South Sudan archivists fear loss of historical texts

With efforts to get national archives off the ground stalled, conflict not only threatens people but also historical heritage.

Juba, South Sudan – The history of Africa’s youngest nation is on the shelves surrounding Youssef Onyalla.

Onyalla, director of South Sudan’s national archives, delicately turns the yellowed pages, which provide a link to the country’s past. 

“We have archives on [tribes], we have documents on roads, we have documents on criminal cases, and then we have a lot of documents … on intelligence, agriculture, education,” he said.

South Sudan doesn’t have a museum, so thousands of archival documents are sitting in a small building in the capital, Juba, waiting for a national archives to be built.

The documents have been collected since 2005, and until recently, they were stored in tents.

Most are British colonial records that date back to the 19th century when South Sudan was still part of Sudan.

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South Sudan gained its independence in 2011, but two years later, conflict broke out.

Thousands of people have been killed, and more than four million people have been displaced in the fighting, according to the United Nations.

The conflict has stalled the government’s plan to build the archives.

Funding difficulties

The project will also need the help of international donors to get off the ground, and the ongoing conflict has made it difficult to secure funding.

“It’s true that the different outbreaks of conflict have caused some delays to the project,” said Anna Rowett, programme manager of the Rift Valley Institute, a non-profit research and training organisation.


“They need a proper home. These documents are very fragile. Some of them are over 100 years old,” Rowett said.

In the meantime, though, archival documents have been printed onto large posters and affixed to walls in Juba as part of an effort to encourage South Sudanese citizens to learn about their own history.

“These archives are teaching me about what has been written down,” said Amira Ajak, a resident, in front of the display.

“I’m learning my country’s history. Anyone can read and learn about their heritage.”