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Looking Back At Sudan, 1947

by Claire O'Neill
Jan 13, 2011

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This is a time of change for Sudan — although change for Sudan is nothing new. After two decades of grisly civil war with the Arab north, the people of predominantly Christian and animist south Sudan are preparing to create a new nation. A week-long independence referendum is taking place the south, expected to split Africa's largest country in two. The vote is already not without cost. But also, according to the Associated Press:

More than 60 percent of registered voters already have cast ballots in an independence referendum, crossing the threshold needed for the vote to be valid if it creates the new country of Southern Sudan as expected, a southern official said Wednesday.

These photos, the rest of which can be seen on Life's website, show people in a place that has experienced both continuous change and cultural constancy over the decades. Although the south is still home to nomadic cattle herders, who still scarify themselves and still live in conical thatched huts, much has evolved since the 1940s. Cell phones are now ubiquitous. And in 2007, the first roads were paved in the region — in the southern capital, Juba.

NPR's east Africa correspondent Frank Langfitt has been reporting on the referendum. In an email he writes, "Juba is a boom town with many paved roads, hotels, a few nightclubs and now even traffic cops. Drive ten miles out of town and you are going back at least a century."

About half a century ago, a photographer named Eliot Elisofon spent a few years exploring the region. He was well-known internationally and often commissioned by Life and National Geographic. He donated many of his materials to the National Museum of African Art, which can be seen on their site. This batch of photos comes from a 1950 Life article on cultures along the Nile.

Learn more about the referendum in Sudan. And stay tuned to see the week's events unfold with more coverage.

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