Culture and Custom

Sunday 27th February to Saturday 9th March

I am a volunteer with VSO but all entries on this blog are my personal responsibility alone and do not represent the views of VSO


Living in South Sudan means living in a predominately African culture although in our case it’s heavily tempered not only by our European roots but also by the people from many other countries who live there and who we often meet, especially from Ethiopian and Eritrea. So it was interesting in the last few weeks to have had some much more direct exposure to the older customs of South Sudan.

Two of the people I shared a house with went to a talk on women’s issues and brought back with them a copy of a booklet based on research into customary law in South Sudan, with particular reference to women. The book featured a number of case studies in which women had committed crimes of violence to get away from abusive relationships. The women in turn had been tried in customary courts and the book researched how these operate and how they are now often in conflict with the conventional courts set up under statutory arrangements.

A couple of weeks later I went to two talks at the University as part of the consultation exercise for the new constitution. In one of these there was considerable discussion about the whole issue of customary courts and where they fit for the future. One of the interesting points made was that the present system of customary courts, which is highly complex and involves overlapping administrations within a single community is in fact not all that old or “traditional”, having been put in place in the 20th-century by the colonial government.

In between these two generalised discussions I came across a real example of how local law-making works. While in a northern town I met a young man who told me his story. As a 15-year-old he had had a girlfriend, before leaving the country to get his schooling elsewhere. After he left, he discovered that his girlfriend was pregnant; she was taken in by his family and in due course they were established as a couple living with their child in his parents’ house. However, some years later the girl left the family home and took the child with her. The young man had come to the town where I met him because he was looking to get his daughter back.

He told me that he had had discussions with his own family and the girl’s family and both had agreed that it was she who was in the wrong. He did not say (but I imagine) that he had also consulted the local customary court and been given a similar judgement. Whatever we might think about the rights and wrong in the case, especially with our notions of maternal rights over children, it was clear that in South Sudan all the rights were on the young man’s side and he could take back his daughter. Indeed the girl was with him and I met her – a tall, 11 year-old who was about to leave the country in her turn, to continue her own education in Uganda.

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