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Pursuing a long-held dream of language preservation

Nicholas Evans, Shape

Date: 9 September 2021
“I have a lot of things to do in order to preserve my culture. Therefore, I would be very happy if I could find an opportunity to study linguistics…”

When Haroun Kafi joined Nick Evans and Matt Carroll in the first semester of 2021 for Field Methods in Linguistics as the course language consultant, it was a collaboration 20 years in the making. Haroun worked with ANU students to document his language, Kufo a dream he first shared with Nick in 2001.

Nick was working at the University of Melbourne when a letter from Haroun landed on his desk. At the time, Haroun was in Egypt as a refugee, having fled there from Sudan. He is a member of the Kufo clan of the Kadu (Kagolo) tribe from the Nuba Mountains west of Kadugli, a town in South Kordofan near the border with South Sudan.

“But because of the genocidal war of the Nuba mountains, all these villagers are now living in the [other] Sudanese towns. They leave or left their home, looking for security,” Haroun wrote in his letter. Unfortunately, leaving their traditional lands came with new challenges.

“In the cities, we also found another war. It is the war of culture…. Our new generation are not speak[ing] our mother language and not practicing their tradition and culture.”

Haroun had long been passionate about preserving the Kufo language. When he sent his letter in 2001, he had written several Kufo language resources, including alphabet and story books, and had completed courses in writing and language development. At the time, however, no universities in the region taught linguistics. That’s why he reached out to researchers in Australia.

“I sent him some books after that, to where he was working in Egypt,” Nick said. “Then our communication went silent for many years until 2020, when I got an email from Haroun out of the blue.”

Haroun had arrived in Australia in 2005. He first settled with his family in Dandenong, Victoria, then moved in 2007 to Shepparton, where he currently works with Catholic Care Victoria. He is a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Liaison Officer and Adviser, supporting migrant communities in Shepparton, and promoting partnerships and understanding between them and local Indigenous communities.

He reached out to Nick in 2020, wanting to fulfil his dream of learning how to support Kufo language development. As it happened, Haroun’s email arrived when Nick and Matt were deciding what language to work with for the 2021 Field Methods in Linguistics course.

“Normally these courses are run face-to-face,” Nick explains. “But the need to adapt to COVID and online teaching opened a golden opportunity to work with Haroun at his Shepparton base.”

Nick and Haroun with students during the 2021 Field Methods in Linguistics course (photo: CoEDL).

Like many ANU courses in the first semester of 2021, Field Methods in Linguistics ran on a hybrid model. The flexibility enabled by Zoom meant Haroun could participate from his home in Shepparton for most of the course, coming to Canberra on three occasions to attend in person. Students worked with Haroun to understand and document the structure of Kufo, beginning with questions like How do you say ‘ear’?, How do you say ‘ears’? or What is the word for your sister’s daughter? More importantly, they recorded, transcribed and translated traditional and historical stories in Kufo, as well as following up on unexpected treasures like paired words for second-born brother/sister, which revealed tone contrasts. If Haroun was unsure about something, he would call family or elders in places like Texas or back home in Sudan. 

“It was great to work with [the students, Matt and Nick] and I believe [they] have done something that will change the Kufo tribe forever because [they] are preserving the Kufo language and culture.”

Haroun joins the class over Zoom. Image: Nick Evans.

Two students from the 2021 cohort — Keira Mullan and Shubo Li — are now planning to pursue Honours research projects, inspired by their experience working with Haroun, Matt and Nick.

“Kufo is such an exotically beautiful language… and it is always a pleasure working with Haroun — he is clear, patient, and he loves sharing his knowledge on Kufo language and culture with us,” reflected Shubo.

“Working with Haroun in the linguistics field methods course was so different from anything I had done before in my undergraduate studies,” Keira echoed. “We were learning about fieldwork as we were doing fieldwork, making mistakes and discoveries all at once. Nick and Matt were fantastic, guiding us through the process while still allowing us to develop our own interests and ideas.”

Keira and Shubo will keep working with Haroun to resolve some of the unanswered questions arising from the course. Already, they have joined Haroun, Matt, Nick and some of their fellow students at the 15th Nilo-Saharan Linguistics Colloquium, a digital conference hosted by the University of Edinburgh in early August 2021. For most of the team, this was their first experience of a conference presentation.

Nick reflected that there are still many unknowns about the languages of this region, presenting many opportunities for future collaboration. “As yet, we have very few linguistic studies of the languages of the Kadu family, and the Nuba mountains region is incredibly diverse linguistically. It turns out that there are speakers of a number of Nuba mountains languages in various parts of Australia.”

Haroun thanked the entire class for their efforts, saying that “it was a really friendly course. Everyone was really happy to work on the Kufo language. It is something the whole tribe will be grateful for. We will all be together one day in the tribal land to celebrate and appreciate the people who worked hard to preserve the Kufo language and culture.”


Note: The name ‘Kufo’ is sometimes Arabised as ‘Kufa’.



Header image — an excerpt from Haroun’s letter (Credit: Haroun Kafi).

Image 2 — Nick and Haroun with students during the 2021 Field Methods in Linguistics course (photo: CoEDL).

Image 3 —Haroun joins the class over Zoom (photo: Nick Evans).

Letter — written by and republished here with the permission of Haroun Kafi.

Letter (page 1) written by and republished here with the permission of Haroun Kafi.

Letter (page 2) written by and republished here with the permission of Haroun Kafi.

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