The Shilluk (Shilluk: Chollo) are a major Luo Nilotic ethnic group of Southern Sudan, living on both banks of the river Nile, in the vicinity of the city of Malakal. Before the Second Sudanese Civil War the Shilluk also lived in a number of settlements on the northern bank of the Sobat River, close to where the Sobat joins the Nile.
The Shilluk are the fourth largest ethnic group of Southern Sudan, after the Azande and their neighbours the Dinka and Nuer.
Their language is called Dhøg Cøllø, dhøg being the Shilluk word for language and mouth. It belongs to the Luo branch of the Western Nilotic subfamily of the Nilotic languages.
The people are known as Shilluk which is a corruption of Chollo.
Demography and Geography
The Shilluk number about 500,000 and live on the west bank of River Nile between Lake No in the south and Kosti in the north. Some Shilluk settlements are found on the east bank of the Nile and extend as far as Anakdier in the east.
Shilluk country is flat lying plains that surround the River Nile. It has a moderate rainfall regime and its vegetation is made up of thick tall grass and few trees and shrubs. The Shilluk keep few cattle, goats and sheep; and engage in subsistence agriculture. The main crops are sorghum, maize, simsim, beans.
The Shilluk are adroit fishermen and exploit with ease the fish resources of the Nile and its numerous tributaries and distributaries. Recent ecological changes in the Sudan have made the Shilluk kingdom an important producer of gum arabica. Petroleum is produced not very far from the Shilluk kingdom and there could be oil reserves below its sub-soil.
The Shilluk are a part of the Luo nation. Tradition has it that sometime in the 15th century, Nyikango, the founder of the Chollo nation, quarrelled with and separated from Dimo and the other Luo groups in wic pac, somewhere in Bahr el Ghazal.
Nyikango and his entourage of close relatives and friends chose to move northwards along the Nile in rafts and canoes searching for a suitable place to settle until he arrived in the land of Otango Dirim. Through war and diplomacy he conquered and through the course of time, assimilated Otango Dirim, giving each and every tribe therein a name and a ritual to perform. Tradition has it that his son Dak was the most influential in the establishment of the kingdom.
The Shilluk is a nation sensu stricto; a common territory, a common language, a central authority to which all citizens pay allegiance, have an elaborate system of customs and traditions which inform on the attitudes of the people, the exercise of power and all other social relations. This Shilluk kingdom was occupied by the Turko-Egyptian regime in 1837 and since then it has not been free except for a brief period between 1881 and 1898 during the Mahdiya. It is recognised by the Sudanese state only as part of the so-called native administration.
The Shilluk language is spoken throughout the kingdom. It is close and related to other Luo languages of Anyuak, Jo-Luo, Pari, Shatt and Belanda Buor. It is also related to Nuer and Dinka languages.
The Chollo nation comprises of about 100 different ethnic communities and clans: the indigenous people and the Luo conquerors , who double up as the most politically and socially dominant. The other important clans include kwa-Jullo kwa-Jwok (descendants of Ojwok - Nyikango’s cousin), kwa- Oboogo (Oboogo is said to have volunteered to be sacrificed in order to open up the weeds at the confluence of Nile and Bahr el Ghazal to enable the entourage proceed with their journey).
The descendents of the assimilated Otango Dirim include: kwa-nyidwai, kwa-dway, kwa-nyidhiang, kwa-mal, kwa-man, kwa-nyudho, kwa-mang , etc. Latter additions to the kingdom are kwa-mwoy , kwa-jango . These serve as social identity as well as special functions at Pachodo. The clans intermarried among each other without distinction.
However, tradition prohibits the Rath from taking as wife, a girl from among the kwa-Räth or kwa-Jullo. Each clan reproduces its own self and there is no chance for one clan changing to the other in spite of the extensive mixing resulting from marriages. However, a recalcitrant kwa-Räth clan could have its royalty removed in a special raid overseen by the reigning sovereign. They then become ordinary Shilluk .
The Shilluk ascribe to an elaborate traditional system, orally transmitted from generation to the next, in which each and every Shilluk clan, except the royals, has a defined role to play in the kingdom. They participate in the building and repairs of shrines ; the installation of the Räth. Some Shilluk traditions and customs have lost their values or originality. Most archaic traditions have been dropped, while some have lingered on although are transforming under the pressure of modernity.
The sex of the new born can be easily determined by the site of the bathing shade and where the umbilical cord had been buried; right or left of the doorway for male and female respectively. The mother eats special foods to assist in a quick and easy recuperation. A woman who has recently given birth carries stock of sorghum when she goes out of the house; wears a cross marked with ash on her forehead.
A women still in early pregnancy (1-2 months), her husband or somebody who had just buried a relative are believed to be ceremonially polluted (rigen da biy). They are not allowed to within 10 metres of the compound of the newly delivered baby. There is no myth about twins but some elaborate rites are performed which continue until they are grown up and marry. However, giving birth to triplets is considered abnormal and this fact is reported to Pachodo without delay. The Räth blesses them and offers each a milking cow.
Every Shilluk new born is given milk name the meaning of which may relate to the experience or circumstance the parents or close relative. The prefix ''nya '' connotes usually a female but is sometimes shared by male. Okach or Nyakach refers to famine; Oyoo or Nyayoo having been born on the road; Acwanyo refers to coinciding with the arrival of an important person or relative; Ronyo or Aban coinciding with death of somebody.
A child could be named after some important person including a departed Räth. In this case the child is taken and offerings made on the on that person’s grave or shrine of Räth. A grown up person could adopt a dance name or may be given nick name by others. The Shilluk by tradition don’t name a child after a living person.
There is no elaborate ceremony to mark a girl’s initiation into adulthood. As soon as physiological transformation shows, she goes through elaborate cushioning by the mother as to protect herself from boys and men in general, in readiness for marriage .
The dance ceremony for initiating boys into adulthood doubles up as the formation of age-set is marked by wearing for the first time dance regalia consisting of a leopard skin , wild-cat skin ; beads made from shells of ostrich eggs and a necklace made from tail of giraffe . The boy graduant moves to literally bachelors quarters ; prepares for own sorghum field and prepares to marry.
Marriage is the ultimate goal of every adult male and female. Courtship and intimacy can last for up to a year or more. Once marriage has been decided on, the girl informs her mother who then informs the father or paternal uncle in case the father is deceased. A shy young man may inform his father through a friend, uncle or somebody he trusts. Marriage to blood relatives or in-laws is not permitted. Once the suitor has been accepted and announced, the initial bride price is paid. The Shilluk dowry is a minimum of 10 cows and 30 sheep and goats. The marriage relationship does not expire or rust.
It tightly binds the two families making divorce difficult if not impossible unless there are spectacular reasons. In case of divorce, the dowry is returned. The Shilluk practice pawn-marriage even before the girl has been born. This is accepted in times of extreme stress and difficulties.
As the ultimate end of every living mortal, the Shilluk accept and respect death. It is celebrated when it is for an elderly person or an important person passing. The head is shaved and the body is dressed according to status in society. A child or uninitiated male is buried without much ceremony.
An adult male is dressed in war regalia and the burial is accompanied by war dance and wailing by women, usually with mock war against the ‘jwok’ that is assumed to have ‘killed’ him. The chief is buried in a hut. The Räth is buried with much more paraphernalia. All in all, the body is lowered, lying on the right side with the head pointing to the east facing the open side of the grave, into a grove dug on the right side of the grave.
The burial ceremony is followed after a few weeks by a ritual which literally signifies removal of the name from among the living. Three months later a funeral rite is performed followed years later, depending on the economic situation of the family, by the last funeral rites after which the person is considered to have joined the ancestors. The funeral ceremony of the Räth is managed, performed and led within a few months by the anointed and succeeding Räth-elect.
The Chollo kingdom is made up of two principal political divisions : the north (Gar) and the south (Lwak). It is divided into 15 provinces each under the administration of a paramount chief directly responsible to the Räth, believed to be the incarnation of Nyikango and is sovereign combining political, administrative, judicial and spiritual power. The chiefs of Tungu (south) and Mwomo (north) are the most senior positions as they considered the fronts’ guards. The paramount chief has under his authority village or clan chiefs (jagi myer or, jagi-nyiräth).
There are chiefs of special functions e.g. the chiefs of the hippo called kwa-wang situated in Tungu and Mwomo ; the chief of Nile called lechwe (jangi gyek) in Panyikango. In each province, a military commander - bany - emerges by virtue of military prowess and valour but has no administrative functions or authority.
Coronation of the Räth
The Chollo system does not tolerate a prolonged power vacuum (wangi-yomo) following the passing of the sovereign. He is the law and order and therefore must be immediately replaced. The process of installation of the new Rath begins immediately once the council of chiefs (jagiwipadiwad) have met and decided on a choice.
To be chosen, the prince should have been born during the reign of his late father; should not have scars whatsoever on his body; should not be known to be a coward as he grew up under the supervision of the chief of the village in which he was brought up. The Räth elect - ororo - prepares for wowo (last funeral rites) of the late Räth and embarks on his own installation process. Once all the ritual items (Jami kwer) have been procured and Nyikango has accented to the choice of jagiwipadiwad, then the final stages of coronation (kwer rony) begin in earnest. It could take up to three months until the last day of the ceremony when all the chiefs pay their allegiance to the new Räth, assures the Shilluk nation, and then begin his reign throughout the Chollo Kingdom.
The royal regalia include: throne (kwom), skin of Nile lechwe , giraffe mane (yar wir), 2 silver bracelets (ateg), ostrich feathers (okwon wudo), royal spears, royal stick, beads made from ostrich shells (rek), and many others some of which remain in the special room (kaano). Räth Kwongo Dak Padiet is the reigning sovereign. He was installed as 34th Shilluk Rath in 1992.
The Räth reigns for life from Pachodo - established in about 1690 – 1710 as the kingdom’s headquarters and site for coronation of kings by Tugo wad Dhakodh. However, the reigning sovereign is expected to found his own village; and comes to Pachodo only when major decisions affecting the kingdom have to be taken. There was only one woman Räth in Shilluk history – Abudhok nya Bwoch who reigned from Thworo village. She is said to have decreed that no woman should ever be installed Räth since women did not respect her court.
The Installation of Shilluk Chiefs
The Shilluk chiefs derive their authority (lawo) from Pachodo. They are responsible and must report to Räth on all royal animal and birds, pertaining to their respective territories: human being if murdered (dhanho), Nile lechwe (gyek), crocodile (nyang), hippo (paar), giraffe (wir), elephant (liech), (yiel) leopard (kwach), ostrich (wudo), and red mouth stock (owango). Chiefs can be removed from office, as the position is elective and thereby open to competition. Once the Rath realises there is stiff competition, he orders elections with only male adults of that village or province (podho) allowed to cast their votes - lothigen. As a rule one can become a chief only after the death of one’s father.
The Shilluk recognise the existence of two spheres: the sphere of the spirits interacting with that of the living beings. There is the Supreme Being (jwok ayimo) with his home somewhere in the sky (pa-jwok) where people don’t do evil. There are also the spirits of the departed ancestors and relatives, whom one can address in times of distress and tribulations. The Shilluk believe that the ghost of somebody killed or murdered haunts the perpetrator.
The Shilluk society has evolved a material and political culture expressed in the institutions of the kingdom and the daily life activities, notwithstanding its oral nature. The kingdom rests on an elaborate system of traditions and practices that go back more than 500years. The royalty are addressed in a separate vocabulary.
The Shilluk are very particular about body cleanliness; the hair is constructed into two structures that give the impression of plates of hair on the head. They wear beads, and other decoration which include cutting dots on forehead and tattooing on the body. The Shilluk have developed music instruments: a kind of guitar (thom), flute made fom the horns of kudu (kang), (adalo), and drum (bul).
The Shilluk control and defence of the Nile channel promoted the evolution of a navy that used dug out canoes. They imported iron from the Nuba Mountains and Funj Kingdom for making spears (tong), axes (doro), knives (paalo) and hoes (kwer). The Shilluk have developed several and different types of dance: bul, thom, amagak, aya, etc., to mark different occasions. Their folklore is rich with fairy tales for children, quizzes, riddles, etc. Neighbours and Foreign Relations and Cooperation The Räth has had a moderating influence on the Shilluk and the cordial relations and mutual respect they have evolved with their neighbours: Salem Arabs in the north, Nuba in the west, Nuer in the south and Dinka and Funj in the east.
The location of the kingdom on the Nile has exposed the Shilluk to every danger that came with European and Arab incursions and aggression down the Nile: slavery and slave trade and the so-called modernity - Christianisation and Islamisation. Many have converted to Christianity (south) and Islam (north). Nevertheless, their allegiance remains with Pachodo. The war has displaced many Shilluk to north Sudan. This poses a serious threat to Shilluk traditions.
Small Shilluk communities have sprung up in USA, Canada, Britain and Australia as a result of displacement by war. Many are still in contact with their families back home.