Not Just Child's Play

Not Just Child's Play: Emerging Tradition and the Lost Boys of Sudan

Felicia R. McMahon
Copyright Date: 2007
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2tvb2h
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  • Book Info
    Not Just Child's Play
    Book Description:

    Felicia R. McMahon breaks new ground in the presentation and analysis of emerging traditions of the \"Lost Boys,\" a group of parentless youths who fled Sudan under tragic circumstances in the 1990s. With compelling insight, McMahon analyzes the oral traditions of the DiDinga Lost Boys, about whom very little is known. Her vibrant ethnography provides intriguing details about the performances and conversations of the young DiDinga in Syra-cuse, New York. It also offers important insights to scholars and others who work with refugee groups.

    The author argues that the playful traditions she describes constitute a strategy by which these young men proudly po-sition themselves as pre-servers of DiDinga culture and as harbingers of social change rather than as victims of war. Drawing ideas from folklore, linguistics, drama, and play theory, the author documents the danced songs of this unique group. Her inclusion of original song lyrics translated by the singers and descriptions of conversations convey the voices of the young men. Well researched and carefully developed, this book makes an original contribution to our understanding of refugee populations and tells a compelling story at the same time.

    Felicia R. McMahon is a research professor in anthropology at Syracuse University. A former Fulbright Scholar, she has published in several folklore journals and is the coeditor of Children's Folklore: A Sourcebook, which won an American Folklore Society Opie Prize for Best Edited Book.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-314-3
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-8)

    During their forced migration from south Sudan in the 1990s, many male children of Dinka, DiDinga, and other ethnic groups lost connection with their parents and elders. According to folklore, refugee workers named the group of children who walked hundreds of miles en masse to refugee camps Lost Boys after the unaccompanied group of male children in the story of Peter Pan. The recontextualized traditions, performed in diaspora by the “Lost Boys,” represent the continuation of their journey. The communally danced songs of the DiDinga, one of the several ethnic groups of Lost Boys, are documented for the first time...

  5. 1 Men Meet (But Mountains Do Not)
    (pp. 9-28)

    Ironically, documentation of the traditions of war refugees began while I was teaching a university course entitled Beauty in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Prior to this course, I had not considered introducing my American students to the cultures of the many refugee groups now living in our city. Later, I recognized the oversight and wanted to honor the living traditions of all residents in the neighborhood surrounding our university by including traditional artists from Bosnia, Burma, and Sudan in this university-wide Symposium on Beauty at Syracuse University. After meeting the small group of DiDinga men, I recognized the importance of providing a...

  6. 2 Encountering Ethnography
    (pp. 29-51)

    I first heard the young Sudanese men’s church choir at a Sunday Catholic mass at St. Vincent de Paul’s Church in Syracuse, New York. Prior to the mass, the church’s choral director explained that the young men frequently sang in English and Swahili, rather than their native tongue, while playing African rattles. After the mass, I asked to talk with the young men. At the time, I did not realize that the DiDinga were singing without the Dinka on that particular day.¹ When I was introduced as “Professor McMahon,” they seemed as curious about me as I was about them....

  7. 3 Surveying the Landscape
    (pp. 52-85)

    One afternoon the Lost Boys and I sat in my TV room to review their videotaped performances. James suddenly announced, “We come with riddles too. We got a lot of riddles.” One of the other young men explained that “tricky stories” are told to DiDinga children by adults whenever the DiDinga community sits around a campfire. When I asked James to tell me a “tricky story,” he said, “There’s a house without a door.” His simple statement initiated a lengthy riddle exchange during which I became both target and audience for their playfulness. I would no longer be a collaborator;...

  8. 4 Entextualization and Kinesthetic Communication
    (pp. 86-115)

    One afternoon as we sat around my kitchen table, I asked whether DiDinga men sang bullsongs, which I knew are common among East African societies.¹ The group affirmed that in DiDinga language, the word for this male tradition isoli.² Dominic R. stood, jumped up once, and, with a snort, began to sing. The others supported him by singing in chorus and clapping. This occurrence was remarkable because it demonstrated not only spontaneous composition by the singer but the chorus as well. According to Dominic, when he was a child, his father gave a bull to him. The bull was...

  9. 5 Memory, Childhood, and Restored Behavior
    (pp. 116-141)

    As we have seen, entextualization plays an important role in the recontextualization process. In this chapter, I consider the relationship between memory and “kinesthetic imagination” as an alternative by which the performers communicate a memory of home (Roach 1996a). Kinesthetic communication requires competency through learned body behaviors. When losses occur in a community, remaining members attempt to find satisfactory alternatives through “kinesthetic imagination” (Roach 1996a, 2). From this perspective, performance places high value on body learning and training, rather than linguistic communication. This orientation extends Bauman’s definition of “performance frame” as “an assumption of accountability to an audience for an...

  10. 6 Cultural Intervention and Mediation
    (pp. 142-155)

    A few months after our first meeting, the Lost Boys expressed concern that the international community was ignoring the civil war in Sudan, the very reason for their immigration to the United States. As a research associate in the Program for the Analysis and Resolution of Conflicts at Syracuse University, I offered them an opportunity to bring their message to an American audience. My plan was to provide an open forum after a public program in which both the Dinka and DiDinga would share life stories to educate Americans about the uniqueness of their cultures as well as the political...

  11. 7 Gendered Performance
    (pp. 156-175)

    As the traditions of the young men were emerging in new contexts, the group grew in size to include DiDinga women. Variables which acted on the emergence of the young men’s traditions included nostalgia, childhood memory, race, politics, and eventually gender. Recontextualized performances provided new venues for identifying, affirming, and valuing the personal histories of both Lost Boys and the Lost Girls.

    The epic march and tragic escape stories of the Lost Boys had finally captured the attention of the world (Ahial and Mills 2004; Bixler 2005; B. Deng et al. 2005; Eggers 2004), but few inquired about the fate...

  12. 8 Conclusion: “I Carried It in My Heart”
    (pp. 176-184)

    Dominic R.’s words “I carried it in my heart” underscore the nostalgia for childhood play that is at the root of the emerging traditions documented in the preceding chapters. Until the secondnyakorot, there were no DiDinga women with whom the young men could dance, and the traditional gendered competition for winning women’s approval had been replaced by playfulness and parody. At the firstnyakorot, I heard one DiDinga call to another who had walked away from the circle, “Hey, where’s my girl?” The other dancers immediately broke into laughter. When reviewing the videotape of the songLimalukai, the young...

  13. Appendix A: “Bull-Song of Auranomi” and “The Ancient Gods: A Hymn of Initiation”
    (pp. 185-188)
  14. Appendix B: The Songs
    (pp. 189-201)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 202-209)
  16. DiDinga-English Glossary
    (pp. 210-213)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 214-224)
  18. Index
    (pp. 225-228)