The Nuba people are various indigenous ethnic groups who inhabit the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan state in Sudan, encompassing multiple distinct people that speak different languages which belong to at least two unrelated language families. Estimates of the Nuba population vary widely; the Sudanese government estimated that they numbered 2.07 million in 2003.
The term should not be confused with the Nubians, an ethnic group speaking the Nubian languages, although the Hill Nubians, who live in the Nuba Mountains, are also considered part of the Nuba geographic grouping of peoples. It is important to note that, the Nubaians in South Kordofan believe that they are affiliates of the ancient Nubian kingdoms.
While their origins are difficult to trace, Nuba are the indigenous peoples of the Nuba Mountains. The population consists of people from over 90 different tribes.
Their identity as “Nuba” is largely derived from their similar cultural and economic practices, as well as shared space and historical experiences, distinct from other groups in Sudan. The term as a form of self-identification increased after independence as the Nuba’s interaction with urban centres increased.
The total Nuba population is about 2.5 million. Some 1 million Nuba live in the Sudanese state of South Kordofan (50% of the state population). An estimated one million Nuba IDPs live in and near Khartoum.
Several hundred thousand are living permanently in cities in North Sudan.
The Nuba comprise approximately 80% of the Nuba Mountains population. The remaining 20% consist of Baqqara (Arab-speaking cattle-herding) tribes, including Misseriya and Hawazma. Other minor groups are the Jellaba (traders) and Felatta (from West Africa). Traditional religions, Christianity, and Islam are practiced in the Nuba Mountains.
The Nuba speak over 50 languages. Most of the languages are distinct, but some are dialects of one another and mutually intelligible. Most Nuba languages belong to the Nilo-Saharan or Kordofanian language families. Arabic, while unrelated to any indigenous Nuba language, is the most-common second language, and its use as a lingua franca is growing.
The Nuba people are primarily farmers, as well as herders who keep cattle, chickens, and other domestic animals. They often maintain three different farms: a garden near their homes where vegetables needing constant attention, such as onions, peppers and beans, are grown; fields further up the hills where quick growing crops such as red millet can be cultivated without irrigation; and farms farther away, where white millet and other crops are planted.
A distinctive characteristic of the Nubas is their passion for athletic competition, particularly traditional wrestling. The strongest young men of a community compete with athletes from other villages for the chance to promote their personal and their village’s pride and strength. In some villages, older men participate in club- or spear-fighting contests. The Nubas’ passion for physical excellence is also displayed through the young men’s vanity—they often spend hours painting their bodies with complex patterns and decorations. This vanity reflects the basic Nuba belief in the power and importance of strength and beauty.
Facial and body scarification is still practiced by some Nuba tribes in remote hill areas. Body paint is something rare nowadays but when the region is more peaceful it will probably see a comeback of the body decoration through bright colours. In some areas the lower incisors are removed in both sexes. Male circumcision is now more widely practiced and big ceremonies with music and dancing are organised for the occasion.
There is a wider similarity among almost all the tribes in the Nuba Mountains as far as customs and traditions are concerned, to the extent that makes one believe that there is is fact a "unity of culture" among all the Nuba tribes. What is known locally as "Sibir" is one of the most important traditions which is practiced extensively and almost covers the whole area of the Nuba Mountains. Sibir is a range of ceremonies take place in a festive nature, which does occur annually to indicate the beginning of different seasons of human activities in the Nuba Mountains. For example: Sibir of Fire, of Cultivation, Wrestling, Hunting, Sowayba (a store in which the Nuba keep their crops) and Kambala dance.
In our attempts to shed some light on the life-style of the Nuba people, I will give in detail examples of some customs and traditions practiced in the Nuba Mountains.
Nuba communities are now under government-appointed chiefs. Marriage payments are made in livestock, weapons, and other objects and by agricultural service. Kinship descent among the Nuba is, broadly speaking, matrilineal in the south and patrilineal elsewhere. Varying degrees of Islamization may be observed among the Nuba, and Arabic is used as the lingua franca.
The Nuba people reside in the foothills of the Nuba Mountains. Villages consist of family compounds, and the men's (Holua) in which unmarried men sleep.
A family compound consisting of a rectangular compound enclosing two round mud huts thatched with sorghum stalks facing each other called a shal. The shal was fenced with wooden posts interwoven with straw. Two benches ran down the each side of the shal with a fire in the middle where families will tell stories and oral traditions. Around the shal was the much larger yard, the tog placed in front. The fence of the tog was made of strong tree branches as high as the roof of the huts. Small livestock like goats and chickens and donkeys were kept in the tog. Each compound had tall conical granaries called durs which stood on one side of the tog. At the back of the compound was a small yard were maize and vegetables like pumpkin, beans and peanuts were grown.
For families that were small a compound was not needed and a mud hut with a fence would be enough. The entrance was as large as a man so people could climb the ladder and dive in to get grain. Inside the hut there was very little furniture, only a bamboo bed frame with a baobab rope mat on top and the hearth in the middle with firewood. Possessions and tools were hung or leaned against the wall. A small garden behind the hut was used to grow vegetables like beans and pumpkin while sorghum and peanuts were grown away in the hills. One's wealth is measured by cattle so they are kept in an enclosure called a coh for cows and a cohnih for calves. The Nuba people eat sorghum as their staple. It is boiled with water or milk to make kal eaten with meat stew called waj. Corn is also roasted and eaten with home made butter.
The primary religion of many Nuba people is Islam, with some Christians, and traditional shamanistic beliefs also prevailing. Men wear a sarong and occasionally a skull cap. Young men remained naked, while children wear only a string of beads. Older women and young women wear beads and wrap a sarong over their legs and sometimes a cloak tie on the shoulder. Both sexes practice scarification and circumcision for boys and female genital mutilation for girls. Men shave their heads, older men wear beards, women and girls braid their hair in strands and string it with beads.
The majority of the Nuba living in the east, west and northern parts of the mountains are Muslims, while those living to the south are either Christians or practice traditional animistic religions. In those areas of the Nuba mountains where Islam has not deeply penetrated, ritual specialists and priests hold as much control as the clan elders, for it is they who are responsible for rain control, keeping the peace, and rituals to ensure successful crops. Many are guardians of the shrines where items are kept to insure positive outcomes of the rituals (such as rain stones for the rain magic), and some also undergo what they recognize as spiritual
Women are, of course, the mainstay of every society. In fact, the degree of a society’s civilisation is largely determined by the awareness of its women and by the way that society generally treats women. Marriage, in particular, is one of the social relations in which the interests of women are usually sacrificed in many traditional societies. It is, therefore, of paramount importance to shed some light into the position of women in the Nuba communities, in general, and the question of marriage, in particular.
The Nuba woman, though still preserves much of the ancestral, conservative traditions and values, is presently regarded as very liberal and civilised. The obvious reason that helped the Nuba women to maintain the traditions well as being liberal is the state of the society itself which is based, essentially, on the treatment of women as equals with men since the early stages of life. This makes the women appreciate the traditions and sees no rebellion against them. This situation is true regardless of the level of education of the women; one might even argue that the higher the level, the more she appreciates and values the traditions because education will give her the opportunity to realise the horrendous state of women in other societies. The women’s role is apparent in the Nuba community at every stage. Since a young girl, she participates actively with her male brothers in animal herding, land cultivation, and many other income-generating activities. This is in addition to her responsibility for providing men with food which usually involves the daunting task of collecting firewood and water from far distances. It is imperative to note that Maressa (a type of local, home-made beer, usually from sorghum, millet and/or sesame) is used, in many Nuba communities, as staple diet rather than for anything else.
The Nuba people are known by their rich traditional dancing and folklore, such as Kambala, Kaisa, Nugara, Bukhsa and Kirang, as well as body painting and ritual wrestling. The dancing usually performed at night outside the village, sometimes at a central point between two or more adjacent villages to allow participation of many youth as possible (this could be daily, weekly, fortnightly, monthly, etc depending on the season of the year). The girls in the neighbourhood of a village usually spend the night together in a common girls house called Lamanra.
This is particularly practiced in the southern districts of the Nuba Mountains. After the end of the dancing session, in the early hours of the morning, the girls go to the Lamanra rather than to their respective family homes, probably so as not to interrupt the sleep of the elderly who have got an exciting day awaiting them. There are some big occasions that take place seasonally, normally determined by the Kujur, e.g, the Harvest season celebration.
When a man fancies a girl he can approach her differently in order to obtain her marriage consent before approaching her family. Alternatively, he may send a relative or any trusted girl to inform the girl of his attentions, if he is not sure of her response and wants to avoid embarrassment.
Although the marriage details may well differ from tribe to another, however, there are many commons features. For instance, the use of cattle and /or goats for payments of dowries is a common feature among almost all the Nuba groups. Some differences might be found in the number of cattle/goats required.
However, it is common that the bridegroom is required, by traditional law, to work with the family of the bride for at least one season in the agricultural farm before he can be given the marriage blessing. Perhaps this is necessary to ensure that the bridegroom is capable of sustain his new family. It is important to point out that the intervention of the family in the choice of the husband and, by necessity, the wife is minimal and does not exceed advice which is certainly needed by both the bride and the bridegroom. in contrast, in many Sudanese societies the fate of the innocent young girls and, to some extent, the boys, is dictated solely by the family; in many instances at the expense of the women.
As a result of this liberal approach of the Nuba to the question of marriage and also due to their peaceful and friendly nature which is rooted in their very traditions, considerable intermarriage has taken place between them and the so-called Arabs. Unfortunately, this intermarriage has not been reciprocal! Instead of being a means of intermarriage and integration of two cultures, it has been used as a means of undermining the indigenous African culture. Sadly still, this has been the policy of the successive governments of the contemporary Sudan for many years: a policy of aforethought violent cultural cleansing. Consequently, some Nuba groups have already lost their identity and were bluffed to detest their rich ancestral traditions. Where Arabisation by way of Islamisation failed to achieve their set objectives, they resorted, in lieu, to the wholesale, brutal, and cold-blooded ethnic cleansing. In spite of the extreme nature of the present regime in the Sudan, it is by no means unique in its actions.
There are more than twenty difference Sibirs and ceremonies in the Nuba Mountain, and they differ according to tribes.
Sibir is a festival that takes place twice or more every year and it differs from an area to another in the Nuba Mountains. The festival is attended by the youngsters as well as the elders and animals are slaughtered. Kujur (the rainmaker) would ask all the people especially the rich to bring a large number of cattle and goats and he would perform some magical ceremonies on these animals and mark them with some white ashes as an indication that these animals have become for the "strangers". The animals would then be stabbed with spears and the cows’ hamstring cut from behind to bring the animal into submission, then the animal would be slaughtered. Then, people would rush to take the blood of the slaughtered animals after the Kujur takes his sufficient amount and pour it in a gourd and spray it out over the guests and relatives for blessing. After that all the food and slaughtered animals that brought from every village for Sibir, would be taken to the Kujur’s house where all the people would eat and drink. Then dancing would start and continue daily for the whole week. During this time the Kujur would baptize a suitable candidate to practice formally as a new Kujur.
The Fire Sibir is considered to be one of the greatest Sibir to the Nuba. It takes place after the cultivation season, precisely in November of every year. In that day cattle-herders would hold their cattle from going to graze, and would not allow the animals to graze only after the Sibir had performed and that the Kujur had sprayed some water of blessing on the animals. The Kujur, in that day, would call upon all the people, men and women, together for a festival, which he has prepared for them. The house of the Kujur normally located at the top of a hill above all the houses of the ordinary people of the village. When the people arrive at the house of the Kujur they would find that he had prepared all the food and a kind of beer known locally as Mariesa. The Kujur also would provide a large number of animals to be slaughtered for his guests who are visiting him in his house. The Kujur’s house would contain some smooth stones decorated sticks and spears and a range of necklaces, heads of wild animals and birds and some snakes. The Kujur’s house is never empty of the locally made items from clay and gourds. Then the Kujur would perform some ceremonies and mutter some meaningless phrases, and then light a huge fire on the grass, as a leader to this process after that the participants on the top of the hill would cut green grasses and lay it on the fire and then would beat who they want to beat from relatives and people they know believing that this act will drive away the evil from these people. If a young man at that time was able to beat a girl of his dream with such grass, that means he would be the suitable candidate to marry her, the same thing applies to the young ladies as well.
After the blessing was performed, the locals would disperse after this visit to the Kujur’s house in which even the leaders of the village would not escape the beating from the local as far as the decision is coming from the Kujur in that particular day. The locals would run after their leaders and beat them while the fire is lit and the hills echoed to the sound of the loud screaming and the laughter of the locals. Then the Kujur would ask the locals to bring string beans and peanuts to be grilled under a big Ardieb tree which usually located at the side of a road, and this would be considered as a banquet to be eaten by the passers-by and not to be taken home by anybody. Then the Kujur, leading the precession, would declare that the fire would be lit on the dry grass around the village. Then he would set a day for the Sibir’s big festive day, where the people would prepare food and drinks in their houses in that particular day. That festive day is considered to be Eid, in which reconciliation would take place between the antagonists in the village. The whole month would be considered for forgiveness and blessing for good health. After that the local would play and dance on the musical tones of the local instruments like Bukhsa and Rababa and so on for three days.
The Nuba people for many years have been known in the West for their distinctive culture, and they are culturally vivid and physically diverse ethnic group inhabiting central Sudan. Among the many cultural activities which the Nuba have, is 'Kambala Dance'.
The Kambala is a spiritual dance originating in Sabori village near Kadugli, which perhaps was founded in the early 18th century during the reign of Mek Andu of Kadugli. This traditional and ceremonial dance has been passed on from one generation to another up to today. Now Kambala is a popular dance and it is one of the main national dances which are performed on special occasions and it had been performed outside the Sudan as well.
The word Kambala has no definite meaning but it is associated with boys' maturity and adolescence, an important age for the Nuba boy. At this age the boy is considered to be mature enough to be second in command in the house after the father. Therefore Kambala is principally a ceremony to mark the induction of age-set boys into manhood. It's performance is usually initiated by the Kujur, a powerful man in the Nuba society: he is like a chief and sometimes known as a rain-maker. The Kambala dance itself has much to do with bringing up Nuba men to be brave, courageous and audacious like a bull. This is demonstrated by dancing and making beating rhythmic sounds like a bull.
A Kambala dancer traditionally wears Buffalo horns which are tied to his head with a long white turban and on the top of each horn is attached a colourful piece of cloth, and sometimes he wears a nickel or beads on his neck put by either his sister or his mother. The dancer also wears around his waist a thin rope or leather belt encircled by long thin strips up to his knees, which are usually made from branches of palm trees. Around his arms and legs, he ties bundles of small balls made also from the branches of palm trees and containing small beads (stones) to make rhythmic sounds. In his hand he holds a horsetail attached to small piece of wood which he swings across his face while dancing.
The performance of the dance follows a special ceremony which is carried by the Kujur who announce the start of Kambala dance and generally takes places during the mid-raining season and usually in August and it continues for 28 days until the end of harvest.
At the early days a ceremonial whip was kept in Sabori with the Kujur, who decides when the time has come for it to be taken to the house of the Mek, or king, together with a sacrificial goat or lamb. However, this tradition was changed a little bit at the time of Mek Rahhal who he decided to keep the whip with him. The distribution of the whips and permission for the performance of the dance were then carried out by the mek of Kadugli and usually the whips are sent to three main places around Kadugli: the first one to Murta and Miri Juwa (inside Miri), the second from Sabori to Kadugli to Miri Barra (outer Miri) and the third one to all areas south of Kadugli whose people speak Kadugli language.
When the day for Kambala to start is announced all the young men who have reached 12-14 years of age are publicly summoned to attend. The women file into the arena and start to sing in a circle, while the referees or whip-holders take up their positions and they usually stand far from the dancing circle. Each boy is led dancing into the arena and then suddenly he comes out from the dancing circle, dancing towards the whip-holder and presents his naked back to the whip-holder and submits to lashing without flinching. He will never turn away from the whip-holder until a woman comes and stands between him and whip-holder and then he will continue dancing back to the arena where the women will sign for him and for his bravery. The women singers will mock the cowardly ones who show sign of pain, and they sing and praise those who stand silent and show no movement at all while they are lashed. These young men demonstrate their skills at dancing and their ability to withstand pain which is the main exercise of this ceremonial dance.
All the young men will continue to dance and queue up to receive their lashes which continue until sunset while the dance and the ceremony continues until around midnight that day. The boys are led to special rooms where they are kept for 28 days of singing and dancing. After that moment the whip is passed on around the villages after the mek has given his blessing. Traditionally, at the end of the 28 days there will be no Kambala dance. However, it is performed sometimes for special occasion.
One of the famous Nuba traditions, well-known from the pictures of George Rodger and Leni Riefenstahl, is stick-fighting. This is rarely practised today. One of the Nuba tribes most well-known for stick fighting is the Moro.
The Moro area, which is located half-way between Kadugli and Talodi, is occupied by the Moro tribe one of the largest tribes in the Nuba Mountains. The Moro people maintain and practice very ancient traditions as long as they live. There is no way that these traditions, as part of their ancestral heritage, be abandoned.
The stick-fighting is a contest conducted by, as the name indicates, a stick and a shield between two contestants, This sport is always carried out at the end of autumn and the beginning of harvest, and it is completely forbidden during the cultivation season, in case it puts the youths off their work. Stick fighting is part of the ceremonies that follow the harvest, in which thanks is given to God for providing a good harvest. It is embedded in the spiritual traditions of the people.
The fight always begins by an invitation from one tribe to another. The invited tribe may detain the dispatched envoy just for provocation and excitement. The hosts have to make their way to fetch their messengers; and, thereafter, they engage in fighting. Another way of starting the competition is by symbolic provocation. For example, a man, aged 17 - 20 years old, may hold the hands of his rival’s fiancée for a couple of minutes, or cut her bracelets made from beads. When a would-be her husband hears about this, he instantly declares the fight by tying a handkerchief or piece of cloth on his competitor’s house at night, so that the contending should begin in the next morning.
The fight can be between two individual fighters from different villages, or between two villages themselves, fighting collectively.
There are special arenas set aside for this fighting where every athlete arrives with his equipment. Though the sport may be potentially lethal, every fighter ties ribbons of thick cloths or torn blankets around his body to lessen the effects of the stick blows. Some contenders put hats made of seeds or even mud on their heads for protection, and the heads are decorated with butter as indication of great wealth.
While the stick-fighting is performed, girls sing continually, praising one fighter as a bull, a leopard, an elephant or a lion; and, on the other hand, scolding the competitor as a coward, a hooligan and a womaniser.
Since the sport can be fatal, the participants say their prayers before heading to the assigned squares just in case they may come back as dead bodies. These stick-fighters can be Christians, Muslims or followers of African noble spiritual beliefs. Before the beginning of the match, human circles are formed and, as a sign for starting the competition, the old or retired fighters initiate the game by skirmishes.
If one of the fighters is badly hurt, he will be compensated with a symbolic reparation, such as cow.
The stick fighting has merits and demerits. Its merits include:
1. It is a means of maintaining social and clan ties, since every one who travels outside the region is keen to return home for the occasion, so that he may not be accused of cowardice.
2. The fighter never commits adultery, nor does he philander with women, to maintain his stamina.
3. The fighter usually lives with cows in their fence, drinking their milk and looking after them.
4. The most important role of stick fighting is to inculcate the virtues of physical bravery and the ability to withstand pain. A good stick fighter will be a good warrior.
The demerits are:
1. The possibility of mutilation of the fighter’s face.
2. The breaking of his legs or arms that may cause a permanent disability, and even death in some instances.
Because of the dangers of stick fighting, in recent years the South Kordofan Advisory Council has restricted it. The fear is that young men will be injured or killed in this sport. At times of celebration such as SPLA day there are demonstrations of stick fighting but the old-style of combat is now very rarely found.
egarding religious practices we see that despite widespread Islam among the plain Nuba tribes, in the hills the religious practices are still linked with the old African agricultural rituals; animal sacrifices are made to ancestral spirits; and priestly experts and rainmakers have an important position.