Furthermore people are not what they speak. Just because I spoke with somebody and noted his words as he said them I am not per se nearer to a doubtless truth than somebody who sent out a questionnaire and treats it according to some scientific standard. The processes of translation we are talking about are full of twists and turns, and we try to make the best out of it, whatever we think is the best. For example ‘anthropology’ means in my understanding an analytical perspective, which starts with the individual voices of those studied. Although social structure, power relations, bio- and psychological ’set-up’ are understood as frames of individual existence, it is the position my contacts in the field see themselves in, which interests me in first place.
This is the specific focus I have chosen for a couple of reasons, and my research in this direction is the place I seek in a landscape of possible societal activities. And one might disagree on the question how important such an activity is for – whatever. But I claim that this anthropological research adds a perspective that has importance and would create a gap by its absence. Of course, my initial, high expectations were much more soaked by ambitions of creating a space of social alternatives. But I see now that to take little steps in the ‘right’ direction is often much more productive than to ‘hit the horse’, and still, I try to be more than an observer with some little projects beside my research.

Q. There are various fields of anthropology – from what you told me so far I would think you are a social or cultural anthropologist. The question is not about this definition: I would just like to know what you are specialising in; why you chose this direction; and how you translate it into specific research areas.

A. Like it happens so often, my decision for the NubaMountains and for a specific issue was shaken by coincidences, opportunities and failures. I started my study in Halle with an intellectual and emotional focus on India. But when it came to pick an area for my final Magister work, I had to decide between my rather vague concept of research on violence against women in Dehli and a well-supported research on the NubaMountains.
When I went to Kadugli, I wanted to do research on orientations of cultural identity among the youth of a certain mixed group there, but when I came back I found I had done little pieces of research on anything else but that, mainly because of lacking ability to understand Arabic. So I had to base my writing more on written sources, and the ‘discovery’ of seldom used German traveller accounts from the 19th century led me to history and historical narratives. My integration into a research project about land rights in the NubaMountains then paved the way to look into territorial claims and to ask how history is understood by those raising that claims.
Nevertheless, I see no reason to demarcate ‘specific research areas’ by myself. This has more to do with the institutional drawing of borders between ‘research areas’ in order to establish some form of territorial claim.

Q. An obvious question: why the Nuba? What was your introduction to the Nuba? (You probably know Nadel’s work; how does it hold up in the light of over fifty years of development in Anthropology? I think he really bent his own definitions to fit the different peoples into certain categories – and he never answered the most intriguing questions: how is it possible that the Nuba share so many customs when they have totally different languages; how is it possible that they share the same language and have such different customs?) Do you have specific ideas about the huge variety of peoples that live in the Nuba Mountains?

A. Well, this is a bunch of questions.
The first one I already answered. The second: My first contact to a group called Nuba was – big surprise – through a big edition of Riefenstahl photos. At that time, I knew neither the details of how she worked, if not to say misbehaved, especially in Kao, nor saw these ‘Nuba’ distinguished from so many African groups I read about. My next encounter was rather ‘real’, when I met my colleague from Heiban, and since then I go forward step by step.
The problem with Nadel is not so much his work with categories, because his definitions are flexible. It is in my view inevitable to fit observations into categories; this is what everybody does all the time, only science should do it explicitly and consciously. However, Nadel tried to describe people in terms of psychological patterns and mental set-up, which are, to say it friendly, insufficient. But the main problem is the lack of reflection about the influence of his position in the contemporary power relations on his research. This means he never asked the question how it might influence the results when he interviews people in his colonial outfit with a local policeman as protection and as instrument of pressure.
Nevertheless, his book is instrumental for research on social and cultural change, and I met some Nuba who are interested to use him as reference in the ‘quest’ for their cultural identity as Nuba. But this identity has to be invented, because until some decades ago there was no group that would name itself ‘Nuba’. ‘Nubaness’ is a sign of political will that is based also on British colonial policy, which realized a polarization of groups with a relationship rich in conflicts but also flexible in the treatment of conflict resolution. Other polarizations took place in the Second Civil War, when political groups of the Nuba became more exclusive than ever before and when Nuba were treated as a generally inimical and befriended body, respectively.
I cannot discuss these questions in detail here, therefore I just stress that the tendency to underscore differences among ‘Nuba’ by ‘Nuba’ is a recent acceptance of a category, which was in use by Others, mainly Arabs, Nile Valley traders, and, following them, Europeans. Therefore I find the question more interesting who emphasizes what similarities and what differences out of which reasons. At least the main direction of this question was, by the way, also followed by Nadel.

Q. You have been working in Tira Mandi, a smaller community a bit to the South East if I got it right. Do you have an estimation of how many people used to live in Tira Mandi before the war broke out in the 1980’s? And how many people are there today? If the difference is big: where did the people go to during the war? And if they went: are they returning? What are they returning to?

A. Let me answer this question firstly more abstract than it was meant. In my experience there are now many people, who are living in different places at the same time, and who migrated out of different reasons several times in their live. They have family and other social relations in different towns and villages. They follow chances, sometimes only imaginations; they avoid dangers, also sometimes imagined. Thus we are talking about a much more complicated setting than people being forced to leave from where they belong and struggling to go back there, although this may be the case for some of them.
(Tira) Mandi is a good example for that. It is today a compact village of about 4.000 inhabitants. However, there has been existing a village like that only since the beginning of the 1990s, although several settlements with the same name and in the same area can be traced at least until 1820. But there lived not the same people all the time, and it existed not all the time, but was built, abandoned, re-established, destroyed etc. Therefore different groups speak about very different places with the same name, which is given today to a consolidated settlement organized by the army during the war. In any case, people are not returning to the place they left.

Q. If I understand it correctly, you have been recording old stories – historical narratives – from the Tira Mandi. What did you ask the people? Whom did you ask? Did you go to the elders? I’m curious about the process, all apart from the objectives. What struck you most in their stories? How do you listen to historical narratives: do you try to separate fact from fiction or are you concentrating on the underlying information about identities, about attitudes etc.? Is it possible to track most stories and date them according to certain events that are well recorded? Did you have the same experience Baumann had in Miri, where relatively recent events were recounted as if they had taken place many generations ago?

A. I find it interesting that ‘historical narratives’ often evokes the association of ‘old stories’. In my understanding, every attempt to capture the past results in narratives, they may be in form of a short story or a school book. But the point of my research is that ‘scientific facts’ are for most social situations irrelevant, and that scientists might hunt an ‘analytical ideal’, very rightly so, but that this is a peripheral region for everyday life of most people. Therefore I do not attempt to tell history ‘as it really was’, dismissing this and that as unreliable, but I ask what ‘facts’ are relevant to whom, and why.
The collection process is not so much different from Oral History research. I try to approach step by step the historical picture that my interview partner has in mind, so I have to follow his or her rhythm, the main lines which have been chosen, while I direct from time to time the focus on specific events or persons I would like to hear in his or her words. I have to admit that my research in (Tira) Mandi was rather short-time and that I had to comply mostly with the dominant idea that old men know best about history. For my point of view, though, there are no ‘experts’. Of course, there are very different scales of time, of far away and near to now, but this influences the depiction of events not just in one way, but in very manifold chronological perspectives. In the end, I take in my analysis several things out of these narratives, connected to observations from ‘being there’ and a lot of other sources.

Q. It is often said that the Nuba identify themselves basically through that which they are not: they are not Arabs. How did the Tira get along with the Arab nomads that come to South Kordofan? How do they get along now? Who are the Arabs that come to the Tira Mandi area? Are they camel nomads or Bagara?

A. Basically farmers have the same problems with nomads in the NubaMountains as in other areas of the world: Nomads want water farmers need themselves, nomads want to pass through fields they might damage. In the area north of Talodi, the nomads are mostly Hawazma (cattle), Shanabla (camel), Missiriyya (cattle), and Fellata (cattle). However, ‘Arab’ has no sharp definition, and there are several overlapping conceptions – as well as for ‘Nuba’, by the way.
The complication of this common reduction of conflict parties to Arab nomads and Nuba farmers is that there are completely or partly settled nomads (for instance Kawahla), Nuba farmers with cattle, mixed groups with other origins (for instance Fellata from West Africa), and Nile Valley traders, which are dominant based on the state capitalism firmly established in the Sudan. Thus the simple categories of media representation and often the ideas of those concerned do not fit the reality, although for instance the political Islam with Arab-Muslim rhetoric is indeed the main ideological weapon of the NCP government. The tensions over migration routes and arrival times of nomads, who are described as Arabs, are locally the main issue, but they are just one element in a network of conflicts.

Q. You mention territorial claims. Can you tell me a bit more about the way the Tira Mandi describe their territory? How does that compare to other descriptions – like maps or treaties? Obviously, the question of land ownership is important. Is the Tira Mandi territory being contested – and if so: by whom? And maybe this does not have your interest but: do you know if there are protocols to solve such land ownership issues?

A. I have to clarify a misunderstanding: ‘Tira Mandi’ is not a group, but a name for a settlement, or rather a region of houses, agricultural fields and mountains. It is not a ‘territory’ of somebody, which is in general a rather unfitting concept for a state with citizenship, although it is at the heart of one direction of land policy in the contemporary Sudan. ‘Territorial claims’ means claims of superiority and leadership in a certain area, which might encompass a space, a time or a group.
Understood this way, there are many different ‘territories’ overlapping in (Tira) Mandi, political, economic, cultural etc., mainly concerning the groups of Tira, Shawabna and Atoro. The land ownership issues you refer to are solved also in overlapping systems of jurisdiction. There are single shaykhs and umdas who are presiding over a native court, there are intertribal meetings, there are governmental and SPLM police and courts, there are agreements between individuals, customary processes, Islamic and secular law, etc. So there are no ‘protocols’ in that sense, because solutions were rather situational and very much connected to the persons involved.

Q. Another field of research is cultural orientation and education of Nuba in Khartoum. Now I heard a man from Moro say: Khartoum is in our blood. And I think most Nuba in the NM consider Khartoum as a centre of gravity. It is a place where they hope to earn some money, where they hope to make it maybe. Many settle there and their children grow up knowing little about the age grades, about the rituals, about the language etc. that might identify a Nuba as a Nuba. How do the Nuba themselves look at this? Are they sad to lose part of their culture? Do they feel less ‘Nuba’? Did you per chance see ‘Kafi’s dress’ or ‘Nuba Conversations’ by Arthur Howes?

A. I mentioned before that ‘Nubaness’ is something recent and a huge part of it is ideology. Actually, the Nuba Mountains are a classical example of a refuge, where numerous groups migrated to with a number of reasons, built relations, adopted to ecological and other conditions, and were partly isolated. But especially the northern and eastern parts were not isolated at all, and cultural contact was frequent.
Before we start to speak about Nuba culture, we have to clarify, how we define this notion. Do we refer to its usage by Arab geographers and migrants, who denoted everybody with black skin south of a ‘line of acquaintance’ as ‘Nuba’? Do we refer to the British instrumental term ‘Nuba’, whose purpose was to set something against Arab-Muslim influence? Do we refer to the notion of political organizations, which need a profile for an marginalized interest group?
Nuba try to become what they have been called by others – and rightly so in the present situation of oppression. But I would prefer an idea of culture as more or less flexible adaptation to an environment, not just ecological of course, and we come nearer to what can be found in the NubaMountains anyway. It is a region of intermingling, and I can see no peaceful solution of the wish to ‘reserve’ it, for whatever group. Culture is not an equation or a game, where somebody loses or wins, and culture is not an old body of fixed characteristics that dies when it changes. Of course, people in the NubaMountains have been forced to change in a certain direction, also in ways that are brutal and disgusting. But the solution is not preservation, and we know that it has failed badly in history.
I am referring to the early and middle phase of British policy, which tried to build up artificial boundaries between an African south (including the Nuba in Nuba Mountains, but especially here with no clear agenda and so chaotic) and an Arab north. They just thought in categories that hadn’t very much to do with reality and polarized a lot of things between people there, because it isn’t easy like Arab here and African there. So what failed was the paternalistic, partly intellectualized attempt to ‘cultivate’ Nuba as pure, original African tribes. The consequences of this conservation, or preservation, can still be felt today, like the big gap between North and South in terms of livelihood and its improvement. It should remind us that culture is lively, fluid, and hungry, and resists most often to be selected and defined. There is coexistence of cultural elements, newer and older, but there is no authenticity – Who decides which of the many changes that groups and individuals are going through is the end or beginning of ‘the authentic’? And who decides for whom?

Q. How do you view the place of the Nuba in Sudan as a whole? From a cultural perspective, from an economic perspective – what other aspects are there to it? It might be a sensitive question… I am not particularly interested in hearing you say that the Nuba belong with the South or the North; I am more interested in your thoughts about the whole notion of belonging, with reference to the different Nuba peoples with their various origins, their different histories and experiences.

A. Apart from I said before, it will be very difficult to bring this into some words. I already said something about belonging, so I stress as answer only that belonging is neither chosen nor given. I would fail to bring the people I know who call themselves Nuba into a single frame of belonging, and you are right that there seems sometimes to be nothing more than a negative definition of them. This is something I cannot answer now, because I only started to grow into an understanding of the Sudan in general and the NubaMountains in particular.

Q. Final question: How do you see the future of the Nuba and their distinct cultures, especially when you consider the economic possibilities in Southern Kordofan?

A. I want to make only two short statements: First, I think that Nuba, like most people in the world, will develop a mixture of many different local, regional and global cultural elements, nurtured in a co-existence of a culture of memory, and aspirations and imaginations for the future.
Second, the economic set-up of South Kordofan will be decisive for the question, where individuals will be nurturing, naturalizing and belong. And for that matter, I think South Kordofan and the Sudan in general have not - or not always in the first place - a problem of resources, but of distribution. I am still not sure if I should be pessimistic or optimistic that the prevailing pattern of the past will change or persist, namely the usage of the Nuba Mountains rather as resource for others than for the local population.

Interview by email, in November 2007 and February 2008.


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