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Nuer Journeys, Nuer Lives: Sudanese Refugees in Minnesota (Part of the New Immigrants Series) (2nd Edition)

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Jon D. Holtzman

This book examines contemporary migration to the United States through a surprising and compelling case study — the Nuer of Sudan, whose traditional life represents one of the most important case studies in the history of anthropology.   It provides … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: Jon D. Holtzman
Genre: Nonfiction
Publisher: Allyn & Bacon
1 review about Nuer Journeys, Nuer Lives: Sudanese Refugees...

The Nuer are Newer than You Are

  • Jun 3, 2008
Sorry for the atrocious pun, but I'm hoping to entice people to consider this insightful and concise (134 pages) examination of the way immigration to America really works in our day and age. I picked the book up because I have family connections to Minneapolis, but the situation of the Nuer is very comparable to that of other immigrants to other American cities.

The Nuer are pastoralists from southern Sudan. Their language is Nilotic and they are closely related to the Dinka. As the second largest ethnic group in their region, they number at least a million people. The Nuer are probably better known to most students of anthropology than any other ethnic group in Africa, due to the very influential studies of them by E.E. Evans-Pritchard, beginning with field work in the 1930s and continuing into the 1950s. Africa has changed dramatically and often violently since those years, but Nuer life at home has maintained many constants, including poverty and a daily routine of cultivation and animal husbandry. Evans-Pritchard described a culture in which cattle were the center of most social interactions and of self-recognition. Needless to say, the Nuer who have fled the Sudan and landed in Minneapolis have not been able to bring their cattle, and thsu their culture, along.

At the time of Jon Holtzman's study, "several hundred" Nuer families were living in Minnesota, with others scattered in various cities of the USA. Since kinship networks were not and could not be transferred to America, most of the Nuer are essentially strangers to each other, and a tight, isolated, self-sufficient community has not developed. Rather, most Nuer have found themselves in a situation of anomie, with most of their focus on material survival. Unlike some immigrant groups, the Nuer did not leave much behind in terms of material goods. In the Sudan, their material possessions were minimal and utilitarian, aside from cattle. Hence, in Minneapolis, they have readily accepted the clothing and furniture and material accoutrements of the American Way, though chiefly in second-hand and shabby forms.

"Gender, Generation, and Family Change" is the title of chapter five of Holtzman's study. The title almost tells the story, and its the familiar story of crises inside the immigrant's most precious alliance, his own family. In their Sudanese homeland, Holtzman writes, "children and adults tend to operate in very different spheres." This pattern has continued in America. While small children spend MORE time indoors with their parents here than in Africa, Nuer parents are uncomfortable with American notions of adult supervision and discipline. Most of the Nuer who came to America were themselves quite young, so at the time of Holtzman's writing, there were few teenagers, most of the kids were small, and education in American terms was just beginning to become an issue. Already, I suspect, much has changed. There has been a dispersal of Nuer families from Minneapolis to less costly living places, small children have become American teenagers, and, as invariably occurs, further immigration has followed the familial grooves cut by the earliest arrivals.

Holtzman spends a lot of his time describing the interactions of the Nuer with their hosts and neighbors, some unpleasant and edgy but many remarkably generous and tolerant. Familiar stuff, really, to any reader whose parents or grandparents were immigrants with stories to tell. Minnesota is a culture where churches serve not only individual but also communitarian needs, and Holtzamn describes the earnest efforts of various Christian denominations to include and inculcate the Nuer. It's mostly an admirable effort. Economic inclusion of the Nuer has been more problematic, even in the church context. Holtzman touchingly describes the efforts of one church to hold together a Nuer "congregation" by providing transportation; the effort collapsed when there just wasn't money in the coffers to purchase a van. Almost all Nuer have spent some time on public welfare, but fortunately for them, unskilled jobs are numerous in Minneapolis, especially in meat packing and other food processing industries. Thus employment is surprisingly high. And waht does a Nuer want first with his American paycheck? A car, of course! The car opens better employment opportunities, but it also provides self-esteem and status. The Nuer come to the automobile, however, with little experience and no mechanical training. The cheap used car they buy tend to break down fairly quickly in the harsh Minnesota climate, to the mystification of their owners. As one Nuer told Holtzman, "the car is a bad cow!"

What importance does Nuer immigration have for America at large? So far, the Nuer presence has been small, but their story is multiplied by the experiences of numerous other immigrant groups from lands dissimilar to the United States in every way. The Nuer have been lucky in meeting a generally positive and open response from the old immigrant stock of Minnesota. Immigration is a "hot button" throughout the United States, however. A tightly focused case study such as this can shed more light and less heat on the issue.

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