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Voice of a nation: How Juba Arabic helps bridge a factious South Sudan

Why We Wrote This

Juba Arabic isn’t just the language spoken by more South Sudanese than any other. It is a tongue that has grown up alongside the country, the witness and stenographer to its difficult history.

Pete Muller/AP/File
Fans cheered at the first national soccer match to be held after South Sudan became an independent nation in 2011. Language has been a battleground in South Sudan, a country with five dozen of them.

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In much of the world speaking two, three, even four languages is unremarkable. Arubans swap between Dutch, Spanish, English, and the creole Papiamento. South Africans tack up “Beware of Dog” signs in three languages. But in South Sudan, some five dozen languages are spoken, a dizzyingly diverse array. South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, won independence in 2011 after five decades of off-and-on conflict, only to fall into its own civil war. Language, like almost everything here, has been a battleground – especially Juba Arabic, which began life as a dialect of Arabic brought by troops and traders and travelers in the 19th century. “Juba Arabic started as the language of outsiders, of our colonizers,” says Bernard Suwa, a pastor and translator. “But we killed it and made something new of it.” It is the country’s most-spoken language, yet it is often shunned, seen as a reminder of a messy past. But today many embrace Juba Arabic as a unifier, something unique to this fractured country. And as South Sudan tries to uphold its latest peace agreement, common ground will be all the more important, they note. “Juba Arabic is our melting pot, but people don’t always see that,” says Mr. Suwa.

By the time he was a young man, Dedy Seyi’s head was crammed with languages. 

In the refugee camp where he lived in northwestern Kenya, he spoke at least four every day. There was Kakwa, his mother tongue, shouted across scratchy cellphone lines to South Sudanese family back home and scattered around the region. With Kenyan and Somali friends in the camp, he chatted in Swahili, and in the high school where he taught, he switched into an English as crisp as the queen’s. 

But the language he loved best was one he spoke mostly to himself.

Rabuna, Abuna fi sama, de akil al bi saadu gisim, he would whisper each night in Juba Arabic, hands clasped over his dinner plate. Kede ita bariku, be isim Yesuwa Masiya, Amen.

Almighty God, our Father in heaven, this is food to nourish the body. Bless it in Jesus’ name. Amen. 

Mr. Seyi hadn’t always spoken Juba Arabic this way, in a quiet, unanswered whisper. 

When he was growing up in the town of Yei, the Arabic-based language was everywhere. It was the language of haggling over tomatoes and shouting about football scores, the language of folktales and Bible stories he swapped with friends and the news updates blasted from microphones by self-appointed town criers, who carried news from the front lines of the country’s slow-burn civil war. 

“In a place like South Sudan, you have all these different languages hovering around you,” Seyi says. “So you need a way to talk to people across those barriers, and Juba Arabic was how we did that.”   

Pete Muller/AP/File
A laborer moves a box through a tight alley in the Konyo Konyo market of Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Buyers and sellers in the country haggle over goods in Juba Arabic, an Africanized version of Arabic that has morphed into its own distinct language.

In much of the world, that kind of linguistic toggling is so unremarkable, so drearily normal, that it barely even seems worth remarking upon. Arubans swap between Dutch, Spanish, English, and the creole Papiamento. South Africans tack up “Beware of Dog” signs in three languages (Beware! Pasop! Qaphela hlokomela!). Some 200 million of Indonesia’s 260 million people speak more than one of the country’s 746 languages.

But in South Sudan, a place fractured by war and ethnic politics, a common language felt to Seyi like something much bigger than an easy way of communicating. It was a nod to a shared history, a sliver of common identity in a place where identity had, most often, been a thing used to tear people apart. 

Juba Arabic, after all, wasn’t just the language spoken by more South Sudanese than any other. It was a tongue that had grown up alongside the country, the witness and stenographer to its difficult history. A dialect of Arabic that slowly morphed into its own distinct language, it had much the same origin as the country – a messy, plucky thing pulled up from the wreckage of conquest and colonialism. 

“Juba Arabic started as the language of outsiders, of our colonizers,” says Bernard Suwa, a pastor and translator best known for a popular Juba Arabic hymn book called “Shukuru Yesu.” “But we killed it and made something new of it.” 

And that, he notes, is the history of South Sudan writ small. A brutal history reimagined. A place pulled out of the wreckage of a difficult past. 

But like almost everything in South Sudan, language is a battleground here. In a country with five dozen of them, Juba Arabic might be some people’s idea of a shared identity. But for others, it’s a nod to a history better forgotten.  

“English will make us different and modern,” one government official told the BBC shortly after the country’s independence, when the country announced that English – not Juba Arabic or any other local language – would be the language of the new government. “From now on all our laws, textbooks, and official documents have to be written in that language,” said Edward Mokole, an official at the Ministry of Higher Education. “Schools, the police, retail, and the media must all operate in English.”

Andreea Campeanu/Reuters/File
Students attend a public school in Gudele, on the outskirts of Juba, South Sudan. Lessons are taught in English.

Juba Arabic, meanwhile, would stay where it had always been. Officially, that was nowhere. 

Unofficially, though, it was everywhere. 

Could it bring a fractured nation together?

***

In July 2011, after five decades of off-and-on war, South Sudan split off from Sudan to become what is still the world’s newest country. That same year, Joseph Abuk, one of the country’s leading actors and playwrights, was invited to participate in a Shakespeare festival in London. 

There was only one rule: He had to translate and perform his chosen play in one of his country’s national languages. 

In South Sudan, that left him with a vast set of options. “All indigenous languages of South Sudan are national languages and shall be respected, developed and promoted,” declared the country’s Constitution. That meant any of the 60-plus languages floating around the country were legitimate choices. 

There was Dinka, the language of the country’s largest ethnic group. Or standard Arabic – widely spoken, if sometimes begrudgingly, after a half century of rule by the Arab north. Or Nuer. Or Bari. Or Zande. South Sudan’s languages, in fact, sprawled across three of the continent’s four language groups – a dizzyingly diverse array. But for Mr. Abuk, the choice was obvious. 

“It must be Juba Arabic, because it is the language that is everyone’s and no one’s,” he reasoned. Like most Juba Arabic speakers, Abuk had learned another language first. But when he was a young child, in the 1950s, his family moved from the countryside to Juba, the sleepy regional capital of southern Sudan. To Abuk, the place was a revelation. The first time he got in a car, he thought he was standing still and the trees on either side of the road were sprinting past. “I had never been in something that moved so fast,” he says. In his neighborhood, kids spoke in a strange jumble of words he didn’t recognize. 

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters/File
South Sudan Theatre Company directors Joseph Abuk (r.) and Alfred Ngbangu (c.) watched as their actors rehearsed a play for the World Shakespeare Festival.

“That was how I learned our brutalized Arabic, this language we Africanized after the Arabs gave it to us,” he says. Sixty years later, when it came time to pick a South Sudanese language to perform Shakespeare in, the choice was obvious.

“It’s the language that connects us whether we are Dinka, Nuer, Bari, whatever,” he says. “And this was a time when we needed languages that could be bridges.” 

For the play, he chose a lesser-known Shakespearean epic, “Cymbeline,” a knotty drama about a British insurgency against Roman colonialism that seemed to hold a mirror to South Sudan’s own history of exploitation and redemption. 

And then he set out on his translation, a painstaking two-month exercise in which he says he relied “not on a dictionary, but on my childhood.” Though there had been scattered attempts to standardize Juba Arabic over the years, mostly by missionaries, the language was still largely oral, so there was little literature that Abuk could study as a guide or a dictionary to help conjure up the right word. 

For that reason many wondered if the translation would work, says Esther Liberato, one of the actresses in the company and now the head of the drama department at the University of Juba. 

To South Sudanese, Juba Arabic was a language for deciding the price of vegetables and haggling for a taxi. And Shakespeare was, well, Shakespeare. But when she first read through the translation, Ms. Liberato was stunned. Not only was Juba Arabic roomy and expressive enough to accommodate Shakespeare, suddenly it felt as if his plays belonged to her.

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters/File
Actors with the South Sudan Theatre Company rehearse a play for the World Shakespeare Festival, which was held in London in 2012. The company performed ‘Cymbeline’ in Juba Arabic.

“We saw then that our language, our Juba Arabic, can be the language of Shakespeare,” she says. “That was not a small thing.” 

In May 2012, the South Sudan Theatre Company flew from the tented airport huddled at the edge of Juba to London. There, their version of “Cymbeline” was set to debut at the World Shakespeare Festival alongside translated Shakespearean epics from 36 other countries. 

“Played with this much heart, even Shakespeare’s most rambling romance becomes irresistible,” wrote The Guardian in its four-star review of the play. “Juba Arabic ... brings the high and mighty right down to Earth, since courtiers and shepherds share the same language. It’s also the neutral lingua franca among South Sudan’s various tribes and this is whole-hearted, full-bodied populist theatre that sides with people over state.” 

For the performers, too, the play was a revelation and an affirmation of dignity.  

“For the first time, white people clapped for us,” Abuk remembers. “We were not just a country of babies swatting flies off their faces. We were a place with its own culture and history.” 

***

Every language tells the story of its speakers, but perhaps none so obviously as creoles, mixed languages formed by local reengineering of a foreign tongue. They are languages of collision, defined by their sudden, often violent formation. Most of the dozens of distinct creoles in the world today are also the oral histories of empire.

Adriane Ohanesian/Reuters/File
The South Sudan capital of Juba, shown here at sunset, has a population of 230,000.

They were born during the brutal era of slavery, conquest, and empire-building that radiated out from Europe and the Middle East from the 1600s to the 1900s. They formed when the languages of conquest collided with the people who were conquered: The colonial subjects bent and warped the dominant tongues into ways of speaking all their own.

“If you follow the history of the world, it’s similar everywhere – one language prevails at the expense of others,” says Salikoko Mufwene, the Frank J. McLoraine distinguished service professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Chicago and an expert on creoles. “But the language, very often, wins only a Pyrrhic victory. It prevails, but it is transformed.” 

In Haiti, as plantation slavery boomed in the 17th and 18th centuries, French bent and cracked into Kreyòl Ayisyen. In Sierra Leone, freed American slaves and local inhabitants hammered English into Krio. And in southern Sudan in the 19th century, simplified forms of Arabic became the lingua franca of the jihadiya, the Ottoman Empire’s African slave armies, as well as traders and travelers, and eventually, ordinary people looking for a way to communicate across ethnic and geographical boundaries. 

One European travelogue of the region written in the 1920s provided snippets of dialogue that might be useful in the region: 

El abiad auz shuf afiyal ala-shan dugi-hum bundukia – The white man wants to find some elephants to shoot.

Ana t’aban wa mush auz rua foq el sicca bita afiyal – I am very tired and do not like running in the tracks of elephants. 

By the early 20th century, however, southern Sudan had been slotted snugly into the British Empire, and in 1928 English was declared the official language. Schools could teach in local vernaculars, but not in the region’s version of Arabic. Then, as now, it was shunned as a debased tongue. 

Sudan’s independence from Britain in 1956 forced another change on the south. Its rulers in Muslim, Arabic-speaking Khartoum, 1,200 miles north of Juba, forced schools to switch to standard Arabic. Livid over the imposition of what felt like a foreign culture – and a foreign language – southerners began a war for independence that would continue, off and on, for the next five decades.

***

As a young teacher in the 1980s, Moses Mading was inspired by Sudan’s draconian language policies to join the southern liberation struggle. “When you learn a language, you learn your culture,” he says. And if you forgot a language, he reasoned, you forgot your culture, too.

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.

Three decades later, Mr. Mading is the director general for national languages in South Sudan’s Department of Education, where he oversees a project to transition primary school instruction from English to local South Sudanese languages. 

But Juba Arabic, he says, isn’t a part of that fight. “It’s not a priority,” he says. “First we need to develop our ethnic languages.” 

For Mading, like many South Sudanese, Juba Arabic is still Arabic – and therefore a relic of a painful past he’d rather move on from (“Arabic is a dangerous language,” he says). But to proponents of Juba Arabic, that’s a simplistic read of the history. 

“Juba Arabic is our own invention. It doesn’t belong to anyone else,” says Abuk, the dramaturge. 

Since 2013, meanwhile, South Sudan has been at war with itself, a conflict that has re-exposed and deepened old ethnic fault lines, themselves intimately tied to language.

“The problem is that our patriotism is to tribe and not to country,” says Mr. Suwa, the pastor and translator. “Juba Arabic is our melting pot, but people don’t always see that.” 

Still, languages hardly need official recognition to function. 

“If you come to a place, you must learn to speak the language of that place, and Juba Arabic is the language of this place,” says Lucia Marten, pouring out tiny cups of spicy, tooth-achingly sweet tea at her small shop in the Malakia neighborhood of Juba. “Here people will not understand you if you speak in the language of your tribe. It is this one [Juba Arabic] that brings us all together.”

Even in the corridors of power here, where English should be king, Juba Arabic is never far offstage. It is the language of lunchtime gossip and hallway chatter in government offices. And when President Salva Kiir returned from a recent round of peace talks in Khartoum in August, he addressed the crowd who had gathered to meet him at the Juba Airport not in English, but in Juba Arabic.

Michael Onyiego/AP/File
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir (c.) attends an event in Juba, the capital, after a trip abroad.

To many, the questions about Juba Arabic’s future role here have become all the more urgent in the wake of those peace talks. As part of the final peace agreement, the warring factions agreed, among other things, to a kind of ethnic federalism, which will divide the country into administrative units based largely on tribe.

“Every inch of South Sudan has to be marked as part of one tribal homeland or another,” wrote the Ugandan political commentator and scholar Mahmood Mamdani in a recent New York Times op-ed. “The result will be the disenfranchisement of a large section of South Sudan’s population.” 

Though finalized, many still fear the peace agreement, like others before it, will dissolve before it is ever implemented. 

Those fighting for Juba Arabic, meanwhile, are cleareyed. No one sees a common language as the thing that will end the fighting, or stop the bloody political rivalry at the highest levels of leadership here. But languages, they note, do have a power that government mandates and peace treaties don’t. They are alive. They are embedded. They quite literally help people understand each other. And that may be as good a starting place as any for this long-fractured country. 

My people, if you speak, they say you are bad, raps Kalisto Daduyo – better known by his stage name One Pound – in Juba Arabic on his track “Expensive Things.” They don’t know that you’re speaking the right words/ They don’t know that your words are the ones that will save the people.

***

In April 2005, Seyi saw a knot of people jostling for space around a billboard in Kakuma, the refugee camp where he lived. 

When he got closer, he realized they were straining for a look at a list of names that had just been posted – the recipients of a scholarship he had applied for three months before, to attend university in Canada. He shuffled forward with the crowd, craning to see it. 

Suddenly, his eyes snagged on a name. Dedy Seyi. 

The scholarship also came with another prize. Canadian residency. His ticket out. The world, it seemed, was billowing open. And Seyi charged in.

But as the years in Canada unfurled, Seyi found himself quietly desperate, in the same way he had been as a teenager in the camp, not to lose his Juba Arabic.

But this time, he was thinking on a bigger scale. Earlier this year, with a small group of friends, he started the first Juba ­Arabic-language newspaper, Salaam Junub Sudan. 

“That word, salaam, it’s a greeting, and it also literally means ‘peace,’ ” he says. “So the idea is that the barriers will fall away when people use this language, when they read this paper.” 

In August, between overnight shifts at the pet food warehouse where he works, he edited and printed 75 copies of the first issue. 

It wasn’t much, but it was a start. 

“For a long time, we’ve kept this language at bay,” he says. “But I thought, let’s embark on this. Let’s treat this language as a thing that’s important, because it is.” 

Nancy Acayo, Samir Bol, and Silvano Yokwe contributed to this report. Support for the story was provided by the International Women’s Media Foundation. 

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