The Impact of War and the Survival of Tradition: Documenting Zande Slit-Drums (Gugu) in South Sudan

By Zoe Cormack, El-Fatih Atem, and Samuel Biegene Zanugu | 10 November 2020

This project will document the production, uses and cultural significance of the Zande ‘gugu‘ (slit drum or gong) in South Sudan. These wooden drums, which can stand up to 5ft high, are often carved into elaborate zoomorphic designs. They are used in dances, as a means of communication and increasingly in Christian worship. They embody the social centre of many Zande communities. Their production takes several months to complete and requires a specific tree (bakaikpo) and specialist knowledge of several traditional carving implements, which are used to create the characteristic two-toned ‘voice’ of the drum. Its production is accompanied by prescribed ritual processes and is deeply rooted in the landscape and history of Zande people. However, knowledge of its production is dwindling, and transmission of this knowledge has been threatened by prolonged civil wars and extensive displacement. Our project will follow the creation of a gugu from the beginning to end, capturing the knowledge of a master carver and associated rituals.


We will conduct audio-visual documentation of the gugu’s current use (with a variety of players and performers) and carry out oral history interviews about past practice with Zande elders. Despite the extremely disrupted circumstances in South Sudan, the gugu survives, albeit in a critically endangered form. Therefore, this project will also interrogate how material knowledge, such as that embodied in the gugu, can endure through periods of conflict and long term displacement.


Dr Zoe Cormack, Research Associate at the British Institute in Eastern Africa and Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the African Studies Centre

El-Fatih Atem, Director, Likikiri Collective
Samuel Biegene Zanugu, Researcher, Likikiri Collective.

Location of Research:
South Sudan—Juba, Yambio, and Tombura

Host Institution:
British Institute in Eastern Africa


Top Banner Image: An aerial image of a homestead in Yambio, 2014 (Photo: El-Fatih Atem)