Swinging Modern Sounds #81: On Cultural Preservation

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The story of the Lost Boys of Sudan is by now a well-known and well-distributed narrative of contemporary African experience, much ruminated over in the West. Even the name “Lost Boys of Sudan” is its own slightly homogenized and grim contemporary artifact. This does not mean, however, that the stories of the lives caught up in this heavily circulated tale of civil war and dispossession are not poignant, immensely troubling, and terribly moving. But it does mean, because of the wide distribution of this sequence of events in the West, that the story now conforms with expectable aspects of the African narrative, as we (mis)understand it here.

And so: it’s always worth asking, it seems to me, what are our presuppositions, or our prejudices, about African experience, or perhaps, it is worth asking how we can get access, if at all, to the fifty-plus nations of Africa in a way that is controlled by Africans themselves, unmediated, or perhaps least corrupted by our Western colonial tendencies and preoccupations. How to reflect the multiplicities and languages and cultures and tribes of a place so different from our little Graeco-Roman republics of self-congratulation?

Dominic Raimondo, like many of the Lost Boys, walked out of the Sudan of his youth into Kenya. And from there, after a long stay in a United Nations refugee camp (one of the largest such in the world), he came to the United States. His is an extremely powerful story of survival and ambition. But the piece of his story that is especially new, and outside of the borders of his Lost Boy narrative, is what he has done lately, which is to venture back to the refugee camp in Kenya, and to begin, with the aid of the Association for Cultural Equity, to preserve some the tribal traditions of his people from South Sudan.

Anna Lomax Wood, the Director of the Association for Cultural Equity, made it possible for some reporters to interview Raimondo (who mostly lives in Salt Lake City these days) about his project, and I jumped at the possibility, not only for the way that Raimondo’s story reflects on what music is, and the way music and dance help us understand who we are and what we believe in, but also for the way that Raimondo represents a new additional layer in a story that we think we know well, but which is perhaps now much more mutable and rich and complex than superficial readings suggest.

Dominic Raimondo’s passionate longing for the tribal culture he grew up in, despite his flourishing in Salt Lake City, brings us face to face with what the stories of Africa still have to say: about human identity, about community and affiliation, and, perhaps, about the pitfalls of multi-ethnic democracy. I found Raimondo to be an astounding young man: gentle, funny, remarkably composed, exceedingly mature and self-possessed, ambitious, and, it bears mentioning suffused with the faint but unmistakable aura of an unprepossessing and non-self-involved melancholy. Another way of saying it would be Raimondo has his private grief, of which he does not easily speak.

It is when Raimondo talks about cultural preservation that he becomes most enthusiastic, and it is clear, at least in his telling, that the legacy of South Sudan, the independence, the lack of support from the West, the brutality of what has taken place there since, is not going away for the dispossessed from that place, despite the turning away of our own international attention deficit disorder to other international conflicts. The Lost Boys had their moment in the media, but these people, these survivors, not boys at all and not lost now either, are still here, living lives, growing and changing and thinking and reflecting. And, in Raimondo’s case, he is becoming an incredibly powerful witness to the importance of recollection, and cultural preservation, and cultural diversity.

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The Rumpus: How long since you were in South Sudan?

Dominic Raimondo: It’s been a while. Well, you know, it’s going to require a lot of background. [Laughs]

Rumpus: I welcome backstory!

Raimondo: I left the village when I was seven or eight years old due to the civil war that was taking place in the country and my village was being attacked; we got separated with a different family. I ran in a different direction; we didn’t know each other. We didn’t know who was still alive or who was already killed and I ended up running and meeting with some of my neighbors and we started walking towards Kenya. We crossed over, on our road trip, and experienced so many things. We were thirsty, we didn’t have food to eat, and some of my friends lost their lives due to sickness and other stuff that happened to us there, such as lions attacking some of our friends. We were just very weak and young; we were not able to do anything so the only thing was to keep on going and we ended up in Kenya.

Rumpus: How many miles was that journey?

Raimondo: It was six hundred miles. We arrived on the border between south Sudan and Kenya. We were weak, hungry and useless. [Laughs] We couldn’t do anything; we could not talk. The good thing is that the chief—the police of Kenya— helped us and brought us water and called in a mission force. They took us to the office where we got registered; they gave us some water and biscuits, grains, clothes and shoes. Because of the situation in South Sudan—our homes got attacked—other people started coming in the same direction; our friends started joining us and then we were registered. We registered our names and we were taken to Goma refugee camp—one of the largest in Africa. You will find everyone there who has had trouble throughout the whole country.

So, we ended up in the refugee camp and while we were there, my friend and I had nothing to do. We only ate one meal a day. There was no school or hospital, nothing. We were so stressed and we were thinking of our parents; we were homesick. Before the war, we were living a good life. A normal life. We didn’t have any problems. We used to go to the church and sing and pray; that allowed us to stay hopeful. We ended up doing that and we received recognition from the US Catholic bishops and the United States government came in and said: “What can we do with these boys who have no hope?” They said: “Let’s give them an opportunity.” So they started the process of us writing our story and telling our stories of what happened and how we ended up in the refugee camp so we went through extensive interviews through the United Nations and with United States lawyers and we were given an opportunity to come to the United States. My friend and I came, but a lot of my friends didn’t make it, probably because of medical problems; they also checked on our physicality. When you come here [to the United States], you have to become self-sufficient and contribute to the community. So, some of my friends didn’t make it but I was fortunate enough to get over to the United States from the refugee camp. When I got to Syracuse, New York, I stayed for a few months and then I found my brother.

Rumpus: He was resettled through the same program that you were?

Raimondo: Yes, the same program but through a different agency. I came through a Catholic agency and he came through the National Rescue Committee.

Rumpus: You had no idea he was here when you first got to Syracuse?

Raimondo: He was actually the first one who got to Salt Lake City but I didn’t know where. When I got to Syracuse, through telephones, it was much easier to reconnect with him. I went to the Catholic charity and told him that I found my brother residing in Salt Lake City and I would like to see him and they said, “Okay.” I had been there for nine months.

Rumpus: And how old were you? You were a teenager when you got here?

Raimondo: When I was qualified to be an adult, to be independent. So, therefore, I went to Salt Lake City, got a job, and went to school and was just living the life. I haven’t lived in another state since then.

Rumpus: So, how long have you been living there?

Raimondo: Eight or nine years.

Rumpus: And you’re going to college now?

Raimondo: I, you know, came from a very different background. Our parents never had school and I, myself, never went to school until I got to this country. In the refugee camp, we were just learning “A, B, C, D,” just a few things. When I got to this country, I started learning English as a second language and then I started practicing how to read. I went to the adult high school and got my diploma. I was working at the same time so I had to keep moving; I enrolled myself at a Salt Lake Community College and then I got my two years degree in Business Administration. I got accepted at Utah State University in Salt Lake City. Working and to study: that’s the only way out.

Rumpus: And what are you studying in school?

Raimondo: Right now, you know, I have taken a lot of courses in business, business classes. Right now, what I need to focus on, I think, is something that will reflect who I am instead of things that really don’t matter much. As I am engaging in things that I’m working on, I think I’ll pick up some things that interest me, such as cultural background of Didinga traditions and how to preserve them and how to keep them alive. That’s where my interest really is heading to.

Rumpus: How did it come about that you were able to go back to Africa?

Raimondo: That’s a good question! You know, things sometimes work out. Miracles! I love culture and I talk about culture all the time. I have no other topic! People call me a traditionalist and I say, “That’s good.” So, I met with a professor called Felicia McMahon; she was a professor of anthropology at Syracuse University.

Rumpus: Right.

Raimondo: So, we got connected and she was, of course, interested in learning more about my culture so we became friends. We did some talks about the culture and my friends and I organized a small dance at my apartment and she invited us to perform at Syracuse University in the class she was teaching. Then I left for Salt Lake City and she was in touch; she put an article in a magazine here in New York. She and Anna (Lomax Wood) are good friends so she told Anna about me and Anna read my article. She was very interested and contacted me; we got connected through Felicia and became good friends. We have known each other for a long time now. Since I’m a traditionalist, I talked about the culture. [Laughs]

The Didinga tribe is a small tribe and there are dances and songs that we are afraid are going to vanish. This tradition will die if we cannot preserve it because my tribe has probably lost so much, when the country became independent, due to lack of recording and preserving the culture. That’s something I’m afraid of because I love my culture. Anna also has the same heart: she cares about preservation. She doesn’t feel it’s right to lose the culture, and I thought our culture had never been recorded so this will be a beautiful opportunity for my tribe to have the culture recorded, for the coming generations. Even for me, to sometimes to see it on my TV and just watch and enjoy because sometimes I feel homesick. So, I need to see my people dancing and singing; that gives me happiness and excitement within me. That’s what I can only have in me; I don’t listen to any other music but my tribal, cultural music.

Anna said, “Well, would you like to help and volunteer time and equipment?” and I said, “Sure, why not?” So this trip to the refugee camp was funded by the Association for Cultural Equity, through Anna Lomax Wood.

To open up myself and work with the community to record music and dance and really bring memory and culture together was a very welcome idea. They were very happy to see how I committed myself in interviewing the elders, how I viewed topics. It wasn’t just music I was interested in; I was trying to capture the historical backgrounds of the Didinga people so I would have a clear background of the whole thing. I interviewed most of them (the elders) and they said that what I was doing was fantastic and I said that it wasn’t just me; I said that I couldn’t have done it by myself and that I have good friends in the United States who have the same feelings and that’s why these things happened. Of course the whole project belongs to them, as the Didinga tribe. What we’re going to do is arrange this music, history, and stories and put the whole thing together and arrange it so they can watch and see themselves on TV. That’s the whole I committed myself to when I went last month.

Rumpus: Was there any resistance to the recording devices and modern media as the storage vehicle for this? If they’ve been orally preserving everything and you’re the first person to show up with a digital recorder…

Raimondo: That’s a very powerful question! I did not encounter any opposition or resistance. If I had gone with someone like you, maybe they would’ve thought differently. [Laughs] You know; I was one of them. I identify in the community and they, of course, are fascinated with most of the gadgets. That’s how my time was; it went very well.

Rumpus: Is a large portion of the Didinga tribe now in the camp as opposed to South Sudan?

Raimondo: Correct. A big number has come into the camp due to issues in South Sudan. There’s food shortage there; the famine is getting worse and they’re asking for help. Men, women, and children are stationed in the refugee camp. That’s the reason I was asking myself which location was the best (for recording); there’s no need for me to go to the village now because most of the people have gone to the refugee camp. Maybe in the future, we can go to the village.

Rumpus: And what of the rest of your family? Are they in the camp?

Raimondo: I have a sister there and I have my brother’s kids. I focused on what I went there to do; I explained to them that I came to get these things done and don’t think I don’t have time to stay with you. I have to be very clear to them so they don’t think I’m too busy to spend time with them. They were very happy and very helpful on advising. They are there with the people and they understand what is going on; they were my eyes.

Rumpus: So, when you say the Didinga is a small tribe, how small is it?

Raimondo: I’m talking about 100,000 people. It’s like a football game compared to the big giants. We have over sixty-five tribes in South Sudan. We are all the way at the bottom. To differentiate the Didinga from the big tribes, I say it’s a small tribe. Due to what’s going on in South Sudan, the number of people in the tribe (100,000) has probably declined. A small number have been there since I left the refugee camp; there was a period when it was peaceful during the independence [of South Sudan]. People were very excited; everything was fantastic. The United Nations set up a voluntary repatriation program so a few of them went back with the hope of establishing themselves where they used to be and then re-starting their lives, but after two years things fell apart so those people were the first to leave. Even those who would’ve never thought of coming to the refugee camp have made up their mind to come due to circumstances. People are just killed at almost anytime: and so they have to look for a safe place. Based on what they say: “We are lacking food here in the refugee camp or there’s no water,” at least they are able to sleep without worry, without hearing gunshots.

Rumpus: I’m assuming that you would love to go back to South Sudan now to see the village but it’s so dangerous now.

Raimondo: Yes. When I went to South Sudan to the refugee camp, my heart was just heading to the village to reunite with the nature and relatives and to have peace of mind there but I was advised by my family and relatives to not even think of doing so because it’s not safe. Especially people coming from the United States are being viewed in a different way. While I was in the refugee camp, I wasn’t even talking about anything regarding the government or about politics.

Rumpus: I understand. I want to talk a little bit about what exactly you preserved on your trip and what the experience was like. For example, did the elders have dancers prepared for you to watch? How did the process work?

Raimondo: This is how we laid out the plan: I first went there and talked to my family and relatives and explained to them: “I’m here with the equipment and I want your help to identify good leaders in the community I can talk to.” I explained to them my position. So, they said “Great, we’ll do that,” and they started running around and called a group of powerful, influential women. So I called them for a meeting and there were ten or fifteen women. Of course I organized refreshments and stuff; we had a meeting with them. I told them that I was always interested in our culture and I thought that I needed to come and record so I can go back and watch whenever I want. I told them that I wanted to preserve and practice the culture so it doesn’t disappear. They were very excited and said, “Thank you so much for what you have decided to do with our culture.” I told them, “I cannot do it by myself; I need your help,” and, “When should we do this? What dances?” We have different types of music, dance, and songs and so I said that they needed to be organized. So they said piece of cake and I thanked them for their assurance. My part was to give them a budget for that day and location and they identified the good dancers and singers; they organized how they would dress traditionally because they didn’t want to mix it up with westernized clothing. They wanted to make it really traditional, to reflect the real tradition.

They divided into groups: who was going to doing what, who was going to be forming the committee, who was going to make photo ops. The refugee camp was huge so to find people was not easy; we needed people who were really passionate and committed and had influence. We were able to easily tackle that one; we made our first dance so, of course, I prepared a budget for food. I killed four goats.

Rumpus: You killed four goats?

Raimondo: Yes, four goats! The women grouped themselves as who was going to be in charge of what, doing the cooking. Each woman was in charge of a certain dish and I prepared good refreshments. During the dance, I was there to focus on capturing what was going on. We started, first, by women and men painting themselves according to the tradition and dressing for dance. After the warmup, it was during the afternoon and the weather was extremely hot. Due to the sunlight, I was not able to capture anything. We’d have to wait until 4 p.m., or 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., when the sun goes down, to capture good pictures.

They said okay, but were not able to wait; they started warming up and dancing. I told them to take a break and have a refreshment. The women and men grouped themselves and had refreshments. Because the weather was very extreme, I was concerned about them. They needed something in their stomachs, to eat well. Around 3 p.m., we started to dance from there. The dance was taken to an open space, where the whole dance was done. I captured the dance from the beginning to the open space. They started dancing and they got attention; we had a lot of people coming to look at the dance.

Rumpus: Not just the Didinga.

Raimondo: Everybody. I was trying to keep the order and was focusing on the dancers so I asked a few of my friends to keep order but we could not because people started enjoying and jumping because they hadn’t done that for a while. That was a big day and everybody came to watch and the dancers were continuously dancing and singing.

Rumpus: How long did it last?

Raimondo: I would say I started at 3 p.m. and it went until 7 p.m., until I was using lights because it was getting dark. Due to the United Nations rules in the camp, by 6 p.m., there shouldn’t be movement. If you’re found loitering around, you’ll be taken to jail so I had to close. So, I stopped the whole thing and said, “Thank you so much for your commitment,” and for everybody to go to their homes so we didn’t encounter any problems. One thing that the committee congratulated me on was how successful and smoothly the event went, without any interference or problems. It was very peaceful. I was very honored and tired from carrying equipment and trying to capture the best angles. It was a very good experience for me and the community. I left a good name in the refugee camp for what I did there; it could not have been easy if I didn’t have a strategy of following through. It would have been very difficult because it has been a long time since I’ve been in the refugee camp.

Rumpus: Was there musical accompaniment when they danced?

Raimondo: There was a huge flute that accompanied the music; I think I have some pictures here that I can show you. So, that was the music they used to accompany the songs and dance, once in a while, to empower the music.

Rumpus: So they sing and dance at the same time?

Raimondo: Yes, the lead singer leads the song and the dancers dance and sing. It’s a call-and-response type of thing.

Rumpus: Are the lyrics of the songs narrative? Storytelling lyrics?

Raimondo: Most of the songs are storytelling, passing the message to the people. Everything they sing, whether they’re love songs or war songs, brings up issues in the community. Every song has a meaning behind it; it’s not just for entertainment. When you see them singing some of the songs, they are very interesting. They have feeling and you can tell there’s a message in the song. That was actually what I was enjoying because I could feel it while I was filming. There was a moment where I had to jump in and dance.

Rumpus: You did?

Raimondo: Yeah, I told one of my friends: “Hold this camera!” [Laughs] I joined the community, you know. That was the best thing I could help myself with; I couldn’t wait so I jumped in.

Rumpus: Do you remember those dances from your own childhood in the village?

Raimondo: Yes, there were some songs I could remember from when I was young when people were dancing and singing. There were new songs that were totally new to me; that shows the changes that have happened during the time I’ve been away. I think, as the situation changes, so do the songs. But some famous, powerful songs that were sung a long time ago are still sung.

Rumpus: Is the feeling more overpowering because you’re hearing them in the camp instead of in South Sudan?

Raimondo: If these songs had been sung in the village in South Sudan, it would’ve been a little bit different compared to the refugee camp. People become more emotional during these songs due to what they’ve gone through. Some of the songs are very sad: the songs where they sing about their homes, where they sing about their loved ones. That just touched their hearts and they became very powerful while singing. There’s a big difference on locations. If it were in South Sudan, that may have been different. I think that singing in the camp became more important than singing in their homeland. If they were singing in South Sudan, in the village, that’s their home. They would sing every song very relaxed. I think that’s how I could relate to that situation, based on my own situation. I could also watch faces so they were some videos I captured—especially of women dancing—where they sang from their heart, not just from their mouth!

Rumpus: How long did you stay?

Raimondo: I went there January 20 and came back March 5, so I spent a month and a half or so. It was a short period of time because, since I stayed in the refugee camp, I was busy every day. I had to make photographs and sometimes the people I was looking for I could not find. I had to run around in the evening and then go to my hotel, tired, and then try to review the videos to see how they turned out so the time just went like that. I didn’t have enough time with my family. I had to focus on what I wanted otherwise I would’ve gotten easily distracted if I didn’t take it seriously.

Rumpus: So the finished project goes back to the tribe?

Raimondo: They’re now very anxious—they want to see. When I was there and previewed the videos, a huge crowd of people came to just see and I was afraid that maybe they would knock down my camera! I closed it and put it in my bag. They will be very happy to see the video of the dancers and music and everything, the DVD. So, that’s what we’re going to do; we’re going to put these things in order, in an orderly manner. These things belong to them; it will all be taken to them and they will watch. They have the right. We will also find a way to take it to be preserved at the Library of Congress and then in some of the big libraries in Africa, so we’re working on that. For the first time, this tradition will be in a form of recording and will be preserved in those libraries, which is fantastic and will be good for the coming generations, for educational purposes and for me! I need it also because I want to watch, listen to the songs and have a good time because it’s just a part of who I am. I don’t think I’ll enjoy other music than this.

Rumpus: Do you want to go back again?

Raimondo: Yes. Of course, I’m still not satisfied. I need more time to go there and spend time with my family and other people and give them encouragement and empower them and give them hope. The lives they went through, which I also went through, were not easy. I find myself in the United States and I see myself as a person who has an opportunity. I want to translate that opportunity to empower my community; there’s nothing better that I can do than giving back to the community and trying hard to take them to the next level so they can have respect and hope. That’s the situation I’m trying to create. I’m always opening my mouth to talk about that. I want to empower the people in Africa because they have no hope.

Rumpus: How many people are in the camp all told?

Raimondo: The Didinga tribe alone is a huge number.

Rumpus: Like hundreds of thousands?

Raimondo: I would say half of the Didinga are in the refugee camp. If I say that 50,000 people are in the refugee camp then half of them are still in the villages and those are only the Didinga. This year was a very tough year; more people are coming to the refugee camp so the number has increased. Last year wasn’t as bad. If we’re talking about the whole camp, I’m sure the United Nations has good statistics.

Rumpus: I have one last question. I teach at New York University. I have been teaching a class on contemporary African Literature right now and we’ve talked a lot about the oral storytelling tradition in Africa and the way that oral storytelling continues to exert an influence on much of the great African writing that’s happening now. I’m wondering, therefore, whether you experienced that kind of traditional storytelling when you were a child in South Sudan? And would you share a story of that kind?

Raimondo: When I was in the refugee camp, I found a seventeen-year-old girl and I interviewed her; she was telling me a story of the kind you are describing. When I was in the village—around seven or eight years old—we would sit around a fire in the evening and the elders would tell us a story. That still exists in the village; sometimes the elders will tell us a story and you’ll feel scared. You won’t be able to go on your own; you’ll be freaking out! I was privileged enough to experience the storytelling. Through my life’s journey, I have forgotten some of the stories.

Of course those stories are there and I wish I had given you a chance to watch a girl telling a story of a woman who had a beautiful daughter—there was a man who wanted to marry that daughter but she rejected him. That man went to the daughter’s mother and said, “I want to marry your daughter but she rejected me. What can I do?” So the mother said, “Do this: turn into a grasshopper and I will tell my daughter to dress nicely and we’ll go to go to the farm where we cultivate the maize and then, when we get there, you come and fly past us. I will tell my daughter to run after you.” So, this is what happened: the mother told the daughter to dress nicely to farm and the daughter questioned her and said “Why am I dressing so nicely to cultivate?” The mother said, “Just do it; you will have another set of clothes on your back and then you’ll change,” so the daughter said, “Okay, no problem.”

When they arrived at the farm, the guy who turned into the grasshopper flew past, and the mom said, “Daughter, please run and catch that grasshopper for me! I want to eat it.” So, of course, the daughter started chasing the grasshopper a very far distance, leaving the mother. So, when the daughter caught the grasshopper, he turned into the person and the girl freaked out! There was no one there, she was on her own, and the man started explaining, “It’s me and I really want to marry you. Please, I turned into the grasshopper because I love you!” The girl had no other option but to say, “Yes, I will marry you!” So, that was the story!

There was another about a hyena but it’s a very tricky story. These are long-time stories. I will record it and send it to you in English. How is that?

Rumpus: That’s perfect.


Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →