Atuot people

Atuot (Reel)

Atuot (Reel) / Atwot

The Atwot (Reel) are a Nilotic ethnic group of Dinka of South Sudan who live near Yirol in Eastern Lakes State. They comprise a majority of the population in the payam of Yirol West.


Atwot country

There were approximately 24,700 Atwot at the time of the local dialect survey in 1987.SIL estimates that there were over 50,000 Atwot in 1998. The population of Yirol West in the 2008 Sudanese census was 103,190 although not all inhabitants of the municipality are Atwot.

“Schweinfurth (1873) had gained the impression that the Atuot would prove to be a difficult people to subjugate because of their skilled use of bows and arrows. R. Gessi (1892) also makes reference to a tribe “called Atuot which is still now independent and its presence renders travelling dangerous. The government has not yet succeeded in subjugating it.”

"To effect a change in this state of affairs he sent 300 men armed with guns to make a simple demonstration but my people were obliged to retreat on finding that they were facing thousands of Atuot” (Burton, 1987:2)

The Atuot inhabit Yirol County of lakes of Bahr el Ghazal in the areas of Yirol. They number about a little over 100,000. The Atuot know themselves as Reel or nei cieng Reel. The Atuot are subdivided into the following sections: Luac, Jilek, Akot, Jekei and Jekueu; who all speak thok cieng Reel (Atuot langauge). Each of these sections has a number of "dor" defined by a particular "wet" or totem.

The Atuot refer to their Dinka neighbours as Jaang what seems to emphasise that they have no relationships. For instance they say: "jaang te ceng wene, ke nei te munrro" (those Dinka living there are different people). However, with regard to the Nuer, the Atuot say "nuere era kok thiako nei "(we and Nuer are closely related).



The Atwot people speak the Atwot language (Atwot: Thok Reel), which was first recognized as a separate language from Dinka by anthropologist John Burton in 1987. It is a Western Nilotic language of the Dinka-Nuer group, closely related to the Nuer language and more distantly to the Luo languages. SIL International estimate that the number of Atuot speakers is 50,000.

Atwot speakers distinguish two dialects to their language, Thok Reel Cieng Luai and Thok Reel Cieng Nhyam with Thok Reel Cieng Nhyam being the more lexically conservative of the two. Most Atwot are bilingual in Dinka and Atwot. A distinctive feature of the language is its having of three contrastive vowel lengths.



The Atwot share much of their culture with their neighbours. Like the Dinka and Nuer, they are also semi-sedentary cattle-herding pastoralists, meaning that while the travel with their herds to grazing grounds, they don't go far from where they had started. There are seven subsections of the Atuot: Jilek, Luac, Jikeyi (Rorkec), Kuek, Apak, Akot and Ajong. The Ajong subsection claims to speak their own dialect known as Thok-ajong, a hard version of Thok Reel. Jikeyi and Kuek speak Thok Reel Cieng Nhyam. The Luac, Jilek, and Akot speak Thok Reel Cieng Luai. The Apak speak Thong Apak which is dialect of South Central Dinka.


Political organisation

Like the Nuer and Dinka, the Atuot political organisation hinges on the dor who claim common ancestry. The dor were headed by chiefs who sometimes doubled up as spiritual leaders. The situation changed drastically after 1932 when the colonial authorities introduced administrative chiefs.



The majority of Atuot wet season villages (cieng) where gardens are planted and wet season cattle camps (wuic) are located on the fringe of the ironstone plateau which forms a southern perimeter to the swamps of the Upper Nile basin. Thus Atuot country spans the macro-ecological zones of open savannah grassland to the north and increasingly dense forests to the south. Draining through the centre of Atuot country is the permanent Yei River they call Payii.

Atuot tradition has it that Decau or Nhial Decau is the Being or Divinity who alone has the puissance of creation. The material world and all thats in it, is said to have been created by the Creator long ago - muon kuonon ce cake Decau nemei. In the Atuot language, ''''to create'''' means to bring into existence something that never existed before. A woman and man give birth to a child - ce gat dieth, while it is the Creator who creates the human being in the womb and gives it life.

The Atuot word ''''wal'''' refers to a period in the past within living memory; ''''creation'''' or their initial migrations and separation from other Nilotic peoples, happened ''''ne mei'''', too long ago to be certain of details or time sequences. This has serious consequence for tracing back their history.


Economy and Social Production

The Atuot agrarian and pastoral mode of production is a systematic process interrelated with all other life activities and this is reflected in the ways Atuot conceive space, time, production, and cultural construction. However, the Atuot culture, like other Nilotes, pays special attention to cattle, and that shapes their interaction with the world.

The entire system of production, and of course more practically pastoral trans-humance, is for the Atuot, an engrossing, meaningful and satisfy experience. This is the essence of their cultural identity and each has its significance, for example, when settling in a wet season cattle camp for the first time or when planting seeds, these activities are accompanied by small rituals like the sacrifice of an ox to the ancestor and divinity.


Age Categories and Marriage

The central matrix in which local life is reproduced is marriage and marriage is a ultimate goal in the adult life of all Atuot women and men. Among the Atuot, age categories and modes of classification are manifested in the course of daily life by divergent social economic activities and symbolic attributes which accrue to distinctive age categories. The Atuot ric, like in other Nilotes, refer to those initiated (pal ngach) at the same time and its association with male-female social activities.

The Atuot categories which correspond to age-sets are as follows: Female Male gat menyal (baby girl) gat (baby boy) nyal (small girl) dhol(small boy) nyam mawuot (young woman) acot (an adolescent boy) cek me dang (older woman) cou (husband) madong (grandmother, living or dead).
The physiological maturity in females marks the occasion for their graduation from ''''nyal'''' to ''''nyal mawuot'''' marked in a brief ceremony known as ''''tuol nya''''l which simply means ‘emerge’. For the male, the dhol graduates into acot when he is initiated (pal ngang) and can be recognised physically. Both the nyam mawuot and acot become self-consciously aware of the social etiquette deemed proper while waiting for the great occasion - of marriage.



Marriage is a process that begins with courtship which takes place in the dancing place, in the cattle camp or in the ''''gorniin'''' (seeking place to sleep for engagement), where the youth spend time studying and knowing themselves in order to develop friendship and possibly ''''muon'''' or engagement.
The dowry is settled in cattle after elaborate negotiations between corresponding families and their relatives accompanied by certain rituals ''Acak thok'' symbolising the removal of the taboo on the two families eating and drinking together. The bride bears her first offspring in her parents home.


The Atuot in transition

The Atuot had difficult relations with both the Turko-Egyptian as well as the Anglo-Egyptian rule in the Sudan. They however have integrated into the mainstream South Sudan identity and several Atuot elite and politicians occupied positions of authority in the southern regional government in Juba as well as in the central government in Khartoum. Like others, the Atuot have adopted Christianity and some are even Muslims. They intermarry with the Dinka and Nuer where there is not much difference in traditions.