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Award-winning dissertation: Social anthropologist in Bayreuth investigates the inhuman aftermath of a dam project in Sudan

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University of Bayreuth, Press Release No. 129/2017, 20 Oktober 2017

Social anthropologist in Bayreuth Valerie Hänsch was honoured by the Frobenius Institute for Research in Cultural Anthropology at the Goethe University Frankfurt for the best dissertation written at a German university in the field of social anthropology in 2017. The award and 3,000-euro prize was presented to her at the Frankfurt Book Fair on 14 October 2017. Hänsch completed her doctoral research at the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS) and is currently a junior professor of culture and technology in Africa at the University of Bayreuth.


Her dissertation entitled Der Versuch zu bleiben. Dammbau und Krise im sudanischen Niltal ["Trying to stay. Dam Construction and Crisis in Sudan's Nile Valley"] examines a case study in order to explore the dramatic social effects of an industrial policy in Africa that has been pushed since the turn of the millennium to create electricity using hydro-electric power stations. The Merowe Dam in Sudan is part of an extensive programme to support the development and electrification of the Nile Valley. During the planning of the project, the Sudanese central government decided that around 70,000 people would have to make way for the dam and water reservoir. Hänsch's research addressed the fate of the Manasir, an ethnic group with a population of around 50,000. In order to encourage them to leave their ancestral homeland, the government promised them a higher standard of living with modern housing settlements and large-scale irrigation development.

However, the Manasir wished to remain in their homeland on the edge of the future water reservoir. Then in the summer of 2008, without considering counterproposals and before the community could be moved to new settlements, the Nile was dammed. A total of 80% of the villages and irrigation farming was destroyed by flooding. 


Over time, many families were forced to flee into the surrounding desert several times to avoid the rising river levels. Field research that Hänsch conducted over a period of 14 months and her subsequent research stay in Sudan investigated how the Manasir experienced this radical and violent change to their living conditions and tried to carry on despite so much uncertainty when their sense of the world seemed to be falling apart.

Previous studies on various forms of displacement - whether due to war, natural disasters, or development projects - usually involved refugees, migrants, or people who resettled elsewhere. "My many years of research have focused on people who have tried to stay as close as possible to their homes," explained Hänsch. "The study shows that infrastructure projects and the related resettlement have extremely inhumane consequences if the logic of the planning with which it is carried out is only based on technology and efficiency. Based on their own experience and knowledge, many farmers wanted to continue their lifestyles at the edge of the water reservoir and were also willing to try new possibilities. This tentative attempt to plan their own meaningful future was fraught with radical uncertainty. Doubt about whether they could stay was a recurring theme for those who were displaced by the flood," Hänsch said.

Her dissertation is thus a case study on the fundamental question of whether and how people can manage to carry on living meaningful lives while the world with which they are familiar is falling apart. How do they perceive, process, and produce social realities? The role such topics play in policy-making is becoming increasingly significant in view of the fact that more and more people in Africa are looking to leave their homelands to settle in Europe.

Further information

Additional information on the Frobenius Institute for Research in Cultural Anthropology at the Goethe University Frankfurt: www.frobenius-institut.de


Valerie Hänsch
Culture & Technology in Africa
University of Bayreuth
Universitätsstr. 30
95447 Bayreuth
Phone: +49 (0)921 / 55-4679
E-mail: valerie.haensch@uni-bayreuth.de

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Christian Wißler
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University of Bayreuth
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95447 Bayreuth
Phone: +49 (0)921 / 55-5356
E-mail: christian.wissler@uni-bayreuth.de

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