Dinka people

Dinka

Dinka / Jieng / Nuony-Jang

The Dinka people are a Nilotic ethnic group native to South Sudan, but also having a sizable diaspora population.

They mostly live along the Nile, from Mangalla to Renk, in regions of Bahr el Ghazal, Upper Nile (former two of three Southern Provinces in Sooth Sudan and Abyei Area of the Ngok Dinka in South Sudan.

The Dinka mainly live on traditional agriculture and pastoralism, relying on cattle husbandry as a cultural pride, not for commercial profit or for meat, but cultural demonstrations, rituals, marriage dowries and milk feedings for all ages.

Dinka people map

The Dinka cultivate food crops and cash crops. The food crops are grains, mainly sorghum and millet.The cash crops include groundnuts, sesame and gum-arabic. Cattle are confined to riversides, the Sudd and grass areas during the dry season, but are taken to high grounds in order to avoid floods and water during the rainy season.

They number around 4.5 million people according to the 2008 Sudan census, constituting about 18% of the population of the entire country, and the largest ethnic tribe in South Sudan.

Dinka, or as they refer to themselves, Muonyjang (singular) and jieng (plural), make up one of the branches of the River Lake Nilotes (mainly sedentary agripastoral peoples of the Nile Valley and African Great Lakes region who speak Nilotic languages, including the Nuer and Luo). Dinka are sometimes noted for their height. With the Tutsi of Rwanda, they are believed to be the tallest people in Africa. Roberts and Bainbridge reported the average height of 182.6 cm (5 ft 11.9 in) in a sample of 52 Dinka Agaar and 181.3 cm (5 ft 11.4 in) in 227 Dinka Ruweng measured in 1953–1954. However, it seems the stature of today's Dinka males is lower, possibly as a consequence of undernutrition and conflicts. An anthropometric survey of Dinka men, war refugees in Ethiopia, published in 1995 found a mean height of 176.4 cm (5 ft 9.4 in). Other studies of comparative historical height data and nutrition place the Dinka as the tallest people in the world.

The Dinka people have no centralised political authority, instead comprising many independent but interlinked clans. Some of those clans traditionally provide ritual chiefs, known as the "masters of the fishing spear" or beny bith, who provide leadership for the entire people and appear to be at least in part hereditary.

Their language, called Dinka or "Thuɔŋjäŋ" (Thoŋ ë Muɔnyjäŋ), is one of the Nilotic languages of the eastern Sudanic language family. The name means "people" in the Dinka language. It is written using the Latin alphabet with a few additions.

 

The Name

The people call themselves Jieng (Upper Nile) or muonyjang (Bahr el Ghazal). The Nuer call them ‘Jiang’; Shilluk call them ‘Jango’; Arabs and Equatorians call them Jiengge; all stemming from Jieng.

 

Demography and Geography

The Dinka is the largest single national grouping in South Sudan. Numbering about 2.5 to 3 million and constituting of more than 25 aggregates of different Dinka sections (Wut). The Dinka are found in Bahr el Ghazal, Upper Nile and Southern Kordofan regions. Each Dinka section has a separate political entity with established rights to a well-defined territory. The main sections and sub-sections and their geographic locations include.

 

Population & Ecosystem

The Dinka is the largest single national grouping in South Sudan. Numbering about 2.5 to 3 million and constituting of more than 25 aggregates of different Dinka sections (Wut). The Dinka are found in Bahr el Ghazal, Upper Nile and Southern Kordofan regions. Each Dinka section has a separate political entity with established rights to a well-defined territory. The main sections and sub-sections and their geographic locations include.

The Dinka habitat ranges from ironstone plateau of Bahr el Ghazal and the flood plains (toch) between the White Nile River and its numerous tributaries and distributaries to the rich savannah grasslands of Upper Nile.

 

Language

The Dinka language (Thong muonyjang or thong-Jieng) and its different variations (dialects) is spoken through Dinka land. Because of this variation it is not surprising that certain sections are unintelligible to others. The Rek of Tonj is said to be the standard Dinka language. The Dinka language relates to other Nilotic group of languages.

 

Mythology and History

According to a myth held by many Dinka sections, the first people to be created by God (Nhialic) were Garang and Abuk, understood now as being the equivalent of Adam and Eve. Deng was their first born from whom all Dinka people are descended.

 

Dinka Society, Social Events, Attitudes, Traditions and Customs

The Dinka section is as an alliance of lineages that are bound by blood and other individuals or families who had attached themselves either by marriage or otherwise. The sections identify with a particular lineage originally derived from one of the main chiefly clans (beny), who are dominant and said to have the land of the section. They claim a single ancestor and base their right to political and religious superiority on some particular important myth about their descent.
The second category of clans, the members of which had no special hereditary religious functions, is called collectively kic (commoners). They vary considerably in size and area of distribution. The ‘commoner’ clans were scarcely regarded as wut, but as disunited families with no sense of a wider agnatic relationship .
The commoner clans among the Dinka are also described as koc tong (people of the war spear, or slaves) in relation to the chiefly clans who were koc bith (people of the fishing spear). This distinction however is one of culture, not of function . Among the Dinka the chief is believed to possess supernatural powers associated with truth-telling, justice, wealth, knowledge, and prophetic vision.
The Dinka are proud and ethnocentric but, nevertheless, hospitable and friendly more often than not demonstrating a high moral standard, code of behaviour, feeding mannerism and sense of personal dignity (dheeng) and integrity. They deal with others on the basis of reciprocity. The Dinka are least touched by modernisation; their pride and ethnocentrism must be important factors in their conservatism and resistance to change . Dinka culture is centred on cattle. It is the medium of exchange whether in marriage, payment of debts and blood price, or for sacrifices to the spirits and on major occasions and rites.

 

Naming

Every Dinka male is given an ox by his father, uncle or whoever is responsible for him. His ‘bull-name’ like other Dinka names also derive from colour of their cattle and a girl (Ayen, Yar, etc.) or a boy (Mayom, Mayen, Malith, etc.) could be named after the colour of the best ox (mayom, malith, mayen) or cow (ayen, yar) that was given in marriage by the father. Like other Nilotics, the Dinka have special names for twins: Ngor, Chan, Bol, etc. indicating being a twin.
The Dinka have large vocabulary for cattle, their colours and take great interest and pride in the art of making different conformations to which their horns can be trained to grow. When discussing, debating about anything or in a dance, a Dinka usually throws up his arms in imitation of the shape of the horns of ox.

 

Marriage

Marriage is obligatory among the Dinka. Every male is expected to raise a family and can marry as many wives as possible. Relatives marry to the ghost of a male who died in infancy –many ‘ghost fathers’ exist among the Dinka.
The bride price differs from one Dinka section to the other. It ranges from some tens (Upper Nile) to a few hundreds (Bahr el Ghazal). In the same way the bride price is raised by the groom’s family – contribution, it is distributed accordingly (uncle to uncle, brother to brother, etc.) in the Bride’s clan.
Chief’s daughters fetch more cattle in the same way chief’s son is expected to pay more cattle for his wife. University graduates fetch more bride prices; a factor that is likely to positively affect enrolment of girls in schools. Like other Nilotics, sex among the Dinka is only for social reproduction. Thus, fornication is prohibited; adulterers are despised and heavily fined, sometimes this may be source of conflict and clan fighting. Incest is usually unimaginable and indeed abhorred.

 

Initiation into Adulthood

Initiation into adulthood takes different styles and ceremonies. They invariably remove the 4 lower canines as a sign of maturity. A girl’s physiological evolution and attainment of puberty is marked by celebration (usually by women) to demonstrate readiness for marriage. Some Dinka sections scarify the face to mark graduation into adulthood and age-group. In some, women of particular status have their faces scarified.

 

Social and Political Organisation

The Dinka are an acephalous nationality – a cultural rather than political federation of sub-nationalities. The concept of state and hence political institutions, structure and consequently authority does not exist among the Dinka. Each Dinka section is an autonomous political entity in itself.
Chieftainship is hereditary and holds the title of beny (plural bany), which translates into different things such as chief, expert, or military officer. The title always has an attribute in order to indicate the office, for example, beny de ring or beny rein (or riem) - Northern Dinka and beny bith in the remaining parts of the country. The word ring (or rem) probably refers to the supernatural power of the chief. Bith, on the other hand, is the sacred fishing-spear (unbarbed or un-serrated spear) as a symbol of office . The spiritual leaders (fishing spear chief, medicine women/men, and Deng’s chiefs) exert great influence. Except in few cases, the spiritual leaders more often reject secular authority. Dinka chiefs exercised authority by persuasion not through any known instruments of coercion and force.

 

Spirituality and Beliefs

The sphere of the living and the dead (ghosts) interact. Tradition permits addressing God and the spirits of the departed ancestors and relatives either directly or through a medium in a special offering place yik, situated in every Dinka homestead.

 

Dinka Culture, Arts and Material Culture

The most important culture asset of the Dinka is the cattle camp, where all social activities; traits and behaviours including dheeng, valour, generosity and respect for social norms are cultivated. Dinka literature remains orally expressed in songs, poems, and folklore.
The different Dinka sections have evolved their different articles of arts, music and folklore. There are of course many different types of dance formations and songs. The common art is that of war: spear and stick. The Dinka start practicing stick and spear duelling with great dexterity from their youth.

 

Relationship with Neighbours and Foreigners

The Dinka have cultural and linguistic affinity to and share much with the Nuer and Shilluk to whom they refer to in their names. The Dinka refer to other peoples as foreigners (jur) and the colour of the skin is the only distinction. ‘Jur chol’ refer to black foreigners and jur mathiang or buony refer to light skin people .
Modernity and foreign ideas have permeated Dinka culture and are slowly replacing their traditions and customs. Many Dinka have converted to Christianity and Islam - in Ngok and Abialang. They have adopted either jellabia or European dress and now nudity and wearing of skins are rare sight even in the cattle camps.

 

Traditional homes

Before the coming of the British the Dinka did not live in villages, but traveled in family groups living in temporary homesteads with their cattle. The homesteads might be in clusters of one or two all the way up to 100 families. Small towns grew up around British administrative centers. Each village of one or more extended families is led by a leader chosen by the group.
Traditional homes were made of mud walls with thatched conical roofs, which might last about 20 years. Only women and children sleep inside the house, while the men sleep in mud-roofed cattle pens. The homesteads were located to enable movement in a range allowing year-round access to grass and water. Permanent villages are now built on higher ground above the flood plane of the Nile but with good water for irrigation. The women and older men tend crops on this high ground while younger men move up and down with the rise and fall of the river.

 

Family

Polygamy is allowed among the Dinka, though many men may have only one wife. The Dinka must marry outside their clan (exogamy), which promotes more cohesion across the broader Dinka group.
A “bride wealth” is paid by the groom’s family to finalize the marriage alliance between the two clan families. Levirate marriage provides support for widows and their children. All children of co-wives are raised together and have a wide family identity. Co-wives cook for all children, though each wife has a responsibility for her own children.

 

Clothes and bodies

The Dinka wear few clothes, particularly in their own village. Adult men may be totally nude except for beads around the neck or wrist. The women commonly wear only goatskin skirts, but unmarried adolescent girls will typically be nude. Clothes are becoming more common. Some men will be seen in the long Muslim robe or short coat. They own very few material possessions of any kind.
Personal grooming and decoration are valued. The Dinka rub their bodies with oil made by boiling butter. They cut decorative designs into their skin. They remove some teeth for beauty and wear dung ash to repel mosquitoes. Men dye their hair red with cow urine, while women shave their hair and eyebrows, but leave a knot of hair on top of the head.
The major influence formerly was exercised by “chiefs of the fishing spears” or “spear masters.” This elite group provided health through mystical power. Their role has been eradicated due to changes brought about by British rule and the modern world. Their society is egalitarian, with no class system. All people, wealthy or poor, are expected to contribute to the common good.

 

Arts

The primary art forms are poetry and song. There are certain types of songs for different types of activities of life, like festive occasions, field work, preparation for war and initiation ceremonies. History and social identity are taught and preserved through songs. They sing praise songs to their ancestors and the living. Songs are even used ritually in competition to resolve a quarrel in a legal sense. Women also make pottery and weave baskets and mats. Men are blacksmiths, making all sorts of implements.

 

Latest Developments

Like other nationalities in south Sudan, the Dinka have been affected by war. Many of have been displaced and live either as internally displaced persons (IDPs) or as refugees in the neighbouring countries. This has had influence on the social fabric, traditions and attitudes. In Bahr el Ghazal, Dinka interaction with war and its exigencies has resulted in use of their revered cattle in agricultural production.
Many have become traders trekking hundreds of kilometres to Uganda and Congo to sell their bulls and bring back consumer goods. International humanitarian and development aid inputs; the monetisation of economy and motorisation of transport are slowly but steadily prompting changes in the lives of the Dinka.

 

Diaspora

The war has created a Dinka Diaspora in Europe, America (Lost Boys) and Australia. Some in the Diaspora maintain strong links and communication with their family members back home; making regular remittances to support them

 

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