- Not Just Child's Play: Emerging Tradition and the Lost Boys of Sudan
Not Just Child's Play details the journey of one group of Sudan's "Lost Boys." In this intriguing study, Felicia ("Faye") McMahon tells of her chance encounter and subsequent years of fieldwork, friendship, and public presentations with a group of young DiDinga men who spent much of their childhood fleeing persecution or in refugee camps. This is a compelling story of how these new residents of Syracuse, New York, have (with McMahon's assistance) re-enacted their dance-song traditions to actively transform their DiDinga identity as uninitiated males into a new hybrid identity as (Black) refugees from Sudan living in the United States.
The DiDinga, a minority group in the southern Sudan often confused with the Dinka, have been minimally documented by anthropologists or historians, much less folklorists. Research on their language, their rituals, and their traditional occupational practices as well as their music and song, has been sparse to nonexistent or inaccurate. McMahon takes us on her ethnographic, research, and linguistic journey toward knowing and understanding this particular group of DiDinga. As she found after accidental conversations with several of the young men, who had been resettled in the Syracuse area along with "Lost Boys" from several different ethnic groups from Sudan, the DiDinga are not part of the Nilotic tribes (Kalenjin, Luo, Ateker, Nuer, Dinka, Shilluk) with whom they are generally associated. DiDinga do use cattle to measure wealth, as currency, and for marriage transactions, which are very similar to those of others indigenous to southern Sudan. But the DiDinga come from a different culture and language group, which includes the Murle and Longarim, and they do not practice the ritual scarification rite of passage (parallel, bone-deep cuts to the forehead) common to Nilotic groups.
Nonetheless, DiDinga boys do go through a series of age-set appropriate rituals and ceremonies that transform them into adults, into "warriors" who are thus able to marry. That process starts when a boy receives his first cow and makes his "bull song." Working from a traditional poetic structure within which they are free to create particular praise songs for their respective cows, boys sing to their cows, to their peers, and eventually in front of mixed-gender gatherings. Performance at those gatherings, which also involves a call-and-response performance by age-set mates, transforms bull songs into love songs meant to attract future mates. [End Page 343]
But there is more to becoming men than singing. Boys learn to be men, "warriors," by taking care of their personal cow and family herds, which also involves taking part in cattle raids and the occasional killing of enemies. Mothers' songs, which have historically encouraged their sons in these activities, as well as the rhetorical dance-songs and public ceremonies, underscore the warrior metaphor. Tragically, this available model made it possible for various military groups (governmental and rebel armies) to co-opt the traditional "warrior" language and poetics of traditional cattle raids to conscript young boys. Those children learned to survive unspeakable horrors, but any semblance of childhood was lost in the process.
Paradoxically, however, the young men now in Syracuse are still "children" according to DiDinga tradition because their age-sets were never able to undergo the traditional rites of passage to manhood. As children, they still play—and the dance-songs they perform are those of children mimicking the practices of adults. The particular songs, music, and dances, as well as the aesthetic rules for generating new performances, are what they remember from childhood; they are not the songs of young adults, of warriors. The poignancy of this reality was made all too clear when McMahon asked an elder DiDinga his opinion of a video of a "Lost Boys" dance-song performance; he described it as "cute" (p. 147).
Yet McMahon's thesis speaks to a transformative identity: the DiDinga Lost Boys' performances, whose specific...