SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

Traditional songs as a path to literacy in South Sudan

Dr Angela Impey’s ethnomusicological research in the Republic of South Sudan has supported the spreading of literacy and, ultimately, participation and social cohesion in a fledgling state. 
Gordon Koang, Nuer musician
Gordon Koang, Nuer musician. Credit: Angela Impey

South Sudan has endured decades of civil war, resulting in displacement, meagre infrastructure and limited access to education, with a literacy rate of just 27%. The Dinka language, spoken by 35.5% of the population, is among the richest tonal languages in the world. In an overwhelmingly oral culture, the lack of established orthography and literature is a barrier to literacy. 

Dr Impey collaborated with the Department of Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh on a project investigating the interplay between traditional Dinka musical forms and the Dinka language. By working with Dinka communities, the project developed books that are among the first written resources produced in Dinka and therefore crucial to meeting the new nation’s need for universal mother-tongue literacy training. 

Peter Bol Deng, Dinka musician Credit: Angela Impey
Well-known Dinka composer, Peter Bol Deng, sings a song about the 2nd Sudanese civil war to the accompaniment of a 5-string lyre (rababa). Credit: Angela Impey

As the project’s ethnomusicologist, Dr Impey compiled and recorded an expansive collection of Dinka songs for transcription by her colleagues.  As a music producer she was substantially involved in the creation of two songbooks and accompanying CDs of traditional Dinka songs, annotated in Dinka and English. These books not only support literacy in the new nation but contribute to the preservation of Dinka culture and identity, a concern central to post-conflict reparation.

Deng Yai, Undersecretary for Ministry of General Education and Instruction, said:

“This resource is invaluable to us at this moment of education development in South Sudan.  We are in the process of revising the curriculum framework to meet the needs and aspirations of the nation, and this includes the teaching of languages (…). Your materials will be valuable for use in Early Child Development and Primary education. But what you are doing is killing two birds with one stone: apart from teaching Dinka children to read in their own language, you are teaching them a great deal about their own culture. This is a very good beginning.”

Dinka cattle camp Credit: Rob Denselow
Dinka cattleman singing his personal ox-song (without instrument). Credit: Rob Denselow

In early 2013, the books and CDs were distributed to schools, churches (who run literacy programmes), community centres, government ministries, and foreign NGOs promoting education.  At the time, Ezra Simon of USAID noted:

“I have been in this job for two and a half years and this is the first time that I have been offered materials for education. All other materials are either religious or are extremely outdated. The CDs created quite a stampede in the office and we need more! They are so exciting and there is simply nothing like this anywhere in South Sudan.”

Lodoviko Lual, Parliamentarian and Chair of Dinka Language Development Association (DILDA), attests to the cultural importance of the resource:

“This is the first CD like this that is a document of Dinka history, and particularly of the war. This is a document that we can keep. It is not like the way our grandfathers remembered word for word, and when they died, the songs died with them. These documents will contribute toward the continuity of our culture.”