From The Library Of 'Life'

Looking Back At Sudan, 1947

LIFE

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.

  • Life photographer Eliot Elisofon traveled to Sudan in the late 1940s, which at that time was administered jointly by the United Kingdom and Egypt.
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    Life photographer Eliot Elisofon traveled to Sudan in the late 1940s, which at that time was administered jointly by the United Kingdom and Egypt.
    Eliot Elisophon/Courtesy of 'Life'
  • Elisofon captured a Sudan that was destined to be transformed and, in some fundamental ways, would never be the same. Here pictured is a Shilluk tribal king wearing a European beret and silk cumberbund acquired in trade.
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    Elisofon captured a Sudan that was destined to be transformed and, in some fundamental ways, would never be the same. Here pictured is a Shilluk tribal king wearing a European beret and silk cumberbund acquired in trade.
    Eliot Elisophon/Courtesy of 'Life'
  • Sudan gained its independence in 1956. Here, children pose for the camera in an undisclosed location.
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    Sudan gained its independence in 1956. Here, children pose for the camera in an undisclosed location.
    Eliot Elisophon/Courtesy of 'Life'
  • The Shilluk are an ethnic group of southern Sudan, living on the banks of the Nile near the city of Malakal.
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    The Shilluk are an ethnic group of southern Sudan, living on the banks of the Nile near the city of Malakal.
    Eliot Elisophon/Courtesy of 'Life'
  • Although the Shilluk remained on the sidelines for most of the Second Sudanese Civil War, they were involved in fighting in 2004. Here photographed are Shilluk policemen.
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    Although the Shilluk remained on the sidelines for most of the Second Sudanese Civil War, they were involved in fighting in 2004. Here photographed are Shilluk policemen.
    Eliot Elisophon/Courtesy of 'Life'
  • Thatched houses are still a standard structure in Sudan.
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    Thatched houses are still a standard structure in Sudan.
    Eliot Elisophon/Courtesy of 'Life'

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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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