Group from MC concludes research on Sudanese living in ET

Group from MC concludes research on Sudanese living in ET

May 13, 2013
Contact: Karen Eldridge, Director of Communications

Maryville College senior Mathiang Gutnyin is very familiar with the challenges of South Sudan. Born in 1981 in the Sudanese state of Jonglei, he has seen his homeland’s crises and potential both up close and from far away.

Now, because of a research project focusing on immigrants like him, Gutnyin’s classmates know the issues of Sudan – especially issues related to the future of the newly formed South Sudan – better.

Gutnyin, along with Maryville College seniors Sara Jean-Philippe and Emily Julian, spent 2011 and 2012 researching the history of the east-central African country, following media reports of South Sudan’s development as an independent country, and interviewing members of the Sudanese immigrant community in East Tennessee.

The research was led by Dr. Frances Henderson, assistant professor of political science. Henderson, along with Dr. Scott Henson, associate professor of political science, wrote a proposal for the research, which was funded with a grant from the Appalachian College Association/Mellon Foundation.

Their proposal was to conduct research that would “seek to understand how political unity and identity emerges in South Sudan” by studying the Sudanese Diaspora in East Tennessee.

“We wanted to take advantage of Mathiang’s expertise on South Sudan, and we knew he would be able to help us with some of the challenges of translation and history,” Henderson explained.

Jean-Philippe, a child development and learning major, was asked to participate because she had an interest in doing research outside of her area. She and Julian, a fine arts major who has traveled internationally several times since her arrival on the MC campus, said they were interested in pushing their comfort zones and learning about a new culture.

Jean-Philippe did extensive research on the history of Sudan, which has been unstable since 1956, when the British Empire granted it independence. Civil wars – rooted in the desires for regional autonomy – raged from 1956 to 1972 and from 1985 until 2005. Oil fields located in the south have been a huge source of conflict, with Arab Muslims in the north and African Christians in the south both claiming rights to them.

In July 2011, 98.83 percent of people living in southern Sudan voted to secede from the north and claim their independence. Since then, the country has struggled to come together under one government.

“They have been fighting all these years,” Jean-Philippe explained.

Learning opportunity

African politics is one of Henderson’s areas of expertise. She said she knew the research would be a tremendous learning opportunity for students, and she knew the findings would be of interest to leaders in the Sudanese Diaspora, as well as officials in the South Sudan government.

The possibility of traveling to Africa was an “appetizing carrot” for the students when asked to join the project, she said.

“We hoped to go to South Sudan to conduct and present our research,” Henderson explained, “but the College’s insurance company would not approve the trip because of State Department warnings at the time.”

The inability to travel was especially frustrating to Gutnyin, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” who fled the country in 1987 to escape war and hasn’t been back since. A United States resident for 12 years and a U.S. citizen for five, Gutnyin hopes to return to South Sudan soon and use his international business major for the country’s benefit.

“In general, the government of South Sudan would like to get [Sudanese immigrants] back to help develop the country,” he said, “but many see us as outsiders – a threat – when we tell them how to do things.”

How many immigrants actually return may be determined by how much confidence they have in South Sudan’s future. Gauging that confidence was one goal of the Maryville College researchers.

They met weekly throughout the project to report on their assignments. Before developing survey instruments and interview questions, Henderson led the students in hypothesizing different themes that would hinder the growth of South Sudan.

In a report, the researchers wrote: “Potential roadblocks and conflicts we believe South Sudan faces while in effort of birthing a nation and creating unity are tribal conflicts, government development, religion and being in constant defense against (northern) Sudan.”

Questions and answers

The group arranged for surveys to be given at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Maryville, where a Sudanese congregation worships weekly. Julian, who has expertise in photography and photojournalism, videotaped interviews with some Sudanese.

Six immigrants participated. The survey asked participants to rank the issues most impacting South Sudan’s development as a nation. Half of the participants identified government corruption as being the biggest impediment. Another half identified tribal conflict and military strength as barriers to overcome.

Responding to questions regarding levels of confidence in the new government, more than half were neutral or felt good about the leadership in the country. Most believe the oil in South Sudan will have a great impact on relations within and outside South Sudan, but less than half of participants predict healthy relations between South Sudan and Sudan.

The majority believes that there is good support for South Sudan from the international community.

All participants believe that South Sudan could unite despite differences in languages and tribes, and all plan to return to the country in the near future.

The Maryville College researchers also asked several open-ended questions regarding the role of religion in the country’s development, what the South Sudanese government can do to build a national identity and what the international community can do to help the fledgling country.

Infrastructure development (schools, hospitals, roads and airports) were cited as important for stabilizing the country and building peace across regions and tribes, and military support was cited as important for protection from Sudan.

Despite the current challenges faced by South Sudan, the researchers found that the majority of immigrants they surveyed are optimistic about their country’s future.

“[Americans] are very goal-driven. We want results immediately, Julian explained. “The [Sudanese] culture is so different. They’re patient and know that it will take time to build their country.”

Visiting Africa – sort of

While the group could not travel to South Sudan to present their findings, Henderson and her students have shared their research twice. In September 2012, they made a presentation at the Appalachian College Association/University of North Carolina-Asheville Undergraduate Research Symposium, and in April, they traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Angong Dhol Acuil, second secretary for the Embassy of the Republic of South Sudan to the United States.

“[Acuil] was surprised by our findings that people here [in East Tennessee] were optimistic,” Gutnyin said. “What she hears more is that Sudanese immigrants living in the United States are critical of what is happening at home.”

To add to their education of Africa, Henderson, while in D.C., took the students to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the group watched the independent film “War Witch” about a child soldier in the Congo. They also sampled various African cuisines in restaurants.

“It was a joy to work with her,” Julian said of Henderson. “She has energy and a passion for teaching and learning about something new. It’s obvious that she cares about African culture.”

Gutnyin said the project helped him better know his fellow Sudanese in East Tennessee, and it brought him closer to his two classmates and Henderson.

“We’re like a little family,” Julian said.

Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2016 semester is 1,197.