Murle people

Murle

Murle / Murele / Lotilla / Ngalam / Ajibo / Ber

The Murle people are  agro-pastoralist and a Nilo-Saharan-speaking ethnic group residing in Pibor County and Boma area, Jonglei State, in southeastern part of South Sudan, as well as in Ethiopia.

Murle people

The Murle are proud people who are very proud of their language and customs. They also regard themselves as distinct from the people that live around them. At various times they have been at war with all of the surrounding tribes so they present a united front against what they regard as hostile neighbors. The people call themselves Murle and all other peoples are referred to as 'moden." The literal translation of this word is “enemy,” although it can also be translated as “strangers.”

Even when the Murle are at peace with a given group of neighbors, they still refer to them as moden.
The neighboring tribes also return the favor by referring to the Murle as the “enemy.” The Dinka people refer to the Murle as the Beir and the Anuak call them the Ajiba. These were the terms originally used in the early literature to refer to the Murle people. Only after direct contact by the British did their self-name become known and the term Murle is now generally accepted.

The Murle are a relatively new ethnic group in Sudan, having immigrated into the region from Ethiopia. The language they speak is from the Surmic language family - languages spoken primarily in southwest Ethiopia. There are three other Surmic speaking people groups presently living in the Sudan: the Didinga, the Longarim and the Tenet.

Murle has been portrayed as aggressors and formentors of trouble in Sudan by mostly Dinka and Nuer ethnic group that run affairs of the Sudan government but that is not true. "Local and national political discourses portray the Murle group as the main aggressors and the source of much of the instability affecting the state. Such Murle stereotypes are partially driven by concrete experiences, but are also largely manipulated to serve political purposes. Government control over the Murle community is reasserted and legitimised through a perpetrator narrative, which is a discourse sustained by prominent senior government officials, NGOs, media agencies and the general population“despite the reality of a politically and economically marginalised Murle” (Laudati, 2011: 21).

 

Murle groups

At the most basic level, the Murle are divided into two groups. The larger and more dominant agro-pastoralist Murle who inhabit the Lotilla Plains, also known as the Lowlands, living along the plains spreading from Pibor, Veveno, Lotilla and Kengen rivers, and neighbouring Dinka Bor, Lou Nuer and Anyuak areas; and the agricultural Murle, living in the agriculturally fertile lands of the Boma Plateau, also known as the Highlands. Jebel Boma County is located on the south-eastern border of the GPAA, bordering Ethiopia to the east, and Kapueta East county in Eastern Equatoria to the south.

Murle people

 

The Name

The people call themselves Murle.
The Anyuak call them Ajibo, while the Dinka and Nuer call them Ber.

 

Demography and Geography

The Murle number about 300,000 to 400,000 and inhabit Pibor County in southeastern Upper Nile (Jonglei).
The Murle neighbours are Nuer and Dinka, whom they call collectively (jong koth); the Anyuak, whom they call (Nyoro) and the Toposa, and Jie they call (kum). The relationship with their neighbours is by no means cordial due to their cattle raiding practices.
The plain Murle (Lotilla) are predominantly agro-pastoralist, while the mountain Murle (Ngalam) living in Boma Plateau are predominantly agrarian.

Murle people

Environment, Economy and Natural Resources

Large parts of Murle country are flood prone plains dissected by numerous perennial streams drained from the foothills of the Ethiopian highlands. The topography suddenly changes to the Boma Plateau as does the rainfall regime and vegetation. This environment has influenced the social and economic activities of the Murle.
The plain Murle are predominantly pastoral and their socio-economic activities centre round the herding of cattle. They practice subsistence agriculture; they also fish and hunt extensively. The Murle are extremely skilful in the arts of hunting and stalking game. In Boma where there is high rainfall the Murle practice agriculture cultivating maize, sorghum, simsim, tobacco and coffee.

 

Language

The Murle people speak a language also known as Murle (also Ajibba, Beir, Merule, Mourle, Murele, Murule). Murle is a language which belongs to the Southwestern branch of the Surmic languages group of Nilo-Saharan Eastern Sudanic language within the larger Nilo-Saharan family. The Murle language is spoken by both the Ngalam, Bengalam and Lotilla Murle. This language is closely related to the Didinga and Boya languages.

 

Mythology and History

Tradition claims that the tribe was created at a place called ''Jen'', somewhere beyond Maji in Ethiopia. The Murle have a number of myths and songs about Jen. The term Jen has symbolic meanings because it is one of the cardinal directions meaning “east.” It also refers to the location of the rising sun, bringer of warmth and light. The rains also come from the east, bringing vital water for pastures and gardens. The Murle elders also described their original area of Jen as being a place of mountainous terrain.

Another tradition claims that the Murle was part of a larger group that migration from around Lake Turkana. The memory of the separation from the Didinga, Lorim and others over soup of a gazelle is vivid in the minds of most Murle.

Murle people

Society: Social Events, Attitudes, Customs and Traditions

The Murle society is primarily inclined to and interested in their present rather than the past. However, the respect for their traditions and customs (ker ci Murlu) is so great that many of these customs have the force of law, which can be taken also for custom. The Murle social structure is explained in terms of drum-ships, clans, lineages, homesteads, and households.
A group of households combines to form a homestead; a group of the homesteads form a ''tatok'' or minimal lineage, a group of tatok form a lineage, ''bor''.
A clan, ''bang'', is formed of a group of lineages, and each drum-ship consists of a branch of the chiefly Bulanec clan and its attached commoner-clans.
The Murle social and cultural life is centred round their cattle. They breed them, marry with them, eat their meat, drink their blood and milk, and sleep on their hides. The Murle compose songs full of references to the herds captured in battle or raids from their neighbours. Raiding and stealing of cattle is a question of honour and valour. Every important social event is celebrated by the sacrifice of a bull in order to ensure the participation of the ancestral spirits as well as to provide food for the assembled guests and relatives. Kinship obligations are expressed in terms of cattle.
The Murle language has a considerable vocabulary of cattle terms. There are special words for every colour and colour combination; for cows and calves, bulls and oxen, at every stage of their growth; for different kinds of horns and for all the conformations to which their horns can be trained to grow. Every young man is given an ox by his father or uncle when he reaches man’s estate and spends hours singing to his special ox from which he takes his bull’s name.
The Murle stress the importance of the web of kinship ties. They are more interested in the links between living people than in their descent groups, clans, and lineages. Marriage relationship (kaavdhet) is considered most important, and the respect paid to parents-in-law is emphasized.

 

Marriage

When a young man wishes to marry, he looks to his father and his mother’s relatives to provide the marriage cattle. The bride price is transferred in a ceremony to the girl’s homestead.

Once the bride’s parents are satisfied with the dowry she is then presented to the groom.
The dowry, which is the number of accepted cattle, is divided among her relatives. The Murle speak of relatives as ‘people who have cattle between them’ (atenoc). The Murle regard incest (ngilidh) with great horror; in the past the offence was almost invariably punished by death.

Murle people

Culture

The Murle social and cultural life is centred round their cattle. They breed them, marry with them, eat their meat, drink their blood and milk, and sleep on their hides. The Murle compose songs full of references to the herds captured in battle or raids from their neighbours. Raiding and stealing of cattle is a question of honour and valour. Every important social event is celebrated by the sacrifice of a bull in order to ensure the participation of the ancestral spirits as well as to provide food for the assembled guests and relatives. Kinship obligations are expressed in terms of cattle.

Among the Murle there is nothing special to mark initiation into adulthood for both boys and girls. However, boys of the same age could group and give themselves a group name which is then recognised.

All Murle boys receive a secret name when they become a man. A father gives his son a large ox with beautiful colors and spreading horns. The boy then makes a riddle based on the color of this name-ox. He then goes to an old man who remembers the Toposa language. The riddle is shortened to a couple of Toposa words and this becomes the boy’s manhood name for the rest of his life. He will tell his friends his new name, but the meaning remains a secret. So Murle men go through their lives bearing Toposa names.

The Murle stress the importance of the web of kinship ties. They are more interested in the links between living people than in their descent groups, clans, and lineages. Marriage relationship (kaavdhet) is considered most important, and the respect paid to parents-in-law is emphasized

 

Spirituality and Beliefs

The Murle are extremely conscious of the spirits. Nevertheless, they do not distinguish between the religious and secular aspects of life. They emphasise the immanence of God as well as the significance of Jen. Anything they can not explain such as the rainbow, is considered to be ‘one of God’s things’. Every Murle family undertakes - every 5 to 6years - a pilgrimage to a sacred spot along River Nyandit to pay offerings to ‘Nyandit’.

The Murle are extremely conscious of the spirits. Nevertheless, they do not distinguish between the religious and secular aspects of life. They emphasise the immanence of God as well as the significance of Jen. Anything they can not explain such as the rainbow, is considered to be ‘one of God’s things’. The supreme Being of Murle is Tammu. Tammu was the original creator of the world and of the Murle people. Tammu is not to a lower pantheon of spirits.

Murle people prayed directly to Tammu in time of need such as drought or famine. The people honored Tammu, but at the same time they feared Him in a respectful way. The term Tammu was their term for God, however, as a result of Nuer  and Dinka dominance in South Sudan, the word "Jok" has been appropriated by Murle or has entered Murle vocabulary as the term for God.

Murle also worship nature especially Nyandit. Every Murle family undertakes - every 5 to 6 years - a pilgrimage to a sacred spot along River Nyandit to pay offerings to ‘Nyandit’. Nyandit was a sacred pool left behind by the Nuer peoples when they were pushed to the north by the Murle. Nyandit (the term for a large crocodile in the Nuer language). The Murle incorporated Nyandit into their religious beliefs. Large goats are identified as jok. People organize evening sessions around a fire where they confess their sins and put them on the goats. After a month the old Murle women take these jok to the shrine at Nyandit. Here the goats are tied and thrown into the muddy water to drown, symbolically taking away the sins of the confessors.

 

Death

The Murle consider death as a natural culmination of life. There is mourning for the dead and in the past, the body was not buried but left to the birds and wild animals. Only chiefs are buried in a ceremony.

 

Social Institutions

Murle society is organized through three core interconnected social institutions: the age-set or generation system (buul); red chiefs (alan ci merik); and clans or drumships (kidoŋwa). These three social institutions bind the Murle together as a group and shape Murle discourses as a distinctive and cohesive ethnic community. Each age-set has its own red chiefs, with a hierarchy of authority determined by the clans, which establishes seniority within each age-set and across the Murle as a whole.

The Murle draw on four clans, or drumships, with respective sub-clans that divide between red chiefs and black commoners. Historically, red chiefs got their name from the crimson bird feathers they wore on their foreheads, although now they often wear a red hat and other red clothing. The term ‘black commoners’ refers to those that are not from red chief clans.

The two larger clans are the Taŋajon and ŋarɔti, followed by the Keleŋnya and ŋenvac. There are red chiefs in all four clans, with those from the Taŋajon considered to have the greatest authority, followed by the ŋarɔti, Keleŋnya and ŋenvac, respectively. Within each clan, there are also complex and nuanced hierarchies and sub-clans, that establish seniority. The issue, then, is not the absence of leadership structures as is often misconceived; rather, it is the ability to navigate and understand these complex leadership structures and social institutions.

However, it is also true to say that Murle society is acephalous and decentralised, in other words that there is no simple hierarchy of leadership and authority. Murle society is structured around the age-set system, which is the most distinctive aspect of the community’s social organisation. Age-sets, also sometimes known as generations, are social groupings primarily for men within a certain age bracket for which one will usually belong all his life, which in turn interlock with the clanship and red chief institutions to structure society and authority.

Despite a collective sense of group identity, the Murle community from the lowlands and highlands have had diverse experiences of recent history, ecology and landscape, thus also of livelihoods, legacies of conflict and even of the state. Landscape and ecological differences have meant that the lowland and highland Murle have developed diverse sociocultural patterns and livelihood strategies.

 

Socio-Political Context

Since the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that led to South Sudan’s independence in July 2011, Jonglei state has been severely affected by communal and political conflicts. The rebellions of the late George Athor in 2010 and David Yau Yau in 2010 and again in 2012 contributed to a wide availability of weapons and ammunition. These also contributed to increasingly violent intercommunal conflicts, accompanied by mass killings, cattle raids and abductions of women and children, in addition to local feuds at the village level. Inter-communal conflict between the Lou Nuer and Murle escalated and became increasingly violent in 2009–2011, extending on to 2013. Targeting tactics changed, and attacks were no longer only about capturing cattle but also targeted entire villages, killing women, children and the elderly, and looting and destroying homes, state infrastructure, including hospitals and schools, and NGO facilities.

The Government of South Sudan responded by initiating another round of civilian disarmament of all groups in the area, the fifth SPLA-led disarmament campaign in Jonglei since 2007. The SPLA battalion responsible for disarmament in Pibor was made up of officers from the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups, who took the chance to avenge earlier Murle cattle raids and attacks on their own communities. By May 2012, the campaign had become a forced disarmament campaign, particularly in the plains of Pibor County, where, as documented by Amnesty International and Human Rughts Watch, the SPLA committed rapes, simulated drowning and other serious abuses. In addition to previous unresolved political grievances, the SPLA’s violent disarmament campaign instigated David Yau Yau to resume his 2010 rebellion. The violent actions of the SPLA against Murle civilians also encouraged many Murle men to join the predominantly Murle rebellion known as the South Sudan Defence Movement/Army-Cobra Faction, as a way to protect their families and communities, capitalizing on the feelings of resentment, distrust and marginalisation among the Murle population toward the SPLA. The Cobra Faction was fighting the South Sudan government, calling for greater Murle government representation and the creation of a Murle state.

A peace deal signed in May 2014 led to the end of the two year armed conflict between the government’s SPLA and the Cobra Faction, and culminated in the creation of the Greater Pibor Administrative Area (GPAA), that included Pibor and Pochalla counties, and was largely equivalent to a state.

 

Age-Sets

The age-sets, also sometimes known as generations, are social groupings primarily for men within a certain age bracket for which one will usually belong all his life. Age-sets are a defining social structure among the Murle community and a source of unity, social solidarity and support, but increasingly also violence. Each age-set has its own red chiefs, with a hierarchy of authority determined by the clans, which establishes seniority within each age-set and across the Murle as a whole.

Age-sets are primarily a male institution and girls and women will usually belong to their father’s age-set until they marry (or are ‘booked’, ei. promised to marry someone), when they shift to belong to their husband’s (or future husband’s) age-set.

Every Murle man belongs to an age-set, regardless if he lives in urban or rural areas or in South Sudan’s capital Juba, in the diaspora in a neighbouring country or a continent away in Australia. It is an inescapable and very important part of life – part of politics, networks of protection and support, economy and business, marriage and family dynamics, authority and conflict management, and every aspect of social and political life.

Age-sets are a significant lifelong identifier and provide individuals with a sense of identity, networks of protection, support and loyalty across the community. Age-sets establish relationships. As Murle boys reach puberty they are assimilated into the youngest age-set and most often remain in that group for life. Alternatively, they may choose to drop to a younger age-set when it is formed later (leading to conflict), or occasionally, they may also be invited to join an older age-set as a sign of respect because they are the eldest male in a family and thus hold particular responsibilities. However, usually, one will identify with the age-set of one’s age mates and peers although there are also exceptions here. Notably, a son cannot be in the age-set following his father and will have to thus join the succeeding age-set. Brothers will also belong to different age-sets as a means to have family representation across age-sets.

It is rare but also possible to move age-sets, although it can sometimes lead to conflict among the age-sets involved. This can occur with no controversy if the oldest son of a family dies, where the second in line will be brought up to replace him in the older age-set (he will usually have double membership to his original age-set and ‘honorary’ membership in the older age-set). Dropping an age-set can also be used instrumentally by political and military leaders as a means to garner support for their cause.

Internal age-set loyalties and allegiances are often stronger than those between blood brothers, and certainly supersede loyalties that one may have based on one’s formal position. As explained by one Lango red chief ‘the age-set is more important than the position you hold in government or in the SPLA. [If one is in the SPLA] they may put the gun down [as SPLA] and go fight [for the age-set]. Or if you’re in government, you’ll find ways of supporting your own age-set.’

Internal and external alliances, loyalties and divisions among age-sets are quite complex. There are ties between every second age-set, which often can be said to be the age-set of one’s father. For instance, Kurenen will be aligned with Bothonnya, who will be aligned with Muden. In turn, Langgo will be aligned with Thithi, who will be aligned with Dorongwa.

Within an age-set there are also important internal sub-groups (or sometimes known as teams in English) loosely based on age and region. Usually age-sets are sub-divided into three to four sub-groups known as ‘kem’ or nyakenet, organised per village area or town. For example, among the younger Kurenen age-set in Manyirany village north of Pibor town, there are at least three sub-groups. Each sub-group has specific identifiers with their own name, particular symbols inscribed on the body and dancing styles. Among the Kurenen, the older sub-group are named as ‘Doctors’ and identify with scars of pens, boreholes and other symbols of modernity, all connected to the idea of Hospitals and Doctors. The sub-group in the middle are known as ‘Koliam’ (or SPLA) and have scarring symbols of military ranks, thuraya phones and guns; the youngest sub-group are known as ‘Suar’, a named used to identify the soldiers of the Cobra Faction, and their symbols include RPGs, Thuraya phones and AK-47s scarred on their bodies. The youngest sub-group are often those who will eventually ‘defect’ to form a new age-set.

 

Existing age-sets

At present, the existing age-sets, from the youngest to the oldest, are:

Murle Age-Sets

 

Membership and identification: beads and scarification

Each age-set chooses to identify with certain token animals, based on the qualities of those animals, and relate to the colour of those animals, represented also by the beads they choose.

In rural areas, as mentioned already above, members of age-sets also have similar body scarification patterns. Until Thithi age-set, scarification designs and symbols reflected the animals selected by the age-set (for instance, a gazelle or rooster) but since Bothonnya these have shifted to incorporate symbols of power, modernity and military strength such as ranks, AK-47s, RPGs, pens, watches, among other such symbols, and ultimately reflect young people’s hopes and aspirations.

Roughly since 2005, when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in what then southern Sudan eventually leading to the independence of South Sudan in 2011, the younger Murle age-sets have shifted from exclusively scarifying age-set token animals to concentrating on other symbols of power and modernity, reflecting the fragmentation and militarisation of age-sets.

These new images and motifs range from symbols alluding to wealth and modernity such as wrist-watches and Thuraya satellite phones to hyper-violent and hyper-masculine AK-47s on chests and military ranks on shoulders. Other designs and themes such as pens and boreholes hint at admiration of urban symbols, education and access to basic infrastructure. Others, still, reveal the intense presence of the United Nations and the large international aid presence in the area, with young men engraving the UN accronym and other symbols connected to the UN on their bodies.

Body scarification practices are a powerful way through which young people identify and communicate internally and reflect changing political circumstances and inter-generational relations.

Murle People

(1) Scarification of AK-47s, Lanngo age-set. Kong-Kong River, May 2015. Photo by Diana Felix da Costa
(2) Man’s back with a borehole, Kurenen age-set. Manyumen payam in Pibor, September 2019. Photo by Diana Felix da Costa

 

Culture: Arts, Music, Literature and Handicraft

The Murle have evolved a culture centred round cattle and which is expressed in songs, poetry, folklore and dance. They adorn their bodies with all kinds of scars and drawings of different animals and birds while wearing different types of beads. Murle literature is invariably oral.

 

Neighbours and Foreign Relations

The Murle neighbours are Nuer and Dinka, whom they call collectively (jong koth); the Anyuak, whom the call (Nyoro) and the Toposa, and Jie they call (kum). The relationship with their neighbours is by no means cordial due to their cattle raiding practices.

 

Latest Developments

The Murle are least affected by modernity because of deliberate neglect, marginalisation and political exclusion. The exception was the recruitment of young men to fight alongside the government army. The civil war divided the Murle between SPLM and GoS administrations.

 

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