Beginning in 2014, Dr Rebecca Lorins initiated an assignment documenting folktales in an African literature course in the Department of English Language and Literature in the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Juba. Fourth year students enrolled in the course recorded folktales recited by family, friends, colleagues, peers, and other community members.
The assignment was inspired by a 1968 essay, “On the Abolition of the English Department,” authored by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Henry Owuor-Ayumba, and Taban lo Liyong, where they posit the “oral tradition” as the central root of African literature (440).
This assignment challenged students to take seriously the authors’ claim by engaging with South Sudanese storytelling as a “living tradition” (440). Organized into workgroups sorted by language, students identified a storyteller in one of the languages of South Sudan, listened to and recorded one or more stories with an audio device, downloaded and preserved the audio file, translated the story when possible, documented and completed a self-reflection about the process.
The assignment not only acquainted students with the purpose, methods and ethics of qualitative research, it also (re)familiarized students with the oral tradiiton as “living heritage” in South Sudan. Students’ encounter with the creative expression of members of the South Sudanese community speaks to two aspects of the mission of the University of Juba, namely, to “revive cultural heritage,” and also to strengthen ties between the University and the communities which it serves. By carrying out this mission, and encouraging the twinned objectives of community engagement and engagement with cultural heritage, the assignment makes a modest contribution to nation-building.