19 Jan 2019

 

Jungle Chronicles Revisited

"Jungle Chronicles, gives the reader, especially the younger reader,....a round historical trip, engaging the reader to reflect on the past, present, and future."

 
 
A book review by Victor Lugala
 
For a journalist who has been an active practitioner on the two Sudans’ and region's media landscape for four decades and counting, the publication of his memoir has long been overdue, if a book is what his longtime and loyal readers have been expecting.
 
Atem Yaak Atem's long-awaited Jungle Chronicles is a journalist's memoir, the first harvest in a trilogy. This is more or less a taster, if you like.  
 
The book is an omnibus of journalistic essays strung together as if to vindicate Philip L. Graham who is credited for coining the phrase, “Journalism is the first rough draft of history”.
 
Having started practicing journalism in the Sudan in the mid-1970s during President Jaafar Nimeiri's one-party state to date, the journalist turned-author has been a witness of the history of the two Sudans. And, oh, at another level, he became part of history.
 
He might detest the tag of rebel propagandist, but isn’t that what he did when he was the founding director of the clandestine Radio SPLA? He accomplished his national service in the outfit which the late Dr John Garang, the founding leader of the SPLAM/SPLA, called the “unconventional battalion”. Rife with war propaganda, wasn’t it the very unconventional battalion which made garrison towns to fall? This is in fact a justification that not all freedom fighters must carry an AK47 rifle as the Jungle Chronicles reveals.
 
The memoir connects the period when southern Sudan enjoyed relative peace from 1972 to when the Addis Ababa Agreement was abrogated in 1983 - which was the start of the liberation struggle, which ended in the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005.
 
When Atem graduated from the University of Khartoum in 1975 with a BA in English and philosophy, he would have followed his other passion, teaching, which he still does part-time, but he chose journalism. He was one of the first crop of post-Addis Ababa Agreement journalists with a university degree. When he joined the regional government-owned print media, The Nile Mirror newspaper, he was lucky to be mentored by veteran journalists like Kosti Manibe, the late George Kwanai Agumbek, and the late Natale Olwak, a regional government minister and a lawyer, who taught the author tight newspaper editing. 
 
The author is one of the best trained journalists in his time. A lucky man indeed, you could say. When he finished his graduate studies in journalism in the prestigious Cardiff University in Wales in 1984, he would have returned home to be a big man in the ministry of information and culture, but he chose the bush to train as a freedom fighter. It is however doubtful if he ever participated in active combat in the frontline, otherwise he would have been a poor fighter and it would have been a misallocation of this very human resource.

With his professionalism in journalism, Dr John Garang gave him the toughest assignment instead, to start the propaganda machine, Radio SPLA, which fought the fiercest war in the history of the armed struggle, even Khartoum attested to that.
 
It is this stage in the writer's life, the years of the liberation struggle, which he writes at length and with heat and the passion of the moment. It was a just war, even President Yoweri Museveni will agree. It was a war which delivered a new country.
 
As far as Atem is concerned, Radio SPLA was not purely a propaganda machine, but it had a human face. Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, the officer who led the mutiny in Bor in early 1983 which gave birth to the SPLA, was said to be a no-nonsense soldier who never gave qualms for his erratic actions, and always at the cross-hairs, but a practical man, if to prove his point.

Atem writes how Kerubino had a soft spot for him at the initial stages of the radio, when in 1985 at the battle of Jekau, which was commanded by Kerubino and Major Salva Kiir, Kerubino was proud to provide Atem with a ‘trophy’ who was to become the first prisoner of war captured by the SPLA. The capture of the first POW was announced on the clandestine radio, "so that the relatives of the soldiers (POW), the Sudanese people and the world will know that we are humane and civilised people," writes Atem as he had explained to Kerubino at the time.
 
Unless you practiced as a journalist in the 1970s like Atem, you wouldn’t pin the genesis of today's corruption of the elite to the then regional government which was put in place by the 1972 Addis Ababa Peace Agreement. Having started work as a civil servant in the regional government, the author holds the then government in high esteem in terms of an efficient civil service and a working democracy, though nascent. But to be fair and objective, the author doesn’t spare it of forensic scrutiny. 
 
Although not a crusader, Atem has been a consistent critic of corruption and corrupt people in high places. This criticism runs current in the book.
 
Now, as a senior journalist in 1977 in Juba, Atem recalls the elections to the second People’s Regional Assembly. The government brought luxury cars for senior civil servants in a scheme known as ‘hire purchase’. The civil servants were expected to own the cars after completing paying the government in instalment the total price of the cars.
 
But according to Atem, “What appears as the government generosity was nothing but a cloaked bribe to the members of the ruling elite to influence them to vote for the incumbent administration.”
 
The media have often been blamed for tarnishing the image of the country. Although the media are not responsible for the 2013 and 2016 crisis  in the country, Atem has been a strong defender for the struggle which gave birth to the country, but admits that the aggressive salesmanship of the country was lost at independence in 2011. "Are our embassies doing their job well? One single answer will not do; some are doing praiseworthy jobs while others are sleeping, turning their missions into dens of semiliterate idlers and recipients of sinecure," writes Atem.
 
Jonglei, the author's home region, is prone to perennial floods, thanks to the region's proximity to the Sudd, Africa’s largest wetland. The author has been a witness to some of the worst floods, as evidenced by his classic narrative of the 1964 floods. Sad as the catastrophe was, the rendering is emotive and touching, how one man had to shed tears in a chauvinistic society where men are not supposed to cry in public.  Reading this story from the perspective of one character at the centre of it is like reading the Biblical story of Job, although in the case of Deng Kur he succumbed to the tragedy which hit the land and wiped out all his domestic animals, which in turn, is the tragic lesson for us all, that is the overdependence on a single resource. Although the author didn’t intend it so, but today this could be a moral story for our modern times, especially in South Sudan.
 
With its proximity to the Sudd region, Jonglei is still prone to flooding, despite efforts by one of the prominent sons of the soil, Dr John Garang, who, before his death, advocated for the building of dykes, a project which died with him.
 
Being an insider in the echelons of the liberation struggle, Atem has been considered a comrade or 'one of us', meaning that his pen wouldn't criticise excesses such as corruption or abuse of power. Tough luck! His "comrades" forgot that the man is a journalist to the core, not one of those scribes whose pens are for hire. 
 
In "All Patriots? Count Me Out," Atem launched an attack on the very organisation he belonged to, just a few weeks to the signing of the CPA in 2005. This might have been a shocker to those whose toes the author might have stepped on. But to his fellow journalists and other advocates of truth, this particular piece was applauded as a real test of freedom of expression, the press in the government to come after the CPA. Doesn't it ring true?
 
War is business. War is economics. While in a war situation a majority of the masses, more so, the victims, will yearn for peace, genuine peace, lasting peace, the author, in a piece penned in 2005, contends that some people hate peace because they benefit from the war chest. 
 
Most memoirs or biographies published after South Sudan’s independence are mainly about the liberation war. Jungle Chronicles, gives the reader, especially the younger reader, a wider perspective to connect with the days when Southern Sudan became semi-autonomous following the Addis Ababa Agreement of 1972, and the events which led to the liberation war, and, finally, independence, a round historical trip, engaging the reader to reflect on the past, present, and future. 
 
The pieces/essays in the Jungle Chronicles, written in the span of 40 years, are typical of the author’s style, consistent in depth and analysis. The earlier pieces are more conciliatory, even convivial, while the later pieces written during the war of liberation, which are also evidence of the author’s maturity, having mellowed with age, are more acerbic without being antagonistic, always trying to be objective and balanced, yet there are some readers who will read otherwise. In this memoir, Atem has proven that he is indeed a watchdog of society, a label much touted in journalism textbooks. What the author will say in the upcoming sequels is anybody’s guess, all things remaining equal. Watch this space!
 

Editor’s note: JUNGLE CHRONICLES is published by Africa World Books and is available on the publisher’s website. It is also available at Ebony Centre in Juba. 

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