This chapter discusses ways in which the database narrative techniques of virtual media can be used to explore the relationship between real-world oral storytelling and embodied performance in the cultural transmission of memory. It is based on an ongoing collaboration between the author and the historical anthropologist, Wendy James, to develop a multilayered associative narrative, which considers relationships between experience, event, and memory among a displaced community. The work is based on a substantial living archive of photographs, audio, cine, and video recordings collected by Wendy James in the Sudan/Ethiopian borderlands from the mid-1960s to the present day. Its critical context relates to the ’sensory turn’ in anthropology and to ’beyond text’ debates within the arts and humanities regarding ways in which we can capture and represent the sensory experiences of the past.
Wendy James has been conducting intermittent fieldwork with the Uduk-speaking people from the Blue Nile area of the Sudan/Ethiopian borderlands since the mid-1960s. When she began her fieldwork, the Uduk were living as subsistence farmers in small hamlet communities but, with the outbreak of civil war in the late 1980s, they were forced to leave these hamlets and became subjected to a series of displacements across Ethiopia and the Sudan. Most of the survivors ended up living in a semi-permanent refugee camp just inside Ethiopia, where they remained until 2006, when an official repatriation scheme was initiated following the Sudan Peace Agreement. In 2011, when South Sudan became an independent state, the Uduk found themselves living just north of yet another border under the ongoing jurisdiction of the Republic of the Sudan. Recent fighting in the area has subsequently led to them to once again becoming displaced. Although James’ last trip to the Sudan/Ethiopian borderlands was in 2000, she has continued to work with the Uduk, both as a humanitarian advocate and through ongoing fieldwork with diaspora communities in the United States.
From the outset, James used audio-visual recording techniques as an integral part of her fieldwork, initially working with Super-8 film, reel-to-reel audio and photographic slides, moving on to Hi-8 video, audio cassettes and photographic prints, and more recently helping the Uduk themselves to buy their own digital cameras. In spanning more than a forty-year period, from the mid 1960s to the early 2000s, these recordings reflect the changing nature of her fieldwork through time, as she has moved from being a PhD student and participant observer, through becoming a historical witness of war and displacement, to writing advisory reports for various agencies working in the region. They also reflect the materiality of the range of recording technologies employed, which adds to the sense of a changing context of engagement through time (as described in depth in Aston & James, 2012). However, on another level there is a strong sense of consistency in James’ recording style, which combines observational footage with informal interviews often using long takes. This enables comparisons to be made across time and place, to highlight aspects of both continuity and change among the Uduk people and their neighbouring communities, and to link this to James’ own reflections and analysis on her experiences.