The Nuer also known as the Nei Ti Naath, meaning "original people/human being," are a confederation of tribes located in South Sudan and western Ethiopia. Collectively, the Nuer form one of the largest ethnic groups in East Africa. They are a pastoral people who rely on cattle products for almost every aspect of their daily lives. The Nuer border such tribes as the Dinka, Anyuak, Shilluk and other minor tribes in both Ethiopia and Sudan.
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.
Archeologists indicate that the introduction of cattle in this area is related to the development of the distinct peoples the Nuer are descended from. Oral traditions indicate that the Nuer have moved east of the Nile River only during the last 200 years.They began an especially active migration about the mid 1800s. As they moved gradually east, they pushed the Anuak farther east into Ethiopia. During this period many Dinka people were incorporated into the Nuer community. Atuot and Nuer traditions indicate origins with the Dinka in what is now known as Western Nuerland. These traditions say the separation of the three occurred due to a dispute over cattle ownership.
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 are an important aspect in their way of life; virtually all matters involve cattle- conflicts are usually about cattle, and cattle are used to pay fines for offenses as well as bridewealth in marriages (Gatkuoth, 2010). Nuers even take the name of their favourite oxen or cows, and greet each other with their cattle names. Cattle also mean prestige and wealth. It also acts as a mediator to the divine, as we would see in the ceremonial rites of Nuer marriages. Cattle not only provide companionship, food and economic security, but also a cultural identity for the Nuer. As we shall see in this write-up, cattle also plays important role in rites in their marriages. Bridewealth is a significant feature in Nuers’ marriage practices. It is an exchange that brings a woman and her children into the descent of her husband.
The Nuer has certain marriage prohibitions that revolve around the matters of kinship. A man and woman who stand on a relationship based on kin is hence forbidden to have sex or marry. If marriage takes place, it would be considered incest, or rual. Rual refers to both incest and misfortune brought about it, shaped by their religious beliefs. Syphilis or other diseases, drowning, or any form of violent deaths are seen as a consequence or retribution followed by incest. Some misfortunes could be avoided through cattle sacrifices.
Nuers have to follow the rule of exogamy: a man cannot marry a woman of the same clan and the same lineage. This means, a man and woman who are considered close cognate are also not allowed to marry. As long as a relationship cam be traced between a man and woman through either father or mother, up to six generations, marriage is not allowed to happen (Evans-Pritchard, 1951). Further, when a Dinka boy is adopted by a Nuer, he used be regarded as part of the clan, and normally would not be allowed to marry a girl in the clan he is adopted. A man may not also be allowed to take a woman that is kin to the wife, like her sister or any of those in her clan. Because a man and woman is only fully married when the woman has a child and comes to live with her husband’s people, this means that the relation is tied through the child. The sister is also considered to be the mother of the child. Besides that, a man may not marry to the daughter of his “age mate”, a member of his age set. This is because age-mates shed blood together during their initiation process and gives them a kind of kinship. The daughter one’s age-mate is also one’s daughter, and hence it would be considered incest.
One alternative marriage type is same-sex marriage. Women in Nuer culture can marry each other, with one being the ‘father’ of the children of the ‘wife’. The ‘father’ is referred to the ‘pater’. A third person, the ‘genitor’, is required to impregnate the wife. He could be a friend, neighbor or kinsman of the pater, and would help around in the home for tasks which are deemed unfit for women as well. For the marriage to become official, the 'pater' has to pay a bridewealth to the wife, as would happen if a man were to marry a woman.
Additionally, the pater would also receive bridewealth if any of her daughters were to marry. While this was not uncommon, the underlying motivation is still to carry on the family name. A woman who marries as a 'pater' is usually barren, and for this reason is regarded like a man. In addition, because a barren woman usually practices as a magician or diviner, she acquires more cattle and hence is rich and could have several wives (Evans-Pritchard, 1951).
Another alternative marriage arrangement is ghost marriage. A woman would be chosen to marry a family member of the dead man, and the offspring of these two would be thought of as belonging to the deceased. This lies in the belief that a man who died without male heirs would leave behind an angry spirit to trouble the family. The woman marries to his name so that the children would carry his line. The deceased is the legal husband of the woman whose name is used in paying for bridewealth. The main idea here is the continuity of the lineage.
Another type of union mentioned by Evans-Pritchard is levirate. For the Nuer, once married, the bond between them stays even after death. While polygyny is practiced in the Nuer society, a woman is expected to stay loyal to her husband, where relation with other man is seen as adultery. Hence if one’s husband died, the woman is not allowed to remarry because she is still the wife of her dead husband. Brother of the deceased would then step in as a substitute for the dead man. Because married women traditionally do not have significant wealth, this way she would be able to keep her wealth and power, though there is no living husband (O'Neil, 2009). She is seen as a widow who takes care of her husband’s wealth and children.
The alternative marriage arrangements for the Nuers are shaped by the patrilineal nature of the society. Because men tend to have much more wealth than women, they have the means to have more wives and even pass down their wealth to future generation even he is not married when he is alive.
Having a family is one of the ultimate goals for traditional Nuer youths. The idea of marriage has been ingrained even through childhood. Adults are open about sexual life with their children, and children familiarise themselves with marriage through role-playing of marriage ceremonies, conducting bridewealth negotiations and pretending having a conjugal life. Carrying out domestic work also helps to reinforce the idea of family and commitment. Boys are initiated around the age of 16, after which they would go to dances to woo girls. Girls in their 12 or 13 would begin to have relations with initiated boys.
Dances serve as an important medium where couples meet and court after that. It allows youths from different clans and villages to meet each other. During the dances the men would charm the girls with their fine dancing and “display of spearmanship and duelling with the club”(Evans-Pritchard, 1951).
Sexual activities among Nuer youths are shaped by cultural values. As such, even though they could have multiple partners in the course of their youth, the final goal of their sex life is ultimately marriage, for the chief ambition of a youth is to have a home of his own. Hence, a girl would tend not to have sex with a boy who do not have the intention to marry her. Although a Nuer youth usually has the freedom to choose his or her own mate, parents’ approval is still important, and this depends on whether the boy has sufficient cattle for bridewealth.
As we can see, pre-marital sex makes up not only an important aspect in the life for the nuer, but also an important step to marriage. For the Nuer, sexual reproduction is indeed a precursor to marriage. The main feature to describe Nuer’s marriage is that the union between a man and a woman is only confirmed by the birth of the couple’s child. Only then their relationship would be legitimate, and the husband would be accepted by his wife’s kins as one of themselves. This is because it is then clear that he is the father of their daughter’s child and through that child there is a kinship between them (Evans-Pritchard,1951).
Marriage for the Nuer is made up of payment of bridewealth and by the performance of certain ceremonial rites. These two aspects are necessary and indeed reinforce each other. The chief ceremonies in Nuer marriages include the betrothal (larcieng), the wedding(ngut) and the consummation (mut). In thsee procedures, we shall see the significant use of cattle in Nuer marriages.
The negotiations of bridewealth, or cattle talk (riet ghok) starts when the boy comes to consult the girl’s and ask kins for approval. After several cattle discussions and the girl’s people are satisfied, they would tell the bridegroom that he can bring the ghok lipa, the cattle of betrothal, on a certain day. During the betrothal ceremony three to ten heads of cattle are transferred to the bride’s family. At this phase, marriage is provisionally agreed upon both families. The celebration would be usually be attended by neighbours. The dance in weddings attract crowds to come, although the union do not directly concern them. Families and kin of the bride and groom are more involved in prolonged discussions about bridewealth, sacrifices and other rites.
The wedding ceremony (ngut) takes place some weeks later, during the windy season, and meanwhile there are further discussions about bridewealth not only in the home of her bride’s father but also in the home of her senior maternal uncle(father’s brother-in-law), who is also responsible for the negotiations. In the meantime, bridegroom and girl is considered man and wife, and he is respected as son-in-law. Occasionally visits the girl with his friends, but they are carefully observed by bride’s family.
The final cattle talk happens during the ngut. The wedding also consists of calling of the ghosts of ancestors, the wedding dance and sacrifice of the cattle. There would be chantings to invoke the ghosts of ancestors to look upon the cattle of the bridewealth. This is to make the ghosts witnesses of the union. In the evening or the following morning, a wedding ox provided by the bride’s father is sacrificed and distributed. This sacrifice is important to ward off evil and contamination, according to Nuer’s religious beliefs.
The consummation (mut) concludes the marriage. Before the couple is allowed to consummate, half of the bridewealth have to be transferred.This ceremony makes the couple husband and wife. After which, the husband can claim compensation if adultery happens, while the bride is prevented form going to evening dances. Important rites in this ceremony include the sacrifice of an ox, lustration and shaving of the bride’s head. Because the union is seen complete only after the birth of the first child, the wife would only be brought to her husband’s home after that, where she would be accepted as kin. Again this feature is important in Nuer marriage because infertility could cause the marriage to be dissolved and so the wife is pressured to have a child within one to two years (Moore,1998). The payment of bridewealth is to be completed before the woman moves into her husband's clan.
Bridewealth makes up an important aspect in Nuer marriages. Bridewealth serves several functions. It is basically an exchange whereby the girl is transferred to the male’s lineage and her family receives the cattle. It also means that children born out of that union belongs to the husband’s descent. In addition, bridewealth is a way to develop relationship between two families. It is different from dowry such that bridewealth is not given for the bride alone but also distributed among her kins (Goody, 1973). Because marriage is a long process for the Nuer, bridewealth payments can be seen as a way to develop social relations among people with no kinship ties(i.e. between families of the bride and bridegroom). Each payment gives stability to the union and security to both parties.
The Nuer (Naath) people are an extremely religious people whose beliefs can be summarized by the word Kuoth (God). “Kuoth (God) is an all-encompassing God associated with the sky, but is always present in all things, living and dead, and is also associated with many spirits; and the spirit form of Nuer tradition.” In the Nuer culture, Kuoth (God) “supplies explanation for phenomena which cannot be explained in everyday life.” Because of the fact that it is accepted without question, the Nuer have difficulty of explaining Kuoth (God) because of “its abstract nature and the fact that it’s used to generalize the spirits of who possesses people.” Kuoth (God) is always given the role of creator, and is said to be the origin of the ancestors.
The Nuer people, however, were traditionally sophisticated enough to adhere to the concepts of “aliveness” which include the notion of a soul or spirits residing in the object. They treat the objects they consider animate as if these things had a life, feeling, and a will of their own, but “did not make a distinction between the body of an object and soul that could enter or leave it.” The reverence that Nuer people in Sudan grant to deceased relatives is based on believing that in dying, they have become powerful spiritual being or “even admittedly less frequently to have attained the status of gods.” This is usually based on the belief that ancestors are active members of society, and still interested in the affairs of their living relatives.
The cult of ancestors is certainly common although not universal and has been particularly well documented in many African societies. In general, “ancestors are believed to wield a greater authority, having special powers to influence the course of events or to control the well-being of their living relatives.” They are often considered as the “intermediaries between the supreme God, the people and they can communicate with the living through dreams and by possession.” The attitude toward them is one of mixed tear and reverence and If neglect, the ancestors in heaven may cause diseases, drought, famine and misfortunes. Instantly in the Nuer societies, “propitiation, supplication, prayer and sacrifice” are the various ways in which the living can communicate with their ancestors. Ancestors worship is a strong indication of the value placed on the household, and of the strong ties that exist between the past and the present. “The beliefs and practices connected with the cult help to integrate the family to sanction the traditional political structure, and encourage respects for the living elders.” The Naath prophets arose and left their mark on the Naath nation. Ngundeng, who rose in Lou, remains the most revered. Younger and less important prophets have arose with the last one who left an impact being wud Nyang (1991-1993).
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People
The Nuer Marks/scarifications and what they represent
The Nuer of the Southern Sudan