I have been remiss in not writing more about the Nuer people themselves. When I started the mission I was quite uninformed about The Nuer, my head stuffed to overload with tropical medicine, public health and MSF protocols. No doubt my current knowledge is spotty, so I apologize in advance for errors or omissions.
The Nuer people, who call themselves the Naath (human beings), are one of the biggest ethnic groups in East Africa; they are located in southern Sudan and western Ethiopia. In southern Sudan, they form the second largest ethnic group; the Dinka are the largest. Jonglei province, where we are, is also home to the Shilluk and the Merle. As a result of the protracted civil war in southern Sudan, many Nuer have emigrated to Kenya and other countries. Thousands were also resettled as refugees and currently live in Canada, the USA and Australia.
The Nuer are well known in anthropology as the subjects of a famous ethnographic study by E. E. Evans-Pritchard. The trilogy he wrote is considered a classic example of social anthropology. It starts with The Nuer, published in 1940, and is followed by Kinship and Marriage Among the Nuer, published in 1951, and Nuer Religion, published in 1956. More recently the Nuer have been studied by anthropologist Sharon E. Hutchinson, her findings are described in Nuer Dilemmas: Coping with Money, War and the State, published 1996. I bought The Nuer and Nuer Dilemmas from Amazon when I was home in June. My husband sent them to me in a care package that never arrived; perhaps they are still in transit somewhere between Toronto and Lankien. I hope someone eventually reads them.
Despite the hardships, it is a privilege to be here and work with the Nuer, a group that has been isolated by war for most of the last 50 years. Few people have this opportunity and I am one of the lucky ones. The Nuer always seem willing to tell me about themselves and now, as I am approaching the end of my mission, I wish I had asked more questions. Of course, asking questions and penetrating the language barrier takes time and energy, something that always seems in short supply. And the language barrier can be very dense, the accuracy of translation often tenuous. Those who speak English are usually the young men who went to school in the refugee camps of Kenya and Ethiopia. Very few women speak any English, and communication with them is usually filtered through the biases of a translator.