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"So We Thought not to Lose Our Background Completely": Agency and Belonging among South Sudanese Acholi in New Zealand

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posted on 2021-11-12, 15:48 authored by O'Byrne, Ryan

The members of the South Sudanese Acholi population in New Zealand are part of the burgeoning number of refugees worldwide. As such, they are at risk of having their personal experiences submerged in the stereotypical view of ‘the refugee experience’. The South Sudanese Acholi community are a small but distinct ethnic sub-community within the wider South Sudanese refugee-background population in New Zealand. One of my primary aims in this thesis is to represent the specifically-situated experiences of individuals from this group within the broader contexts of refugee resettlement. A fundamental aspect of these experiences is the ambiguous and often contradictory senses of belonging which community members describe. Using analysis of the narratives through which these individuals make sense of their resettlement experiences, I determine agency to be an important consideration in experiences of belonging and, therefore, I argue that the role of agency to belonging should be more widely recognised. In this thesis I demonstrate how various attempts by South Sudanese Acholi at cultural (re)production in New Zealand are intimately linked to the many difficulties these individuals experience in resettlement, and particularly to how these difficulties impact the development and maintenance of a sense of belonging. Analyses of individual and common factors demonstrate the importance of belonging to experiences of resettlement. This is apparent throughout all aspects of South Sudanese Acholi’s everyday lives. This thesis is organised around the interlinking nature of three aspects of everyday life: marriage, cultural performance, and discursive practices. A central unifying factor is that each of these aspects of every day experience can be understood as attempts in developing more stable senses of belonging. Data was collected through a combination of participant observation and unstructured interviews. Participant observation was primarily undertaken among the Sudanese Acholi Cultural Association (SACA), a community-organised Acholi cultural performance group. Although not exclusively the focus of this research, the members of this group comprise the basis of my research participants and their resettlement experiences form the basis for my results. A focus on participants’ stories about their lives in resettlement allows analysis of the importance of their everyday practices and perceptions to the ways in which they experience and understand their lives in New Zealand and demonstrates that the on-going interaction between their experiences as refugees and their resettlement experiences are mutually reinforcing. I suggest that if refugees’ own voices and opinions are to be accurately represented, a holistic perspective of the full range of their experiences is required. The ambivalent, multiple, and multifaceted nature of belonging described by South Sudanese Acholi individuals’ is a defining feature of their resettlement experiences. I suggest that South Sudanese Acholi attempts at performing and reproducing their customary cultural practices in New Zealand serve primarily as creative means of adapting to the conditions of resettlement in ways which allow the construction, development, and maintenance of feelings of belonging among community members. However, I also determine that lack of agency is especially important for understanding the ambivalence about belonging South Sudanese Acholi demonstrate when speaking of these resettlement experiences. I argue that behind many of the everyday actions taken by refugees are simultaneous attempts to rediscover a sense of agency and to recreate a foundation for belonging.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Social and Cultural Studies


O’Rourke, Diane; Levine, Hal