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.

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).

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.

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Initiation into Adulthood

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.

 

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.

 

Socio-Political Organisation, Traditional Authorities

The Murle country is divided into 2 kidongwana (districts or military regiments in the past) namely: Tangojon (south) and Ngarrothi (north). The chiefly system, the age-set system, and the kinship-system are fundamental to the Murle social and political organisation.
The outstanding feature of the political system is the position of the Drum-chiefs (Red chiefs) at the head of the four drum-ships by virtue of their guardianship of the sacred drums, their spiritual powers are paramount. The formal pronouncements of Red-chiefs are treated with the greatest respect.

 

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.

 

Diaspora

Very few Murle people left their home;with some in East Africa and overseas.

 

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