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The South Sudanese peanut economy, and women’s war histories

By Nicki Kindersley

In Ariath, a small market town in the north-west of South Sudan – a day’s walk north into southern Darfur, and a few day’s walk west into the Central African Republic – most women’s income is peanuts, both literally and figuratively.

On Monday 10 December, I was in Ariath during the weekly town market day. I was sitting with Abuk, a member of my research team, and Angor, a local resident, us three women all drinking small cups of the enjoyably viscous local coffee, brewed with crushed ginger for extra kick. Angor was trading roasted peanuts and peanut butter in the market. When the last civil wars in South Sudan ended in 2005, she had returned to Ariath, without her feckless and often-drunk husband but with her four children, from wartime displacement in Mandela, a self-named refugee shanty town in Sudan’s capital Khartoum.

Angor saves up to buy five condensed-milk-tins’ worth of peanuts, a total of £1250 South Sudanese pounds (about £4.26 British pounds). She cooks some for her children, and the rest she roasts and tries to sell as a cheap lunch snack in the market, for £30 or £40 (10p or 14p) for a handful in a twisted plastic bag. If they don’t sell, she pays a mill to grind the roasted nuts into peanut butter, to sell as a fat- and protein-rich flavouring for staple stews. Angor has saved to invest in this business, by collecting wild fruits and nuts to sell as even cheaper snacks, and collecting firewood and long grasses at the end of the rainy season to sell as thatch. From her profits, she buys half a stock cube, a tiny plastic-wrap twist of chili, about 50 coffee beans, and a second-hand woven-plastic sack (for £40) to store grain that she grows at home. With this work, she’s putting two of her children through primary school.

Abuk and I were talking to Angor as part of a study of the history of conflict economies in this central-east African borderland. Here, livelihoods have been fragmented over the last few generations by wartime violence, flight and displacement, migrant labour, often coercive military mobilizations, and armed elites’ control and fortification of increasingly important markets and trade routes. Angor fled from a raiders’ attack on her village near Ariath in 1987, and spent years in indentured agricultural work in southern Darfur. She later moved to Khartoum and supported her family by illegally brewing alcohol, and washing clothes for wealthy locals, during the war. Women have been navigating these dangerous labour routes northwards for generations (Angor’s great-aunt was married to an enslaved soldier in a colonial army). Our project recorded this history of women’s mutual support systems, including collective education – about safe wild food collection, and mat-making, for instance – and small-scale saving systems based on trust and detailed knowledge of regional markets and inflation risks. We also bought and ate a lot of roasted peanuts.

As a historian, trying to write up this contemporary history (for the Department of International Development, as well as for a wider audience) is a significant effort of translation – not just of the relative costs of peanuts, but about how economies work, and how Angor’s personal job history speaks to wider shifts in global labour markets and monetizing economies. Our conversation puts current UK discussions of precarious working rights into wider context. Angor and her friends are experts at managing the vagaries of inflation and balancing the complexities of a cash, barter, and subsistence economies., Their particular perspectives and critiques are vitally important for our understanding of shifting global economic systems.