People and Culture of South Sudan

South Sudan population is currently reported as 8 million, courtesy of 2008 census whose results were rejected outright by South Sudanese officials who were convinced that the Bashir government deflated the numbers in order to advance its imbalance allocations of oil revenues, political power sharing as well as trying to pre-rig the results of the then impending self-determination referendum. South Sudan, whose population predominantly lives in rural areas, is yet to hold a nationwide census exercise that can yield an official population count.

The people of South Sudan can be broadly grouped into three language families: namely Eastern Sudanic, Central Sudanic and Ubangian languages. The Eastern and Central Sudanic, a subset of Nilo-Saharan languages, constitute the major language family in South Sudan. The Ubangian language, mostly associated with Bantu people, is the second major language family in South Sudan. There are also pockets of Arab speaking people, mostly clustered in Northern Bahr el Ghazal and Western Bahr El Ghazal States.

South Sudan is a nation whose ethnicity is richly diverse; more than 60 ethnic groups are natives of the nascent nation. However, most of these ethnic groups share very closely-link cultural traits, usually with intelligible languages, thus forming distinct larger family units. These groups are: the Dinka, the Nuer, the Luo groups, the Azande, the Bari groups, the Ateker groups, the Surmic (Murle-Didinga) groups, the Otuho groups, Madi-Moru groups, the Bongo groups, Kresh groups, the Yulu-Binga groups, the Sere-Ngbaka groups, the Banda, the Uduk and the Tid. Below is a brief rundown of each of these groups!

The Dinka:

The Dinka who refer to themselves as Jieng or Muonyjang occupy an area that starts in central Jonglei State on the eastern bank of Nile River stretching up to northwest of Northern Bahr el Ghazal state, mostly amid many small streams and rivers that feed into the main Nile River. Detached from this belt, are two large settlements of Ngok Dinka, the residents of Abyei, and Padang Dinka who inhabit northeast of Upper Nile State. The Dinka are currently estimated in the range of 2.5 to 3 million, thus making them the largest ethnic group in South Sudan.

The Dinka are agro-pastoralists who cherish farming. They practice small scale agriculture to complement and balance their subsistence. The Dinka however, have strong devotions to their livestock. As manifested among many cattle-leaning communities, cattle play a fundamental role in Dinka social fabrics: individual’s social status are determined by the number of cattle one owns; cattle are essential component of dowry; marriage is recognized only after cattle are received by the bride family; children are often named after colors of Cattle that the parents adore, and that’s just mentioning few roles cattle play in their lives.

Every adult is expected to get married and raise a family. Marriage is an important social event that commands unconditional commitments and contributions from both set of families and of the wider community. It is an elaborate process that begins with courtship and culminates in the final handing over the bride to the groom family. The price of bride-wealth deviates substantially across Dinka sections; from tens to hundreds of cattle. It is worth noting that dowry isn’t raised by betrothing family alone; uncles, mostly paternal to the groom, extended families, relatives and members of the community make dowry contributions.

Given the saliency of dowry in Dinka marriage, lack of cattle can influence one’s timing of marriage; however the extended family has a duty to marry their sons off. A man can marry as many wives as he wishes provided his wealth allows; the extended family only has a dowry-bound duty to marry their sons’ first wives.

The Dinka observe the rite of passage to adulthood. The type of initiations and the concomitant ceremonies vary from one clan to another. The common initiations are the removal of the 6 lower frontal teeth, (the canines and each adjacent premolar) and the scarify markings on the forehead. The age, at which initiations take place, diverges across clans; among some clans, it is carried out at the younger age, sometimes as early as 12 years old, among other clans it is carried out in the late teen-age. Once initiated, the initiate is obligated to eschew his childhood inclinations, conduct self as an adult and gradually takes on more of adult responsibilities.

The Nuer:

The Nuer or Naath as they refer to themselves, inhabit a vast savanna land which stretches from Ethiopia border to the west of the Nile River and encompasses the counties of Akobo, Bentiu, Fangak and Nasir. The current estimate puts them at 2 million, making them the second large ethnic group after the Dinka.

The Nile east bank sections refer to those of the Nile west bank as “homeland Nuer”. Both have consistent oral traditions that point to an expansion across the Nile, as far as the Ethiopian border. The Nuer oral traditions suggest that at one time three brothers Nuer, Dinka, and Atuot once lived in a common territory and only split up following a dispute over a rightful ownership of a certain number of cattle. Consequently the Nuer moved out and migrated to the east thereby pushing Anuak farther east into Ethiopia; in the process assimilating many Dinka communities.

The Nuer economic activities mirror that of their neighbors, the Dinka. Marriage is recognized through the exchange of dowry, in the form of cattle, between a groom’s kin and a bride family. A standard of forty heads of cattle makes up the expected the bride-wealth a bride family can receive. However, marriage is considered incomplete till the bride has given birth to at least two children. For this reason, the actual exchange of dowry can be a lengthy process. Once a third child has been born, the marriage is considered to be tied. The woman then becomes a full member of her husband’s agnatic lineage, along with her children.

Just like the Dinka, the Nuer do not have a unitary leadership system. Local disputes are arbitrated by kwar (chiefs), whose words are respected because of their moral authorities. Chiefs can settle disputes only once those in conflict agree to settlements.

The Luo groups:

This group which is made up of Acholi, Anuak, Belanda Boor, Jur (Chol & Mananger), Maban, Pari, Shatt (Thuri) and Shilluk are part of the larger Luo peoples, who are spread across five African countries of Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Congo and Tanzania. The origin of Luo peoples is believed to lie somewhere in the present region of Bahr el Ghazal. They inhabit all corners of the country; the Shilluk live along the western and eastern bank of the river Nile around the city of Malakal of the Upper Nile State. The Anuak occupy an area that overlaps South Sudan and Ethiopian borders in the eastern Jonglei State. Acholi and Pari, members of Eastern Equatoria state, occupy land which lies to the west of Imatong Mountains stretching into Uganda border, whereas Jur-Chol and a section of Belanda Boor, the inhabitants of Western Bahr el Ghazal States, live in areas around Wau town. Another section of Belanda Boor lives in the north of Tambura town in Western Equatoria State.

The Luo speakers are agro-pastoralists who usually keep small herds of cattle, in addition to larger flocks of sheep and goats. Some communities such as Shilluk and Anuak are adept and dedicated fishermen who successfully exploit the resources of rivers they live along. Hunting is also widely practiced, especially among the Shilluk and Anuak where hunting parties are organized to pursue animals such antelopes, buffalos, giraffes, elephants and hippopotamus especially for those who lives along the river Nile.

Notwithstanding their traditional domain such as herding, hunting and fishing, men also play a significant role in agriculture, especially for labor-intensive tasks such as clearing, planting, and harvesting, mostly done communally. Women, on the other hand, provide most of the less-intensive labor in the field. Both men and women perform various specific functions when it comes to the construction of homestead structures.

Marriage is the ultimate goal of every adult; it is a multi-year process where courtship may take at least a year. Once there is an understanding between the courting couple, parents on both sides will then get involved. Once the suitor has been accepted, the payment of the bride-wealth follows. Dowry takes different form and its value varies among these groups.

It is one of the few Nilotic groups in South Sudan whose certain subsections adhere to centralized system of monarchy or governance. These monarchies are governed by kings or superior chiefs who appoint chiefs to perform certain duties. In the case of Shilluk for example, a chief is appointed by the Reth, or king of the Shilluk, a living symbol of unity, considered to be possessed by the spirit of Nyikang, the Shilluk hero and first king.

The Azande:

The Azande who make up most of Bantu-speaking groups (others include the Banda, the Makaraka, and the Mundu) in South Sudan are part of the Azande family whose homeland covers an area that overlaps the boundaries of South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Azande are found mainly in Western Equatoria State, inhabiting Maridi, Yambio and Tambura districts.

The Azande are mainly farmers who grow various crops and fruits and often rear domestic animals such as goats and chickens. Cultivation remains largely women domain.  Men build and maintain homesteads, hunt, and perform other the various tasks and crafts. The Azande make excellent baskets woven from barks and leaves of palm, different types and varieties of wooden craft, tables and chairs, bow and arrows, iron knives and swords.

The passage into adulthood is usually attained through circumcision in an elaborate ritual, communally performed when boys are in their late teen-age. At the same stage, girls generally become attached to their mothers who educate and guide through different roles about wifehood and motherhood.

As typical among most indigenous African tribes, marriage is virilocal and preferably polygamous if one’s wealth permits. Main dowry used to take form of iron spears, though nowadays it is mostly paid in cash and may include goats or other items such as clothes etc.

In pre-colonial times, the vast Zande homeland consisted of a number of tribal kingdoms which were ruled by members of the Vungara dynasty.  Each kingdom was divided into provinces, which were administered mainly by the king’s younger agnates. Since then, the Vungara dynasty has dissipated; the political and judicial powers are now wielded by chiefs who hail mostly from royal clans.

The Karo people (the Bari groups):

The main tribes are the Bari, Kakwa, Kuku, Mundari, Nyangwara and Pojulu. They live mostly in Central Equatoria, occupying an expansive land that encompasses a significant portion of state.

Except for the Mundari who are principally cattle-oriented, the Karo people economy is predominantly agrarian. They practice mixed farming: varieties of crops such as cassava, sorghum, maize, simsim, groundnut etc. are cultivated for subsistence. Animals such as goats, sheep, chickens and cattle, where suitable, are reared to supplement food.

Marriage can be contracted through two different methods: an arranged marriage (somewhat antiquated) whereby both sets of parents agree to the marriage, and a marriage through courtship, whereby the boy and the girl take the first initiatives and later seek approval or rejection from their parents. Consent or refusal to the marriage by parents is delivered following families background check done to determine if both families come from socially acceptable backgrounds. Bride-wealth includes goats, cattle, sheep or cash. It can be paid in installment especially when an arranged marriage is involved or in lump sum especially when the marriage is pursued through courtship method.

Chiefs combine the role of political leaders with judicial powers. Chieftaincy is hereditary usually bequeathed to the eldest son of the departed chief. The chiefs are assisted by sub-chiefs or elders at the clans’ level. The rainmakers, who are usually spiritual leaders, command some respect among the people and can thus occasionally exercise executive duties, normally reserved for chiefs.

The Lotuxo (Otuho) groups:

In this groups are the Dongatona, the Lango, the Logir, the Lokoya, the Lopit and the Lotuko. They are all inhabitants of Eastern Equatoria State; most of their settlements are located within or around Torit district stretching down south to the Uganda border.

Though they keep large herd of cattle, sheep and goats, the Lotuxo groups equally farm for subsistence. Special ceremonies are traditionally held to mark the launch the onset of important social events. For instant, cultivation requires authorization by the chief of soil who perform rituals at the onset of each rainy season. Permission is also sought from the chief of land before any related activity such as hunting expedition is undertaken.

Unique to Lotuxo group is a system of governance by age-set called ‘Monyomiji’. After every 16-25 years, the governance of the community is formally handed over to a new generation or Monyomiji. The Monyomiji assume responsibility for the daily running of public affairs and the well-being of the community; they keep internal peace, settle disputes.

The Ateker Groups:

Contained in this group are the Jie, the Nyangathom and the Toposa. They are sections of the Turkana-Teso lineage whose homeland lie in the borders of four African states of South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. They occupy a vast land encompassing the contiguous borders of Ethiopia Kenya and Uganda.

Though they are generally agro-pastoralists, some member communities principally depend on livestock for subsistence. They keep mainly 5 species of livestock: camels, cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys. Camels, cattle, sheep and goats provide for their sustenance while donkeys are used to transport household goods during migrations; some member groups practice transhumance. As noted above, agriculture is practice when and where suitable. Men are responsible for the daily herding requirements, while women are responsible for watering and milking the livestock, feeding the family, and doing other domestic chores.

Like most Nilotes, they strictly observe agnatic lineage of its members; it forms the unit of identification through which community values is passed onto the next generation. Boys of the same age are organized into age-groups, through which they receive lessons on social issues as well as on other vital survival techniques. They start off by looking after sheep and goat, taking more herding responsibilities as they become more of men. Girls on the other hand, learn from their mothers how to take care of the household chores. As common among the Nilotes, the Ateker communities have no centralized chieftaincy. Chiefs, elders, witch doctors, medicine-men and fortune tellers wield powers within their localities. Bravery and wisdom are necessary traits required from a chief or any leader.

Surmic (Murle-Didinga) groups:

Members of this group includes the Boya, the Didinga, the Kachipo (Suri), the Murle and the Tenet. They are subgroups of Surma-family whose other member tribes are found in Ethiopia and Sudan. They are spread across two states of Jonglei and Eastern Equatoria. The Murle and the Suri (Kachipo), citizens of Jonglei State, occupy an area that stretches from Pibor town to the Boma plateau, on the borders of Ethiopia and Eastern Equatoria State. The Didinga, the Boya and the Tenet, who live in Eastern Equatoria State, occupy settlements which lie east of Imatong Mountains amid the Didinga and Boya Hills.

Some communities still lead a strong pastoralist lifestyle but they are generally agro-pastoralists. Their present habitats have necessitated the move toward agriculture. Most of their settlements, for instant, the Didinga, the Boya and the Tenet land, and the Boma plateau are well-watered and very fertile and indeed can support growth of variety of crops all year long. However, the lowland Murle who live around Pibor town and which make up the majority of Murle population, herd cattle and largely depends on them for their subsistence. Game hunting is also widely practice; animals such as gazelles, giraffes and elephants are hunted. Organized group hunting for Leopard and lions are occasionally carried out especially when lions or leopards take their cattle for prey.

An important aspect among some communities of this group is the organization of “age-grades” for boys. Every three to five years, boys who are around eight years old are placed together to form a new “age-grade.” Members of the same age-group grow up together, doing everything from, working, playing, learning etc together until they are married.

Like other Nilotes, marriage is consummated with exchange of bride-wealth. Dowry mostly involves cattle, goats and sheep, but sometimes articles such as hoes, spears can also be included. Usually the bride is handed over to the groom once the bride family is satisfied with and has received the bride-wealth. Although parents especially fathers need to ratify their sons marriages, the choice of brides rest with grooms. Clans are headed by chiefs who arbitrate disputes. They can summon people for an organized raid and always lead in war.

The Moru-Madi groups:

Descending from this family are Avukaya, Keliku, Loluba, Lugbara, Madi and Moru. They are subsections of the Moru-Madi larger family whose other members are found in Uganda and Congo. The Avukaya, the Lugbara, the Moru and the Keliku occupy areas around Yei, Maridi and Mundri town while Loluba are located southeast of Juba town. The Madi people occupy the southwestern part of Magwi County.

The Moru-Madi are mainly farmers who also keep domestic animals such as goats and chickens to supplement their food supplies. Lugbwara are well known for their rearing of guinea fowl. Fishing and game hunting are other economic activities often carried out among some groups, mainly to complement their agricultural produce. Some members of this group are renowned for their artistic craft in bow and spears making.

The Bongo Groups:

Members of this group include Baka, Bongo, Jur (Beli & Modo) and MoroKodo. They live in four states of Lake, Warrap, Western Bahr El Ghazal and Western Equatoria. The Jur (Beli) occupy an area that extends from Bahr Gel from the north of Cueibet to Wulu, while the Jur (Modo) live in Mvolo, Bogri, Woko and bahr Girindi near Yirol. The MoroKodo are found in Central Equatoria settled around Mundri town and the Bongo are located in Tonj South County.

The bongo groups are avid agriculturalists who rear poultry, goats and sheep. Fishing, beekeeping and game hunting are also practiced for subsistence. Among some communities, for example the Jur (Beli & Modo) the rite of initiation is keenly observed. It is an exercise usually marked by removal of lower canines, mostly carried out at the age of 12. Once initiated, the initiates, who acquire special status in the community, are taught their respective roles. Part of this curriculum is the sanctity of marriage and the in-laws.

The Yulu-Binga groups:

The main subgroups in this group are the Kara, the Binga and the Yulu. They are located in Raga district and extend to Kafia-Kingi in southern Darfur and Central African Republic.

The Yulu-Binga groups depend on agriculture for subsistence. Hunting, fishing and production of honey are also other economic activities commonly practiced. Domestic animals fowl, goats and sheep are also raised.

The Kresh Groups:

This is a composite of the Aja, the Kresh and the Woro; they are section of the Kresh descendants whose other members live in Central African Republic. They occupy the upper parts of Sopo River and are also found spread around Raga, Wau, and Deim Zubier. The Kresh are mainly an agrarian community.

The Sere-Ngbaka groups:

The sub-groups of Sere-Ngbaka speakers are the Bai, the Belanda Bviri, the Feroghe, the Gollo, the Indri, the Mangayat, the Mundu, the Ndogo and the Sere. Except for the Mundu and a section of the Belanda Bviri, who live in Maridi district of Western Equatoria State, the rest of the member communities are found in Western Bahr el Ghazal inhabiting areas Wau, Deim Zubier Raga.

The Sere-Ngbaka speakers are mostly peasants who grow variety of crops and raise poultry and a small number of goats and sheep but rarely keep cattle. They are also good game hunters and craftsman. All of these activities are well planned according to the seasons and are optimally carried out. Great importance is attached to cultivation, hunting and arts, so people who work hard and produce abundant food are highly respected in the society.

Among some groups, the responsibility of choosing a bride for a groom lies with parents of the groom but with significant inputs from aunts, mothers and sisters of the grooms who do most of the scouting. The future bride is expected to possess certain qualities: hardworking, good looking and should preferably come from socially and economically respectable family.

The Banda:

South Sudan Banda groups are sub-clans of the Banda people who are also found in Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Cameroon. They inhabit an area that surrounds Raga, extending into the eastern part of Central African Republic. Other main towns are Mangaya, Sopo and Deim Zubier.

The Uduk:

The Uduk refer to themselves as “Kwanim pa” people of the homeland. They live in Renk County of Upper Nile State along the Ethiopian border. The Uduk belong to the Koman group whose members include the Kwama and Opuuo of Ethiopia, and Komo of Sudan. They practicing shifting cultivation; they grow variety of crops and raise livestock such as sheep and pig. They hunt wild animals; gather honey, wild fruits, roots and seeds. The Uduk are unique among South Sudanese communities in that they venerate matrilineal lineage. Marriage is accomplished through ‘sister exchange’, which means a groom’s clan gives his bride’s clan a young woman to replace the bride.

The Tid:

The Tid is a small community of few families living on Natinga Mountain in Kapoeta County. They share the same ancestry with Ik and Tepes tribes of northern Uganda and collectively form the Kuliak groups.

Note that the accounts presented above are based on traditions and may not reflect the contemporary values or activities. Be reminded too that the accounts given here are gleaned from limited publicly available information and are therefore neither comprehensive nor exhaustive; inputs by knowledgeable members of these communities are openly welcome.



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