Joseph Diing Majok is a South Sudanese researcher with the Rift Valley Institute (RVI) and a member of the X-Border Local Research Network, part of the XCEPT programme. His work, in partnership with Dr Nicki Kindersley, is focused on the borderland regions between Northern Bahr el-Ghazal state in South Sudan, and Darfur and Kordofan in Sudan. On the strength of his work with the Local Research Network, as well as several other projects with RVI, Diing was recently awarded a scholarship to study for a Masters at Edinburgh University. We asked Diing about his work under XCEPT and his upcoming MSc in Africa and International Development.

Joseph, hi to you in Juba – please introduce yourself.

I’m Joseph Diing. I was born around 1987 –  it’s not exactly clear because my mum and dad had never gone to school, and they did not know exactly the year I was born, but it seems to be 1987. I was born during the war, in the SPLA [the Sudan People’s Liberation Army]-controlled area where I grew up. I am one of the ‘beneficiaries’ of the SPLA bush schools, where I studied until the peace agreement came [in 2005]. And this is when we first moved into town. I sat for my secondary school certificate, and finally studied Anthropology at the University of Juba. I graduated in 2018.

And how did you begin your career as a researcher?

One of my university lecturers, who was affiliated with the Rift Valley Institute, invited me to participate in a workshop on oral history research techniques. My first work with RVI was as a research assistant trying to identify key informants and schedule interviews with them, and provide translation and data transcription. In 2018, when the X-Border Local Research Network project began, I was called back as a research assistant to collect data in the field, especially in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, where I have a lot of contacts and knowledge – it’s where I come from. My lead researcher Nicki Kindersley wanted to develop me, not just to work and make money, but to devote myself, to be able to write, and to become a future researcher.

You’ve just won this prestigious and very competitive scholarship to study an MSc in Africa and International Development at the University of Edinburgh – congratulations!

It’s really like a dream, you can’t imagine! When I went to school in 2000, under a tree, only one teacher, and most of our teaching was about military training – Attention! Turn to the right! Turn to the left! – it was a sort of preparation for being in the army, for future liberation. It was a mechanism to control us, and to put us into the SPLA when we grew up. It was not intentionally to educate us for the future, because we were at war and we lived in an area that was heavily affected by violence, and raiding from various militias, and also the government forces. So, from there … to get a scholarship to study in the UK is just like a dream. And also because, in my country, scholarships are not given on merit, but on political loyalty or relationships.

What are you going to focus on in your postgraduate studies?

I was chosen for this scholarship because of my work with the Rift Valley Institute and the X-Border Local Research Network, and so my research experience and the area I’d been focusing on, especially cross-border migration, militarisation, agriculture and labour transitions, and governance.

With this scholarship I’m going to further explore the political economy of agrarian transformation in the borderland of South Sudan. The theme is militarised governance in the labour system, and the impact on agriculture in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal. I will also look at how access to capital – where you form your own militia and tax people on the road – affects the social stratification and gender roles of the Dinka people in the borderland.

Could you share what sorts of experiences and opportunities the X-Border Local Research Network, the LRN, has offered?

The X-Border Local Research Network partnership includes international researchers taking a supervisory role and empowering local researchers – for example, giving them the chance to analyse [data], and guide them to build their critical thinking on analysing the situation. And also in their writing. If the partnership continues, I think South Sudan will have more local researchers in the future – I think it’s a very good relationship.

Let’s turn to the focus of your research. What interests you about borders and borderlands?

You’ll see people focusing on the centre – for example on Juba. And people sometimes look at the borderlands as areas far away from the capital with no influence on political changes inside the city, which is quite wrong.

If you look at access to power in the capital, the border is very important because it’s a semi-autonomous place where people recruit and mobilise, and negotiate themselves into power in the centre. People who are in political power in Juba compete for control of the border between Sudan and South Sudan because then they have access to money through tax. These [contestations] are very influential in shaping the political power dynamic inside the city.

Has anything surprised you during the course of this research?

What I really learn [in the field] is the interconnection between the labour system in the 1980s and 1990s – when people were displaced and being exploited in Darfur – and how it relates to today. It’s the very same people who formed their own militias – exploiting people, benefiting through agriculture and labour, and also taxing them – who continue to control the region of Northern Bahr el-Ghazal. And what was perceived as illegal exploitation [previously] has become legal today.

So there are deep historical echoes here?

If you look at the history of South Sudan and Sudan, there is a lot that is happening today that can be related to the 1980s, and if you analyse even further back – there is a lot that can be related to the 17th century when the Messeriya and the Rizeigat Arab tribes in Darfur used horseman to raid the Dinka tribe of Bahr el-Ghazal. They killed people, dispersed the population, and robbed their property. And also took slaves – using them as their workers on the farms in Darfur and also in Kordofan, and selling them to Jazeera, where the plantations were developing.

So this is really fascinating! Why did people go back? Because what was perceived to have been wrong, and what people fought against during the 1980s and 1990s, is the same system installed today – and legalised.

And are people resisting this new-but-old exploitation?

Women, young people, and even elderly people who are being exploited every day have started a discussion. I’m really interested in researching this resistance further, because people have now become quite suspicious of their own government. And there are local discussions happening on how to resist this form of exploitation, which is now branded as “legal”, or something reasonable.

What forms is the resistance taking?

One emerging form of resistance is the Church. The Church counsels people, but it also enlightens people about standing up for their rights, and some Pastors tell people to stand for their rights.

Another form of resistance is song. Men and women are coming together, for example in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, and they’ve initiated a dance club, where people dance and they sing songs trying to correct their leaders, and they try to point out the exploitation and brutalities being inflicted upon them.

Women experience the worst exploitation in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal. They’re prevented from migrating across the border to Sudan by security officials. A woman would only be allowed to cross the border once she had a letter from her Chief, and she has to pay a lot of money to be allowed to cross. Why? To keep this population of women, and exploit them by making them work on the farms with less payment – or sometimes they get paid in grain. But there is resistance. Women hold dance parties to interact together, and there’s also a club where women go and discuss their own issues.

Do you share your final research with the communities you focus on?

The Rift Valley Institute does dissemination. After we publish a report, we go back to the people in the community – we call them, we organise a small meeting to discuss it, and they are so impressed! Sometimes they look to us as activists. We’re communicating their problem to people who can help them, which is really very good. So, when I go to Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, many people know me as a researcher, as someone who collects data in order to help them, to elevate their voices to be heard by people in the US and the UK who cannot come to Northern Bahr el-Ghazal.

Read Joseph Diing’s work produced via XCEPT’s X-Border Local Research Network: