Nyangatom people

Nyangatom

Nyangatom / Bumé / Donyiro

The Nyangatom also known as Donyiro and pejoratively as Bumé are Nilotic agro-pastoralists inhabiting the border of southwestern Ethiopia and southeastern South Sudan and in the Ilemi Triangle with populations residing in both countries. They speak the Nyangatom language.

In the course of their early migration from Uganda, the pastoral ancestors of the Nyangatom had been scorned as ''Elephant-eaters'' (Nyam-etom), a nickname which they aptly transformed into ''Yellow Guns'' (Nyang-atom), that underlined the martial intentions of their emerging community. The Nyangatom are linguistically and ethnically closely related to the Toposa. A century ago, both tribes were known as ''Hum'' or ''Kum''. A name that still survives is '' Bume'' - the Ethiopian name of the Nyangatom.

 

The Name

In the course of their early migration from Uganda, the pastoral ancestors of the Nyangatom had been scorned as ''Elephant-eaters'' (Nyam-etom), a nickname which they aptly transformed into ''Yellow Guns'' (Nyang-atom), that underlined the martial intentions of their emerging community.
The Nyangatom are linguistically and ethnically closely related to the Toposa. A century ago, both tribes were known as ''Hum'' or ''Kum''. A name that still survives is '' Bume'' - the Ethiopian name of the Nyangatom.

Considered Ethiopians since the conquest of the Lower Omo Valley by Emperor Menilek II, the Nyangatom can be equally qualified as Sudanese because their territory straddles the border. They inhabit the south-western corner of Ethiopia, the Lower Omo Valley, but use the Ilemi Triangle on the south-eastern corner of Eastern Equatoria as a seasonal pastureland.

 

Population & Ecosystem

6.000 Nyangatom live between Mount Naita, near the Ethiopian border, and Ilemi Triangle. On the Omo River banks (Ethiopia) we find 11.000 Nyangatom, therefore the tribe is traditionally considered more Ethiopian than South Sudanese. In the Toposa villages north of Kapoeta, especially among the Peymong section, one meets well established Nyangatom families with zebu cattle, sheep and goats, donkeys, wives and children.The Nyangatom territory is dry and rocky and the climate of the whole area is hot with low rainfall.

 
Economy & Society

The Nyangatom are semi-nomadic agro-pastoralists. They live on sorghum, maize, soya beans and tobacco cultivation, but their cultural preference is zebu cattle and small stock raising. They also keep donkeys for their migrations between Ethiopia and South Sudan. If the Nyangatom and the Toposa are allies, both groups face common, permanent or potential, enemies. While on transhumance in the Ilemi Triangle, the Nyangatom fear, on their southern flank, Turkana raids, while to their north they consider the Kachipo and Surma as irreducible foes. Since the 1990's the Nyangatom, armed with automatic guns, managed to push the Surma far away to the north. It is in this movement that they established, together with the Toposa, an important pastoral and military settlement on the foot of Mount Naita, on traditional Surma territory on and around the Ethio-South Sudanese border. The Nyangatom share with other peoples of the Karimojong cluster the main features of their social organization. They are divided into patrilineal descent clans.

The main originality of Nyangatom society is a generation-set system which, embracing men and women alike, allowed the Nyangatom to separate from their parent stock and to become an autonomous polity.

Each generation is given a social identity through the name of an Aristotelician species. Thus, Nyangatom ethno-history is recording the founders, their sons the wild dogs, then the zebras, the tortoises, the mountains (extinct generations), then the elephants, the ostriches, the antelopes, the buffaloes (living generations).

For their political and economic integration, they balance between two options : the Ethiopian, with the regional community of the Southern Nations, ‘Nationalities and Peoples’, around the town of Jinka; and the South Sudanese, with the membership, which they share with the Toposa, of the Mount Naita community. Not surprisingly, as many other people living on border areas, the Nyangatom try to take advantage of their ambiguous, and too often uncomfortable, situation.

 
Culture & Religion

The Nyangatom are famous for their oratory gifts and their cattle songs are learned by neighbours of other language families. Reciprocally, the Nyangatom appreciate and acquire pots from Surma and Karo women in Ethiopia because their own wives have not mastered the skill of pottery.

 

History

The Nyangatom are part of a larger group, the Karimojong cluster, which is spread over four countries : Uganda (Karimojong, Jie and Dodos), Kenya (Turkana), Sudan (Toposa and Jiye) and Ethiopia (Nyangatom). Ethno-history suggests that the Nyangatom are rather recent incomers (mid-19th Century) into the Lower Omo Valley, as a result of a late-18th Century migration from the Koten-Magos area in Karamoja, Uganda, which brought the Nyangatom and the Sudanese Toposa to their present locations.

The Lower Omo Valley is a cultural melting pot: two of the four African major linguistic families are represented in the area: Nilo-Saharan (Nyangatom, Turkana, Mursi); Afro-Asiatic, with its Omotic (Karo, Hamar) and Cushitic branches (Dassanetch).

Early travellers like von Höhnel and Teleki - who were the first Europeans to see Lake Turkana (initially named Lake Rudolph) in 1888 - considered the Omo villagers and the pastoralists on the West as two different tribes, naming the first ''Buma'' and the second ''Donyiro''. In fact they are one people. Ethiopians call them Bume to this day, while Dongiro, meaning ''people of the grey ox'' is still used in Uganda and Kenya in reference to the far away Nyangatom.

 

Neighbours, Foreign Relations and Co-operation

Nyangatom and Toposa consider one another as ''Grand-mother’s thigh'' thus refraining from fighting to live in a system of mutual assistance. When an ox or a goat is killed a hind quarter of the animal is offered to the members of the other tribe residing in the neighbourhood.

If the Nyangatom and the Toposa are allies, both groups face common, permanent or potential, ennemies. While on transhumance in the Ilemi Triangle, the Nyangatom fear, on their southern flank, Turkana raids, while to their north they consider the Suri and Baale, known as Kachipo in the Sudan, as irreducible foes.

Since the 1990''s the Nyangatom, armed with automatic guns, managed to push the Suri far away to the north. It is in this movement that they established, together with the Toposa, an important pastoral and military settlement on the foot of Mount Naita, on traditional Suri territory on and around the Ethio-Sudanese border.

 

Culture, Arts, Music and Handicraft

Like the Toposa toward the Larim and the Didinga, the Nyangatom are famous for their oratory gifts and their cattle songs are learned by neighbours of other language families. Reciprocally, the Nyangatom appreciate and acquire pots from Mursi and Karo women because their own wives have not mastered the skill of pottery.

The demography of the Nyangatom remains difficult to evaluate. They were less than 5,000 in the early 1970''s, when the present author started his study, but they might be over 14,000 (on the eve of the 21st Century).

The demographic expansion was connected with health and relief assistance dispensed for 30 years (1972-2002) by the Swedish Philadelphia Church Mission (SPCM). But such a lasting assistance might have enhanced the dependency of a people living in an area of scarce resources. The NGO’s withdrawal from the area was deeply felt by the population.

 

Society, Social Events and Traditions

The Nyangatom share with other peoples of the Karimojong cluster the main features of their social organization. They are divided into about 20 patrilineal descent groups or clans (sing.ateker, pl. ngatekerea), half of them being well attested in the rest of the cluster. The size of such clans varies from several hundred to a few individuals. The clans are no political units. Territorial sections (singl. ekitala, pl. ngiteala) are given names of migratory birds such as storks, flamingos, ibises, but also ethnic (Kumam, Ngaric) or common names (Castor trees), such sections have no fixed boundaries, but they express the relative positions of the settlements and reflect the nomadic routines of their members.

The main originality of Nyangatom society is a generation-set (sing. auriunet, pl. ngauriuneta) system which, embracing men and women alike, allowed the Nyangatom to separate from their parent stock, which included the Toposa, and to become an autonomous polity. The males of one generation -- in the origin just those of the age-set (sing.anayamet, pl.nganyameta) of the Founders of the new independent polity -- procreate all the members of the generation to come, that of their sons, who procreate their own sons, and so on.

Each generation is given a social identity through the name of an Aristotelician species. Thus, Nyangatom ethno-history is recording the founders, their sons the wild dogs, then the zebras, the tortoises, the mountains (extinct generations), then the elephants, the ostriches, the antelopes, the buffaloes (living generations). In the year 2000, date of the author’s last visit in the field, the name of the children of the buffaloes was yet unknown.

Any generation is given one of only two status : their members, whatever their age, are considered to be either the Fathers or the Sons of the Country. Alternate generations, that is grandfathers and grandchildren, share a common status. In the daily routine, Fathers and sons sit under separate trees. The sons slaughter oxen in feasts dedicated to feeding their fathers. This is the first stage of initiation.

The second stage, the transmission of sovereignty from the Fathers to the Sons of the Country, is due only once in 50 to 55 years. It requires a hardly veiled human sacrifice : after the ceremony, the asapan-man, medium of the regeneration of the society, looses, like his generation-mates, his status of Father, but he also looses his mind, so that his fate is to perish in the bush. This custom, recorded among the sole Nyangatom, is an unexampled paradigm of the regicide documented for other Nilotes, e. g. the Shilluk, the Anyuak and others. The asapan ceremony was outlawed under Mengistu’s regime (also known as the Deurg or the reign, from 1974 to 1991, of the « Red Emperor »). The Nyangatom today are paving their way to modernity through their adhesion to Pentecotism.

For their political and economic integration, they balance between two options : the Ethiopian, with the regional community of the « Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples », around the town of Jinka ; and the Sudanese, with the membership, which they share with the Toposa, of the Naita community which seems to be very much SPLA oriented. Not surprinsingly, as many other peoples living on border areas, the Nyangatom and their Toposa allies try to take advantage of their ambiguous, and too often uncomfortable, situation.
 

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