After working in the refugee sector for many years I came to understand that the women elders of Australia’s largest new refugee community,have a richness of stories that may never be heard – not only the story of their own lives, but of their culture and the history of their country. After visiting South Sudan a number of times and consulting with community members, I decided to undertake an oral history project within the Diaspora in Melbourne – in an attempt to capture some of these stories.
Between late 2012 and early 2014 I recorded over 33 hours of interviews with South Sudanese women elders. South Sudan has dozens of distinct ethnic groups. In Melbourne there are far fewer. I was able to speak with just seven: Kuku, Bari, Acholi, Anyuak, Chollo, Nuer and Dinka. There are many Dinka clans, these women are part of the Twic, Ngok, Agar, Ajiek and Malual clans.
The women I interviewed are aged between 50 and 70 – approximately. Most interviews are around 60 minutes long – some much longer. Eight women spoke in English. The others provided their own interpreters, often their daughters who contributed some of their own story. The women are from across greater Melbourne, the west, the south and east, the inner city. These interviews are not perfect, there are babies crying and phones ringing, and doors slamming, some were cut short and a second conducted at a later date. They were recorded in homes and church halls and in one case my car. All follow the same loose structure: childhood, marriage, war and migration to Australia.
Women spoke of fondly of their childhoods. Of their loving families and childhood games as well as learning responsibility and the chores and tasks expected of girls. Many were particularly close to their fathers. About half went to school. Those who didn’t certainly wanted to, but either there was no school or their family objected to educating a girl. There are stories of marriage, arranged by their family. A few women went against tradition and made their own choices. One eloped with the man she had fallen in love with.
There are stories from the war, terrible stories of loss and displacement, of constantly moving and looking for safety. Of witnessing atrocities and death and struggling to survive in refugee camps for five, 10, 15 and 20 years.
Each interview ends with the story of their migration to Australia. A place none of them knew anything about but were deeply relieved to come to. One woman recalled arriving in Melbourne “When I looked out the plane window, it was night and there were lights everywhere. Everyone had electricity. I thought this is a good place. Nobody here has been left out.”
Another remembered her first day in a new country: “It was really very good. It was calm. I got peace of mind.” But another women described life in Australia in this way: “We are free, we are free, we are free.”
The interviews have now become part of the oral archive of the State Library of Victoria. In a collection that has very few women it will be the first time any African women have been included. The interviews are being catalogued and in another first made available online, later this year.
Many people assisted in the project but a very big thankyou must go to Amon Back for allowing me to interview in her home numerous times. Ayak Mawien for interpreting often and to the gracious support of Deacon George Piech Meat, Rita Awour Padang and the project’s patron, Rachel Ayen William.
Sadly, one of the participants, Nyahoth Chuol Nhial, passed away in June. The project is dedicated to her.
AnyikÖÖl is Dinka for stories