Colonialism in reverse

The story of Juba Arabic is one of colonization. The language is a mixture of different tongues imposed upon the South Sudanese by outsiders. That makes the story of Juba Arabic an allegory of sorts. 

Pete Muller/AP/File
A man wears a shirt based on South Sudan's flag at a soccer match in Juba, South Sudan, in July 2011.

I’ll admit it. When I first heard about the idea for this week’s cover story, I was unconvinced. An article about a local language in South Sudan? There was the possibility, I thought, of this being one of those stories that is well-intentioned but ends up feeling obscure and incidental to the thrumming heartbeat of the world today. 

How wrong I was. 

By the time I read about Joseph Abuk being enveloped in applause, I was almost crying. I won’t say any more. I don’t want to ruin Ryan Brown’s extraordinary story. But suffice it to say, the story of Juba Arabic, as told by Ryan, is neither obscure nor incidental. It is essential, and in her telling of it, Ryan also shows why the Monitor is essential, too.

The story of Juba Arabic is one of colonization. The language is a mixture of different tongues imposed upon the South Sudanese by outsiders. That makes the story of Juba Arabic an allegory of sorts. 

The world today is still struggling with the legacy of colonialism. When we think about the legacies of colonialism, we think about the consequences of economic exploitation and decades of imposition on the hope of self-government and national liberty. Colonialism will only truly be dead when the lingering mind-set, founded on the paternalistic view that some humans are less capable or worthy than others, is eradicated.

Yet the story of Juba Arabic sets a different scene. It points to the ultimate impotence of colonialism and the alchemical power of human adaptation, perseverance, and independence. 

First, English was imposed on the South Sudanese by the British Empire. Then, Arabic was imposed by a brutal Sudanese regime in the north. 

Now, the South Sudanese have assimilated elements of both – drawing, too, on dozens of native languages – to create something unique. The attempt to force something foreign on South Sudan has instead become one of the most powerful vessels for a new sense of South Sudanese identity. 

This allegory is relevant to the world. Globalization is, in some respects, colonialism in reverse. Yes, some nations use global markets to their advantage, yet commitment to free markets creates forces of integration that are harder to control. Immigration is the most obvious example. In globalization, every part of the world is ultimately trying to colonize every other part simultaneously. 

The story of Juba Arabic points us to the higher goal. Collaboration across borders today is not about a future of mutually assured colonization. It seeks that process of finding our own identity strengthened and enriched by widening, not narrowing, our spheres of contact. The world today is trying to figure out how it can gain those benefits without resorting to the morally corrupt means of colonialism.

These lessons are certainly being learned in the halls of academia. But they percolate dramatically through the lives of people in South Sudan and in countless overlooked places across the world, and the Monitor exists to make sure they receive their appropriate applause. 

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

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