The Dinka and Nuer

These photographs show the everyday lives of Dinka and Nuer people of South Sudan. They also describe briefly how these lives are affected by the ongoing civil unrest in South Sudan.

Without conflict and under development, life in South Sudan would be generally good. Even with poor access to medical services, education and conflict, many people continue to lead a rich traditional life. People are proud of their culture. Communities are close. Children play an important part in everyday activities, and learn the complex skills needed to survive in this difficult but rewarding environment.

Most people in South Sudan grow some crops during the wet season and keep livestock which they herd away from their villages during the dry season. This way of life is called ‘trans-humant agro-pastoralism’. The Dinka and Nuer are the largest agro-pastoral tribes in South Sudan. They are closely related tribes; it is thought the Nuer are descended originally from the Dinka. They are both dispersed, anarchic, mutually supportive societies.

People in South Sudan know about the outside world. They want to engage with it, but want to have some control over the way their society will change as a result. School education, to complement their traditional education, is valued as one way to achieve this.

These photographs were taken mostly at the start of the dry season, around several different locations where there are Community Based Animal Health projects were operating.

Cloud over cattle camp 1

Dusk, when people and cattle come together again at the end of the day, is the main time for social activity.

Dusk, when people and cattle come together again at the end of the day, is the main time for social activity.

Scarified boy with cow

Scarified boy with cow

This young man is tending to his cow. His forehead bears scars from his initiation. The initiation ceremony marks the change from being considered a child to being considered an adult, and happens in early teens.

School class room by Pibor River

Village schools are spreading through South Sudan. Usually they are locally made classrooms, but sometimes pupils are taught under the shade of a large tree.


GEOGRAPHY & CLIMATE

Sudan is the largest country in Africa (about ten times the size of the UK). The Dinka and Nuer live in an area about twice the size of the UK, in the band of country that stretches between Zaire in the West and Ethiopia in the East, from around the level where the White Nile is joined by the rivers Bar el Ghazal and Sobat, south to the rising land that borders Uganda and the Central African Republic. The population of South Sudan is about 11 million.

South Sudan is a land of swamps and open savannah. The swamps of South Sudan are the largest in the world and are formed when the waters of the White Nile and its tributaries flow down from the highlands of Ethiopia, Uganda and the Central African Republic into the low clay basin that forms much of South Sudan. The swamps swell with the torrential rain that inundates the area between May and September, then recede gradually during the dry season. From this vast reservoir, the White Nile moves sluggishly north on its long journey up towards Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, where it is joined by the Blue Nile, on into Egypt, and eventually to the Mediterranean Sea. The swamps of South Sudan abound with an enormous variety of birds. Indeed with its big views and huge skies, the whole area is unusually beautiful.

The temperature year round is between about 27-45oC. When the temperature drops below 30oC people start to feel cold and put on warm clothes! Because there is no industry in South Sudan and no cars, the air is clean and clear and smells sweet.

Nile swamps from air

The Nile is one of the world’s great rivers. This picture is taken from an aeroplane flying over the swamps that for so long deterred outsiders from penetrating the area. Although we all learn that ‘the Nile flows to the Mediterranean’, most of the water that flows with the Nile and other rivers into south Sudan does not reach the sea at all, but evaporates, falls as rain on the highlands around, and flows back into south Sudan again; perpetually recycling locally.

Wichok from the air - sand-banks and waterways

Villagers built their houses (‘dwils’ or ‘tukels’) and cattle byres (‘luacs’) on low ‘islands’ of sand that sit on the floor of the clay basin that makes up most of the area. Nowhere is this more obvious than around the village of Wichok in Upper Nile Province. This photograph was taken at the end of the rainy season in 1997. Exceptional rains had spoiled the crops making for a very poor harvest. However people only live here now because it is relatively safe from the war. They know it is a difficult place to grow food.

South Sudan is a land of swamps and open savannah. The swamps are the largest in the world and are formed when the waters of the White Nile and its tributaries flow down from the highlands of Ethiopia, Uganda and the Central African Republic into the low clay basin that forms much of South Sudan. The swamps swell with the torrential rain that inundates the area between May and September, then recede gradually during the dry season. From this vast reservoir, the White Nile moves sluggishly north on its long journey up towards Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, where it is joined by the Blue Nile, on into Egypt, and eventually to the Mediterranean Sea. The swamps of South Sudan abound with an enormous variety of birds. Indeed with its big views and huge skies, the whole area is unusually beautiful.

Beside the swamps are the open grassy savannahs, interspersed with patches of scrub forest. The unpredictable floods and rains make crop growing during the short wet season a precarious activity, so Dinka and Nuer life is based around livestock, particularly cattle, which they husband with great skill and care.

The Sobat River at dawn

The Sobat River flows down from the highlands of Ethiopia, and is a major tributary of the White Nile. Once it hits the flat land of Sudan, it becomes sluggish, and many little islands of vegetation float slowly along with it.

People crossing a watercourse

Villages are usually built on slightly raised sand banks which sit on the floor of the clay basin which makes up much of South Sudan. Particularly during the wet season, and particularly near to the main rivers, there are many watercourses or areas of swamp to be crossed when travelling around. Boats are only practical on larger stretches of water.

A TYPICAL YEAR:

 

LIVESTOCK

With unpredictable floods and rains, crop growing during the short wet season is a precarious activity, so Dinka and Nuer life is based around livestock, particularly cattle.

Livestock are central to Dinka and Nuer culture. They provide subsistence food (milk, blood and meat), food reserves when crops fail (meat), and can be bartered for other comestibles (particularly grain); their needs determine human social structure; they are the cause of rights being wronged, and the means by which wrongs are righted; they represent savings; they are the currency of social contracts and the cement of social cohesion. Cattle are their most treasured livestock, but they also keep sheep and goats, some chickens, and in some places, donkeys. They also keep dogs for hunting, security and companionship. From a child’s point of view, animals provide food, companionship, social and economic security, and cultural identity.

Like many other livestock keeping tribes in Africa, the Dinka and Nuer are ‘trans-humant agro-pastoralists’. This means they have a regular, semi-nomadic lifestyle moving between their crop growing village areas in the wet season, and the toic (pronounced toych - the swamps and water-meadows), that provides grazing for their livestock during the dry season.

There is one rainy season each year, between May and September, during which time people live in permanent villages. For the rest of the year, most members of the family move with the animals following the new grass which grows on the receding water meadows.

The need to find water and grazing for their animals governs life for the Nuer and Dinka. Cattle need to be watered every 1-2 days, sheep and goats every 1-4 days.

A cattle camp from the air

Cattle are brought together at night into camps for social reasons and for protection against both enemies and biting insects. A cattle camp can have many thousand cattle, as well as smaller numbers of sheep and goats. The cattle are grouped around extended families, giving the effect of many joined circles.

Cloud over a cattle camp 2

Livestock are central to Dinka and Nuer culture. They provide subsistence food (milk, blood and meat), food reserves when crops fail (meat), and can be bartered for other comestibles (particularly grain); their needs determine human social structure; they are the cause of rights being wronged, and the means by which wrongs are righted; they represent savings; they are the currency of social contracts and the cement of social cohesion. Cattle are their most treasured livestock, but they also keep sheep and goats, some chickens, and in some places, donkeys. They also keep dogs for hunting, security and companionship.

A cattle camp at dusk

In the foreground is a dried cow dung fire. In the morning, all the cow dung is collected and dried; and in the evening, the dried dung is lit to make smoky fires. The smoke drives away biting insects and allows the cattle to get some rest. The ash from the fires also repels insects; cows can be seen flicking it over themselves, dogs sleep in it, and people, particularly children, powder themselves with it. The smoke and smell of cow dung fires is a characteristic part of life in South Sudan.

A tassle horned song bull

Young bulls, particularly those with well patterned coats, are often selected at an early age to be ‘song bulls’. They are usually castrated (so they are really ‘song bullocks’), and their horns are pared away just above the base so that the left one grows forwards, and the right one grows backwards. When they get older, a tassle is hung through holes in the tips of its horns for decoration. Dinka in particular select cattle for the size of their horns. Song bulls are highly valued and very well treated. Their owners groom them, sing songs to them, and develop a close and special relationship with them. ‘Horn surgery’, as the shaping of cow horns is known, is recorded in the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt, so has obviously been practices along the Nile for thousands of years.

 

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