Nuer people


Nuer / Naath

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The Nuer people are a Nilotic ethnic group concentrated in the Greater Upper Nile region of South Sudan and are from Ethiopia's Gambela Region. They speak the Nuer language, which belongs to the Nilotic language family. They are the second largest ethnic group in south Sudan and the second major ethnic group in Gambella. The Nuer people are pastoralists who herd cattle for a living. Their cattle serve as companions and define their lifestyle. The Nuer call themselves "Naath".

Nuer People

The Nuer people have historically been undercounted because of the semi-nomadic lifestyle. They also have a culture of counting only older members of the family. For example, the Nuer believe that counting the number of children one has could result in misfortune and prefer to report fewer children than they have. Their Ethiopian counterparts are the Horn peninsula's westernmost Horners.


The Name

The Nuer are believed to have separated - at a certain stage in the past - from the Dinka but in their latter development and migration assimilated many Dinka in their path.
‘Nei ti Naath’ which translates simply into ‘people’, is the second largest nationality in South Sudan.
In the beginning of the 19th century the Naath started to migrate and expand eastwards across the Nile and Zeraf rivers. This was done at the expense of, and more often than not, conquest and assimilation of their neighbours (most the Dinka, Anyuak and Maban).
The Naath now dominate large parts of Upper Nile extending from River Zeraf through Lou to Jikany areas on the River Baro and Pibor rivers. Nuer expansion pushed into western Ethiopia displacing the Anyuak more to the highlands.


Demographic and Geographic Distribution

District Major Section Sub Sections Clans

The Naath who number approximately 2 million are to be found as a federation of sections and clans in western (Bentiu), central (Pangak and Akobo) and in eastern (Nasir) Upper Nile. With the river Nile as the principal geographic dividing line, nei ti Naath Ciang (homeland Nuer) and 'nei ti Naath Door' (wilderness Nuer) form the first level federal division of the 'rool Naath' (the Nuer land).


Environment, Economy and Natural Resources

Most of Naath homeland is located in the swamp areas of Upper Nile. The influence of the environment on the lifestyle of the Naath is obvious. Naath are sedentary (although individual families domicile in solitary settlements) are agro-pastoralists balancing subsistence agriculture with cattle herding – Naath keep large herds, fishing and hunting.
The main crops are sorghum, maize (Jikany most probably adopted from the Anyuak) and tobacco. However, the Lou demonstrate yearly transhumance. The arid nature of their homeland in central Upper Nile dictates their dry season migration to the Sobat basin or to Zeraf basin precipitating feuds with Jikany (fishing rights), Gawaar and Dinka, respectively.
Western Nuer homeland is imbued with enormous deposits of petroleum. The discovery, development and exploitation of this natural resource is more of a curse to the Naath than a blessing. It is the cause of immense humanitarian disruption and destruction unprecedented in Naath history. Other natural resources potential include wildlife, fisheries, acacia senegaleise (gum arabica), and balantines aegyptiucm (laloob).



The Nuer people are said to have originally been a section of the Dinka people that migrated out of the Gezira south into a barren dry land that they called "Kwer Kwong"", which was in southern Kordofan. Centuries of isolation and influence from Luo peoples caused them to be a distinct ethnic group from the Dinka. The Arrival of Bagarra Arabs and their subsequent slave raids in the late 1700s caused the Nuer to migrate en masse from southern Kordofan into what is now Bentiu. In around 1850, further slave raids as well as flooding and overpopulation caused them to migrate even further out of Bentiu and eastwards all the way into the western fringes of Ethiopia, Displacing and Absorbing many Dinka, Anyuak and Burun in the process.

The intrusion of the British in the 19th century greatly halted the Nuers aggressive territorial expansion against the Dinka and Anyuak.

There are different accounts of the origin of the conflict between the Nuer and the Dinka, South Sudan's two largest ethnic groups. Anthropologist Peter J. Newcomer suggests that the Nuer are actually Dinka. He argues that hundreds of years of population growth created expansion, which eventually led to raids and wars.

In 2006 the Nuer were the tribe that resisted disarmament most strongly; members of the Nuer White Army, a group of armed youths often autonomous from tribal elders' authority, refused to lay down their weapons, which led SPLA soldiers to confiscate Nuer cattle, destroying their economy. The White Army was finally put down in mid-2006, though a successor organisation self-styling itself as a White Army formed in 2011 to fight the Murle tribe (see 2011–2012 South Sudan tribal clashes), as well as the Dinka and UNMISS.



The Naath rose as a separate people (from the Dinka) in Bull area at the beginning of the 18th century under circumstances that continue to inform today their mutual prejudices and relations with the Jieng.
The myth, which has several variants, runs that both Naath and Jieng were sons of the same man, who had promised that he would give the cow to Jieng and its young calf to Naath. Jieng because of his cunning and intelligence deceived their father and took the calf instead of the cow therefore provokingl Naath’s perpetual contempt and disregard for the Jieng up to today.



Thok Naath – Nuer language is spoken all over the rool Naath. Being Nilotic, thok Naath is very close to the Jieng and Chollo languages. In fact, the Chollo and Jieng may have the same word 'cen' or 'cingo' (hand) the Naath calls it 'tet'. On the other hand the Naath and Chollo agree on 'wic' (head) while the Jieng call it 'nhom' and so on. The closeness of the language lays credence to the theory that the Naath, Jieng and Chollo have a common origin in time and space.



Cattle have historically been of the highest symbolic, religious and economic value to the Nuer. Sharon Hutchinson writes that "among Nuer people the difference between people and cattle was continually underplayed." Cattle are particularly important in their role as bride wealth, where they are given by a husband's lineage to his wife's lineage. This exchange of cattle ensures that the children will be considered to belong to the husband's lineage. The classical Nuer institution of ghost marriage, in which a man can "father" children after his death, is based on this definition of relations of kinship and descent by cattle exchange. In their turn, cattle given over to the wife's patrilineage enable the male children of that patrilineage to marry and thereby ensure the continuity of her patrilineage. An infertile woman can even take a wife of her own, whose children, biologically fathered by men from other unions, then become members of her patrilineage, and she is legally and culturally their father, allowing her to metaphorically participate in reproduction.


Society, Social Events, Attitudes, Customs and Traditions

Naath remove the 4 incisors and 4 lower canines as a sign of maturity for 'dholni' (children) of both sexes. However, initiation into 'wut' (adulthood) which is usually cutting 5 to 6 parallel lines across the forehead is undertaken among dhol (boys) of the same age, which like in other Nilotic groups form them into a 'ric' (age set).
The nyal and wut are now ready for marriage, which is prohibited among blood relatives or kins. Marriage is settled in cattle, whose numbers vary from section to the other but ranges from between 35 to 45 on average.



Nuer life revolves around cattle, which has made them pastoralist, but they are known to sometimes resort to horticulture as well, especially when their cattle are threatened by disease. Due to seasonal harsh weather, the Nuer move around to ensure that their livelihood is safe. They tend to travel when heavy seasons of rainfall come to protect the cattle from hoof disease, and when resources for the cattle are scarce. British anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard wrote, “They depend on the herds for their very existence...Cattle are the thread that runs through Nuer institutions, language, rites of passage, politics, economy, and allegiances.“

The Nuer are able to structure their entire culture around cattle and still have what they need. Before development the Nuer used every single piece of cattle to their advantage. According to Evans-Pritchard, cattle helped evolve the Nuer culture into what it is today. They shaped the Nuer's daily duties, as they dedicate themselves to protecting the cattle. For example, each month they blow air into their cattle's rectums to relieve or prevent constipation. Cattle are no good to the Nuer if constipated because they are restricted from producing primary resources that families need to survive. Evans-Pritchard wrote, "The importance of cattle in Nuer life and thought is further exemplified in personal names." They form their children's names from biological features of the cattle.

Evans-Pritchard wrote, "I have already indicated that this obsession—for such it seems to an outsider is due not only to the great economic value of cattle but also to the fact that they are links in numerous social relationships." All their raw materials come from cattle, including for drums, rugs, clothing, spears, shields, containers, and leather goods. Even daily essentials like toothpaste and mouthwash are created from the cattle's dung and urine. The dung is chopped into pieces and left out to harden, then used for containers, toothpaste, or even to protect the cattle themselves by burning it to produce more smoke, keeping insects away to prevent disease.

The Nuer people never eat cattle just because they want to. Cattle are very sacred to them, therefore when they do eat cattle they honor its ghost. They typically just eat the cattle that is up in age or dying because of sickness. But even if they do so, they all gather together performing rituals, dances or songs before and after they slaughter the cattle. Never do they just kill cattle for the fun of it. “Never do Nuer slaughter animals solely because the desire to eat meat. There is the danger of the ox’s spirit visiting a curse on any individual who would slaughter it without ritual intent, aiming only to use it for food. Any animal that dies of natural causes is eaten.” Many times it may not even just be cattle that they consume, it could be any animal they have scavenged upon that has died because of natural causes. There are a few other food sources that are available for the Nuer to consume. The Nuer diet primarily consists of fish and millet. “Their staple crop is millet." Millet is formally consumed as porridge or beer. The Nuer turn to this staple product in seasons of rainfall when they move their cattle up to higher ground. They might also turn to millet when the cattle are performing well enough to support their family.



To a Nuer individual, his parents and siblings are not considered mar (blood relatives) kin. He doesn't refer to them as kin. To him they are considered gol which is far more intimate and significant. There are kinship categories in the Nuer society. Those categories depend on the payment to them. There is a balance between the mother and father's side that is acknowledged through particular formal occasions such as marriage.

Nuer girls usually marry at 17 or 18. If a young girl gets engaged at an early age, the wedding and consummation ceremonies are essentially delayed. Women generally give birth to their first children when they are mature enough to bear them. As long as a girl marries a man with cattle, she is able to freely choose her husband, however her parents may choose a spouse for her.

Kinship roles

Kinship among the Nuer is very important to them, they refer to their blood relatives as ``gol”. Kinship within the Nuer is formed off of one's neighbors or their entire culture. During E.E.Evans-Pritchard's ethnographic observation, he described the role of kinship as: “Kinship obligations include caring for the children of one’s kin and neighbors. He also observed that,"The network of kinship ties which links members of local communities is brought about by the operation of exogamous rules, often stated in terms of cattle." This is never thought to be the sole responsibility of the child's parents." Cattle are judged by how much milk they can produce which is a necessity in their culture. If possible they create the excess of milk into cheese. But if a family’s herd cannot produce the amount of milk a family needs then they turn to other around them to give them what they need. It’s seen as their responsibility to step in and help the family since it’s not really their fault on how much their cattle can produce. The entire Nuer society is basically watching after each other, for example, as Evans-Pritchard noted that,“When one household has a surplus, it is shared with neighbors. Amassing wealth is not an aim. Although a man who owns a large herd of cattle may be envied, his possession of numerous animals does not garner him any special privilege or treatment.” In this tribe there is no special treatment for how one is treated because of their abundance in cattle. Just because one might have more cattle than another doesn't mean they have a higher prestige. If one might have more than enough to provide for themselves then they also provide that to other kin that are in need, as it is a part of their role in kinship.



E. E. Evans-Pritchard studied the Nuer and made very detailed accounts of his interactions. He also describes Nuer cosmology and religion in his books.

Nuer Online indicates that, "Nuer (Nuäär) believes that God is the spirit of the sky or the spirit who is in the sky” Kuoth Nhial” (God in Heaven) the creator, but Nuers believe in the coming of God through rain, lightning and thunder, and that the rainbow is the necklace of God. The sun and the moon as well as other material entities are also manifestation or sign of God, who after all is a spirit.

The spirits of the air above are believed to be the most powerful of the lesser spirits, while there are also spirits associated with clan-spears names such as WiW, a spirit of war, associated with thunder. Nuers believe that when a man or a woman dies, the flesh, the life and the soul separate. The flesh is committed to the earth, while the breath or life goes back to God (Kuoth). The soul that signifies the human individuality and personality remains alive as a shadow or a reflection, and departs together with the ox sacrificed, to the place of the ghosts.".

In the 1940s, missionaries began to attempt to evangelize the Nuer. The book of Genesis was translated and published in 1954, with the whole New Testament following in 1968. By the 1970s, there were nearly 200 Nuer congregations established. However, reporting indicates that only around 1% of Nuer identify as Christian.


Role of Cattle

In the 1990s, Sharon Hutchinson returned to Nuerland to update E.E. Evans-Pritchard's account. She found that the Nuer had placed strict limits on the convertibility of money and cattle in order to preserve the special status of cattle as objects of bride wealth exchange and as mediators to the divine. She also found that as a result of endemic warfare with the Sudanese state, guns had acquired much of the symbolic and ritual importance previously held by cattle.



The Nuer receive facial markings (called gaar) as part of their initiation into adulthood. The pattern of Nuer scarification varies within specific subgroups. The most common initiation pattern among males consists of six parallel horizontal lines which are cut across the forehead with a razor, often with a dip in the lines above the nose. Dotted patterns are also common (especially among the Bul Nuer and among females).

Some Nuer have begun practicing circumcision after being assimilated or partially assimilated in other ethnic groups. The Nuer are not historically known to circumcise, but sometimes circumcise people who have engaged in incest.

Typical foods eaten by the Nuer tribe include beef, goat, cow's milk, mangos, and sorghum in one of three forms: "ko̱p" finely ground, handled until balled and boiled, "walwal" ground, lightly balled and boiled to a solid porridge, and injera / Yɔtyɔt, a large, pancake-like yeast-risen flatbread.

In the early 1990s about 25,000 African refugees were resettled in the United States throughout different locations such as South Dakota, Tennessee and Minnesota. In particular, 4,288 refugees from Sudan were resettled among 36 different states between 1990 and 1997 with the highest number in Texas at 17 percent of the refugee population from Sudan.

The Nuer refugees in the United States and those in Africa continue to observe their social obligations to one another. They use different means ranging from letters to new technologically advanced communication methods in order to stay connected to their families in Africa. Nuer in the United States provide assistance for family members’ paperwork to help their migration process to the United States. Furthermore, Nuer in the United States observe family obligations by sending money for those still in Africa.


Political Organisation and Structure

The Naath political organisation and structure could be categorised as a confederation of independent and autonomous sections and clans. According to Säfholm, “the organising principle within the Nuer political structure, which gives it conceptual consistency and a certain measure of actual cohesion… is in the status of the diel. Its unity is expressed in the idiom of lineage and clan affiliation. Thus dominant clans have the greater political importance.”
The political life of a village and the organisation of the cattle camps are in the hands of the 'gaat tuot' – elders of the dominant clan. A rul could become a 'tutni' if he wielded prowess through influence and speech or wealth. Nevertheless, tutni belonging to the dominant clan wields more influence in the political system. The Naath clans have no hereditary leadership; a senior lineage does not rank higher than others; there is no father of the clan; and there is no council of elders. However, the leadership of a localised lineages such as cieng, is hereditary.
Indeed personal qualities including lineage, age, seniority in family, large number of wives and children, marriage alliances, wealth in cattle, prowess as a warrior in youth, skill in debate and some ritual powers combine to produce a social personality who is regarded as 'kuar' or 'tut wec' (leader) of the village or camp.
Other Naath political offices include: war general or expert - 'gwan muot'; the custodian of the land – 'kuar muon'. In fact, the importance of kuar muon is demonstrated in his authority over cases of murder, incest, and other important disputes. An elaborate system of administrative elected chiefs: head chiefs, court presidents, and sub-chiefs have evolved in Nuer land since 1932.


Culture: Arts, Music, Literature and Handicraft

Naath arts, music and literature like in most unwritten culture are orally transmitted over generations in songs, stories and folktales. The Naath are rich is songs, and folktales. Naath articles of arts and music include 'thom' and 'bul', which are similar to those of other Nilotics. Their articles for self-defence include different types of ket (stick) mut (spear). A man carries goh or gok (charcoal and tobacco bags) and a 'thiop kom'.
The different Naath sections have evolved their different dances: 'buul' performed during the early afternoon especially for marriages; dom-piny (a hole in the ground covered with a skin) is performed during the night where wut and nyal court themselves. Of the most important handcraft the Naath have developed is the dieny (basket for carrying everything including children when on a long journey).
Naath cultural initiatives that have now become Sudanese national cultural heritage is the Mound of Ngundeng at wic Deang in Lou.


Neighbours and Foreign Relations and Co-operation

With strong and powerful neighbours the Naath can maintain peace and harmony with their neighbours. The Naath have cordial relations with the Tet (Chollo) from whom they have intermarried with. Naath cherish independence and freedom including freedom to invade others and take over their property, which makes for uneasy and sometimes violent relations with Dinka and Anyuak. They abhor anything that insults their sense of homeland for instance at their initial contacts with the Arabs and Turks, the Naath took offence of Muslim prayers in their land.


Impact of Oil Economy on Nuer

Oil exploration and drilling began in 1975 and 1976 by companies such as Chevron. In 1979 the first oil production took place in the southern regions of Darfur. In the early 1980s when the North-South war was happening, Chevron was interested in the reserves in the south. In 1984 guerrillas of SPLA (Sudan People's Liberation Army) attacked the drilling site of the north at Bentiu. In return, Chevron cleared Nuer and Dinka people in the oil fields area to ensure security for their operations.

The Nuer-Dinka struggle in oil fields continued in late 1990s into the early 2000s. The struggle for oil production was not only manifested in North-South fight, but also in Nuer-Dinka and many internal conflicts among Nuer.

As part of Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), 50 percent of net revenues of southern oil fields were given to the government of southern Sudan as a solution to one of the sources of decades of civil conflict.


Latest Development in rool Naath

Modernity, monetary economy, war, discovery of oil have had profound impact on the Naath traditional ways. Increased violence has resulted in massive displacements and movements of people that out of necessity have resulted in some positive change in attitudes and perceptions.



There is a large Naath Diaspora in North America and Australia. Like the seasonal labour migration to northern Sudan, this could be temporary because most of the Naath in the Diaspora are still intimately attached to their home and are likely to return now that peace is back in South Sudan.