Book Talk: Why Did You Come If You Leave Again? by Conradin Perner
The Anyuak are a tribe in South Sudan, largely unknown to the outside world, nestled as they are amidst untamed wilderness that is, in turn, in the peripheries of a tumultuous nation. Now, author and seasoned ethnographer Conradin Perner return from visiting the Anyuak and offers a rich personal account of the tribe for the perusal of curious readers and adventure aficionados everywhere: “Why did you come if you leave again?”
That was the question posed to him by the late King Agada of the Anyuak. Part autobiography, part western scientist's documentation, and a part rousing chronicle of an expedition, Perner provides a thorough description of the Anyuak. And, in that process, he reveals the tedious process of ethnographic fieldwork, from the meticulous methods he uses to the hardships of such an excursion into parts unfamiliar even to westerners familiar with such activities.
The work is both personal and profound, encompassing daring actions as well as calm reflections, all towards an intimate encounter with the African culture. Perner's account is heartfelt and provides his own perspective on the experience, in contrast to his original monograph containing objective but impersonal details. While we are exposed to the Anyuak, we also come to know Perner through his experiences, attitudes, and relationships with the people he encountered. And, of course, his struggle to stay alive.
Perner shares many riveting stories that reveal his spiritual, psychological, philosophical and physically intense journey. We see him cross savannahs, flooded plains, fields of elephant grass, and other even more impenetrable boundaries. He describes his humble entry into the spiritual home of a courageous people who are, amidst nature's untamed expanse, a center of humanity.
This exploration of a culture foreign to Perner simultaneously delves into his own identity and the discoveries he made regarding the latter. We see him overcome starvation, loneliness, and sickness, brush with death, embrace joy and deliverance, encounter snakes and spirits, and so much more. All these are part of his quest for meaning, beauty, and understanding. And from the lows and hardships, Perner finds hope, achievement and —most importantly friendship—his reward for struggle and pain. As he adopts the ways of the Anyuak, so too do they come to accept him as one of their own, a process that occurs throughout the five years the author spent with the tribe.
So with this, Perner answers the titular question: “Why did you come if you leave again?” We see why it was all worth it.
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Dr. Conradin Perner has worked as a professor of French literature; as an ICRC delegate in Asia, India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Africa; and as a commander of peacekeeping forces in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan. After fifteen years of ethnographic research on a little-known people in the east of South Sudan, he worked as a humanitarian agent and adviser for the ICRC, UNICEF, and UNESCO and eventually as a senior peace adviser for the Swiss government in South Sudan. Dr. Perner published books and articles in the field of literature, language, ethnology, human rights, culture, and peace-building (as the founder of the Gurtong website). In 2011, he was given honorary citizenship of South Sudan in recognition of his humanitarian and cultural work, namely for the role he played in the epic rescue of the so-called Lost Boys. In 2013, he received an award from the Human Rights Commission in Austin, Minnesota, United States.