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March 11th, 2015

Lessons from Pajok: Towards a comparative ethnography of security and justice in Africa


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Editor

March 11th, 2015

Lessons from Pajok: Towards a comparative ethnography of security and justice in Africa


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Following an extended period of fieldwork in Pajok, South Sudan, Ryan O’Byrne explores key issues  on the cosmological dimensions of (in)justice and (in)security in the country as raised in his recent JSRP Paper.

There is a growing realisation among donors and policy makers that a stronger evidence base is needed on issues such as how public authority and governance serve end-users or how justice and security experiences are affected by dynamics of social exclusion. This blog highlights a new JSRP paper which provides original, important, and much needed research into just these areas, delivering a unique and empirically grounded argument for the importance of the cosmological dimensions of (in)justice and (in)security in the lives of end-users in Pajok, South Sudan. One dominant theme of this new paper is that end-users not only experience (in)security and (in)justice in multiple socially and spiritually determined ways but that in response to these experiences they adopt a diverse array of strategies that attempt to reorient cosmological governance structures towards their own needs.

St Andrews, African Inland Church compound, Caigon Boma, Pajok (Photo: Ryan O’Byrne)
St Andrews, African Inland Church compound, Caigon Boma, Pajok (Photo: Ryan O’Byrne)

This blog post, however, seeks to highlight another important argument presented within the recent JSRP paper, and argues that a correct depiction of the diversity of hybrid governance forms in the lives of end-users in our research areas must, by both contextual and theoretical necessity, always be defined as broadly as the ethnographic circumstances require.  Indeed, such circumstances need to be considered highly relevant to the wider forum of interest in understanding the interactions between hybrid governance and issues of (in)security and (in)justice. Due to the way they impact on and frame interpersonal and communal relations, the actors and institutions that comprise the public authority structures of contemporary Pajok include such cosmological aspects as rainmakers and jogi (‘non-human spiritual forces’).[1] The reason for such broad and distinctly nonstandard definitional criteria is that, in contemporary Pajok, it is precisely these informal institutions that govern peoples’ lives.

Acholi cosmologies and the comparative ethnography of sub-Saharan Africa
Although the research underlying my paper concentrates specifically on Acholi-speaking Pajok Payam in Magwi County, Eastern Equatoria State, South Sudan, it is argued therein that the findings are not only applicable to both South Sudan and Acholi generally but, following the wide-ranging regional sociocultural similarities noted by many Africanists and Cosmologists, also towards sub-Saharan Africa more widely (cf. Horton 1997; Mbiti 1970; Morris 2006; p’Bitek 1970). Therefore, this blog argues that a broader and more holistic notion of hybrid governance is needed than that typically used in justice and security scholarship. Further, it is argued that rather than beginning from a position which assumes prior knowledge of the dimensions that are most important in end-users’ experiences of (in)justice and (in)security, both governance-related actors as well as the specific forms they take must be defined through long-term ethnographic research.

Indeed, time in the field is crucial to understanding these cosmological dimensions. Socially and culturally disengaged and quick hitting interviews, surveys, questionnaires, and similar research methods often struggle to discover the richly nuanced and frequently paradoxical data long-term ethnographic fieldwork can uncover. Further, without an embedded understanding of the everyday existential importance of a practice-oriented approach, nor the incorporation of the anthropological truism that there are considerable differences between what people say, what people do, and what people say they do, other techniques may misrecognise or fail to appreciate those aspects of life which do not fit materialist (and often ethnocentric) political and economic biases. For example, most of the information presented in the newest JSRP paper was only discovered to be important to end-users’ experiences of (in)justice and (in)security by building positive and long term personal relationships that created the trust end-users required to discuss the distinctly dangerous cosmological entities and practices with which they are surrounded. Furthermore, it is my contention that end-users’ day-to-day lives can only be contextualised through daily access to the often vast contradictions between discourse and practice that make up much of everyday sociality.

Before concluding with what I believe could be an important conceptual framework for comparative ethnographic analysis of (in)security and (in)justice in Africa, I wish to demonstrate two ways in which the findings of this paper have wider comparative value than simply toward the particular ethnographic context within which it is situated. Firstly, although Christianity in Acholi South Sudan has a history of less than 100 years, in contemporary Pajok it is Christianity that now dominates all normative discussions about the religious or spiritual dimensions of life, especially among community leaders. Because of this, a strong conceptual connection is made between customary Acholi ritual practices and non-Christian behaviours and beliefs, and many Christians view any non-Christian ritual practices as either devil worship or idolatry. Such a finding is common throughout sub-Saharan Africa (cf. Englund 2003; Meyer 1998; Mogensen 2002), as well as being of wider comparative importance to much of the majority world (cf. Cannell 2006; Meyer 2004; Robbins 2007). This can have major implications for the everyday experiences of security and justice for some end-users, especially where development funding or access to other resources are tied to religious membership.

Secondly, Acholi cosmologies are largely concerned with maintaining harmonious relations with the environment, including all social entities living and dead, physical and spiritual (cf. Porter 2013). In Pajok, for example, the basis of these systems are end-users’ relationships with powerful entities who have known connections to the family, lineage, and clan and appeasement of whom allows for greater control over the existential (in)security of one’s self, family, and community. In this way, Acholi cosmological systems are similar to those focussing on the pragmatic aspects of environmental control found within other African societies (cf. Evans-Pritchard 1956, 1972; Lienhardt 1961).

‘Deities, the Dead, and the Wild’, a heuristic framework for the comparative analysis of cosmological (in)security and (in)justice in sub-Saharan Africa
In this final section, I wish to give one example of how ethnographically grounded analysis of (in)security and (in)justice in a specific research location can provide the empirical basis to the theoretical generalisations necessary to allow the comparative study of security and justice across a wider ethnographic area, in this case sub-Saharan Africa. Analysis of the data presented on the cosmological dimensions of (in)security and (in)justice in Acholi-speaking Pajok Payam, South Sudan points away from cosmology as specifically manifested within either Pajok or the Acholi ethnolinguistic group and suggests future avenues of comparative research on (in)security and (in)justice within sub-Saharan Africa as a whole.

The Bobi subclan kac (ancestral shrine), Lawacci Boma, Pajok (Photo: Ryan O’Byrne)
The Bobi subclan kac (ancestral shrine), Lawacci Boma, Pajok (Photo: Ryan O’Byrne)

In his 1990 monograph Between God, the dead and the wild: Chamba interpretations of ritual and religion, Fardon (1990) notes that West African peoples have a tripartite understanding of cosmology that he describes as ‘God’, ‘the dead’, and ‘the wild’. These categories also broadly reflect some of the predominant structuring features of Acholi cosmologies as manifested within Pajok. It is argued here that, beyond simply Pajok, these typological categories also have great comparative strength. Indeed, if Fardon’s typological category of ‘God’ is reframed toward the more broadly conceptual category of ‘Deity’, then in the Acholi world this would not only capture the imported monotheistic Godhead in either its Christian or Islamic orientations,[2] but would also include the wider Nilotic deistic category of Jok/Jogi, a concept already replete in theoretical and ethnographic comparative value.[3]

The classificatory position held by ‘the dead’ in Fardon’s typological categorisation also has considerable ethnographic support among Acholi, especially in the concepts of cen (‘ghostly vengeance’),[4] kwaro (ancestor(s) or grandfather(s)), and tipu dano (‘shades, spirits, souls’). The same holds true among other Nilotic groups. Indeed, Morris (2006: 149-150) notes that the category of ‘the dead’ is a dominant cosmological category across Africa and may well be considered a cultural universal within sub-Saharan Africa. As the JSRP paper highlights, Fardon’s typological category of ‘the wild’ also finds its ethnographic equivalent in Acholi South Sudan, especially in the concept of tim (wilderness) and the specific ways in which many conceptual outsiders are understood and discussed.

In the Acholi worldview, tim is unambiguously and consciously conceptualised as all that which lies outside of the specific Acholi gang (home/village), considered the domain of humans. In this way, tim encompasses not only the uninhabited wilderness itself, but also other peoples – both Acholi and non-Acholi – as well as unknown areas of the world. Tim is therefore a conceptually and cosmologically important meta-abstraction within the Acholi cultural framework. Tim is also connected to basic conceptualisations of culture and nature, inside and outside, human and other, and echoes theoretical ideas of the cross-cultural definition of structural and categorical purity proposed by Mary Douglas (2002) and others. In this way, it also helps to structure the very basis of the way security and justice are locally understood.

Following the analytical framework provided by Fardon (1990), I here suggest that the most dangerous cosmological categories and the most pressing everyday (in)security and (in)justice concerns of Pajok end-users are strongly connected to tim – the wild. These dangers include not only wild animals or ‘wild people’ like the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), but also wild cosmological entities such as human/animal shapechangers. By way of conclusion then, I argue that this reworking of Fardon’s conceptual framework is of broad relevance to other cosmological conceptualisations within sub-Saharan Africa. As demonstrated in this paper, it is certainly relevant to Acholi cosmologies, especially as manifested within Pajok, South Sudan. However, given the wide cross-cultural similarities within sub-Saharan Africa, it is argued that this framework might usefully be applied to multiple peoples across the continent. In this way, the importance of the cosmological within Pajok end-users’ understandings of (in)security and (in)justice should be expected to have much wider theoretical and comparative consequences.

Therefore, the results of the new JSRP paper provide a starting point toward creating more dynamic comparative work within justice and security-related research programmes, leading individual projects and researchers in one ethnographic area towards engagement with similar projects in other, more disparate regions of sub-Saharan Africa and perhaps even more widely. Ideally, given the importance of the cosmological dimensions of security and justice found in this paper, this future research will not only be comparative in nature but also much more cosmologically-engaged.

Finally, such a comparative and ethnographically-driven project may allow future security and justice-related research to overcome what I believe are two of the field’s major theoretical shortcomings: firstly, its unnecessarily state-centric bias and secondly its negation or marginalisation of the importance of the spiritual dimensions of human existence. Consequently, by situating local experiences of the cosmological dimensions of life in Pajok alongside an argument for the wider and ethnographically-based comparative examination of such dimensions, the JSRP paper provides the empirical and theoretical basis for analyses of (in)security and (in)justice that do not uncritically assume the state as either a unified field or primary governance actor. It also further demonstrates the cosmological as a necessary foundational component of all future research on (in)security and (in)justice within Africa. This is especially so given that the basic cosmological components fundamental to Pajok end-users’ everyday (in)security and (in)justice experiences are essentially similar to those found elsewhere in Africa: although local terms of reference might change, the basic structuring principles remain remarkably consistent. It is important to recognise, however, that conclusively demonstrating the validity of these arguments requires a much larger comparative project.

This post originally appeared on the JSRP blog.

Cannell, Fenella (2006b)  ‘Introduction: the Anthropology of Christianity’ in The Anthropology of Christianity. F. Cannell, ed. Pp. 1-50. Durham: Duke University Press.

Douglas, Mary (2002),  Purity and danger: An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo, London: Routledge.

Englund, Harri (2003),  ‘Christian independency and global membership: Pentecostal extraversions in Malawi’, Journal of Religion in Africa 33(1):83-111.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E.(1956),  Nuer Religion, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1972), Witchcraft, oracles, and magic among the Azande, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fardon, Richard (1990), Between God, the dead and the wild: Chamba interpretations of ritual and religion, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Horton, Robin (1997), Patterns of thought in Africa and the West: Essays on magic, religion and science,  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lienhardt, Godfrey (1961), Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka, Oxford: Clarendon Press

Mbiti, John S. (1970), Concepts of God in Africa, London: Praeger.

Meyer, Birgit (1998),  ‘Make a Complete Break with the Past’: Memory and Post-Colonial Modernity in Ghanaian Pentecostalist Discourse’, Journal of Religion in Africa 28(3): 316-349.

Meyer, Birgit (20040, ‘Christianity in Africa: From African independent to Pentecostal-charismatic churches’, Annual Review of Anthropology 33:447-474.

Mogensen, Hanne O. (2002), ‘The resilience of juok: confronting suffering in Eastern Uganda’, Africa 72(3):420-436.

Morris, Brian (2006), ,  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

p’Bitek, Okot (1970),  African Religions in Western Scholarship, Kampala: East African Literature Bureau.

Porter, Holly E. (2013),  ‘After Rape: Justice and Social Harmony in Northern Uganda’, PhD Thesis, International Development, London School of Economics and Political Science

Robbins, Joel (2007), ‘Continuity thinking and the problem of Christian culture’, Current Anthropology 48(1):5-38.

[1] The widespread Nilotic concept of jok (sing, plural jogi)is a fundamental structuring principle among Nilotic communities and central in understanding Nilotic people’s conceptualisations of the world and how it works. Much has been written about jok across the region, a lot of which is somewhat confusing and contradictory. In the author’s opinion, the most accurate of the work so far written about jok is Mogensen’s (2002) account of juok among the Jop’Adhola of eastern Uganda. Mogensen’s analysis is noteworthy for its emphasis on the contextual specificity of juok, the ways in which the concept/term can mean multiple and often contradictory things to the same person at different times and under different circumstances.

[2] This conceptual expansion does not seem too great an analytical challenge: Fardon’s thesis was based on the predominantly Islamic Chamba people of Nigeria, whose longer-term engagement with the synchronising work of that particular world religion had effectively resulted in the de-sacralisation of pre-Islamic deities. This proposed expansion is merely arguing for the re-Africanisation of Fardon’s important conceptual categories.

[3] Nilotic people groups live across both Sudan and South Sudan, as well as within the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. The jok concept is an important cosmological principle for virtually all these people groups.

[4] The conceptual similarity underlying most definitions of cen is that of a purposeful and directed spiritual force or power that comes to haunt, attack, or trouble those connected with the acts that led to its formation.


The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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