The Toposa are an ethnic group in South Sudan, living in the Greater Kapoeta region of the erstwhile Eastern Equatoria state. They have traditionally lived by herding cattle, sheep and goats, and in the past were involved in the ivory trade. They have a tradition of constant low-level warfare, usually cattle raids, against their neighbors.
During the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983–2005) the Toposa helped the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) at times, and at other times helped the Government of Sudan. After the war, sporadic clashes with neighboring tribes continued. The Toposa way of life is slowly being modernized and traditional social organization is eroding.
The Toposa people number about 700,00 to 750,000. They are found in Kapoeta County, east bank Equatoria. Their most important settlements and villages are Kapoeta, Riwoto, Narus, Kauto, Naita, Mogos, Lamurnyang and Karukomuge.
Toposa land has rugged topography with hills and ridges cut by shallow plains and seasonal streams. It is arid with very little vegetation of shrubs and short grass. This environment has greatly influenced Toposa’s mode of social production plasticizing transhumance. The economy and social life centres around livestock mainly cattle, camels, donkeys, goats and sheep. They pan gold and other precious minerals in stream beds. The area has high potential in minerals resources.
The Toposa language is a Nilotic language. It belongs to the Turkana group, which also includes Karamojong of Uganda, Nyangatom of Ethiopia and Turkana of Kenya. The Turkana and Toposa languages are so close that they are mutually intelligible. Other names for the Toposa language are Akara, Kare, Kumi, Taposa and Topotha.
The Toposa economy and social life revolves around herding livestock, including cattle, camels, donkeys, goats and sheep. The Toposa also pan for gold and other precious minerals in the stream beds. Boys are first given care of goats and sheep, then graduate to looking after cattle when they come of age. They may travel considerable distances seeking water and pasturage. Possession of cattle, along with possession of a loaded gun, are the main measures of status and wealth. Cattle are central to Toposa culture. The Toposa have always competed for water and pasturage with their neighbors, and have always engaged in cattle rustling. The traditional Toposa weapon was a long throwing spear, used in raids in conjunction with a shield. The attacker would run forward zigzagging to dodge missiles, hurl his spear and then retreat, ready to ambush a pursuing enemy.
The Toposa share the habit of constant low-level warfare, mainly to capture cattle, with their neighbors. According to P.H. Gulliver, writing in 1952, "Turkana made war on all their neighbours with the exception of the Jie, with whom they occasionally allied themselves against the Karamajong and the Dodoth. Karamajong similarly made war on all their neighbors with the exception of the Dudoth, with whom they occasionally allied themselves against the Jie. Jie claim friendship with the Toposa, but since they have no common boundaries this would have been of little importance. Toposa and Donyiro did not fight each other, and are known to have formed an alliance against the Turkana. Toposa and Jiye were enemies".
Women are expected to remain at home farming, cooking, raising children and caring for the elderly. This division of labour can be inefficient. When an NGO introduced ox cultivation, at first they decided it would be easier to have men undertake the ploughing, although cultivation was women's work, than to have women intrude into the men's world of animal husbandry. Later they decided that women should be allowed to plough, but councils of elders rejected the notion. However, Toposa elders have limited power and the NGO went ahead and trained some women in ox ploughing, mostly widows and orphans. The experiment ended in 1985 when rebel forces arrived in the area, a disaster the elders naturally attributed to letting women manage cattle.
There is no clear political organization among the Toposa, although respect is paid to elders, chiefs and wise men. Most decisions about the clan or community are made in meetings attended only by the men, traditionally held in the dark hours before the dawn. Matters of war and peace are decided by the sections councils of the elders, and the elders have sacral power over rain and drought. Captain King, a soldier of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium who conquered the Toposa and ruled them for sixteen years, wrote: "There seems no doubt that prior to the advent of the Abyssinians even the idea of 'the Chief' was entirely unknown to the Topotha; the affairs of section and nation were regulated by the leaders of the ruling class, next but one above the warrior class... Gifted individuals such as Tuliabong or Lotukol, himself an elder, might by their force of character or prowess come to exercise unusual sway; but this was purely personal and there was no concept of it passing on his death to his son".
The Toposa believe in a supreme being and in ancestral spirits, who may assist in overcoming problems such as drought or epidemics of disease among their herds. They believe that men originally lived with "Nakwuge" in the sky, but many slid down a rope to earth. The rope then broke, separating them from heaven. As of 2000, perhaps 5% of the population could read. The Toposa culture is orally transmitted through songs, dance, music, poems and folklore. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Torit has been actively proselytizing among the Toposa, with some success.
The Toposa are part of a larger group known as the Ateker cluster, which in the Sudan include the Toposa, Nyangatom and Jiye; The Turkana across the borders in Kenya; the Jie, Dodoth and Karamojong in Uganda. The Toposa people believe that they originated and moved away from the Losolia Mountains in Uganda due to severe drought that had killed both people and animals.
Toposa tradition has it that they are descendants of Lopita or the Paring’a who shared common ancestry with the Murle, Turkana and Karamojong. According to the Toposa the story runs as such: They were moving in waves. The first people to arrive Losolia cheated the other groups who arrived late and found that the first group had taken the meat leaving only soup. This precipitated the split and separation.
The Toposa speak ‘Toposa’ language very similar to the Jiye and Nyangatom languages also related to Turkana , Dodoth and Karamojong.
The Toposa society is organised into agnatic lineages of which the family form the small unit. The Toposa social values and customs are passed onto the children as early as possible . It has to do with accumulation and keeping large herds of cattle.
The boys are organised as age-sets learn from their fathers and taught how to herd their livestock. Their first task is to take care of the goats and sheep but as they become of age, they graduate to a higher task of looking after the cattle. They then can travel distances looking for greener pasture and water. The girls on the other hand are taught to look after the home, the farms and to care for the elderly and children.
The Toposa abhor the practice of circumcision and indeed despise any circumcised person. They also do not accept and frown upon the idea of head count of humans and animals.
The social events which bring the Toposa together in happiness and sorrow include dances, marriage celebrations, funerals and cattle raids. They share certain totems and body marks.
They Toposa adults attend meetings, gatherings and functions in which important decisions concerning the clan or whole community are made. Women and children are kept at a distance while the men discuss the people’s affairs.
Tradition has it that important matters are discussed and decision made in the early hours of the morning before sun rise. Respect for elders is mandatory for the younger generations.
The Toposa society has no clear political organisation. Indeed the chiefs, sub-chiefs, elders, fortune-tellers, medicine men, witch-doctors wield administrative and spiritual powers.
The Toposa do not have an elaborate religious belief. They however believe in the existence of a Supreme Being and the spirits of the departed ancestors. They pray and make sacrifices for these spirits as they communicate with them through a medium. This is done in case of serious disaster e.g. droughts, epizootics affecting their animals, etc. The Toposa believe that the chiefs, particularly the paramount chiefs are nearer to God by virtue of their wisdom.
The Toposa culture is orally transmitted through songs, dance, music, poems and folklore. Being pastoralists, they have perfected their art of war and cattle raiding. They are able to spy and gather information about the enemy, water, pastures, etc. with precision. The young men take great care and beauty of their hair.
The Toposa neighbour their kins - the Nyangatom - to the east, - Jiye, Murle, Kachipo - to the north, - Pari, Boya and Didinga - to the west and south west and - the Turkana - to the south. Cattle rustling and competition over the scarce resources of water and pasture has determined the relations between the Toposa and their neighbours. The Toposa cooperate with the government in Kapoeta only when that cooperation addresses and satisfies their interest and concern for security.
The successive governments in Khartoum and Juba have marginalised and kept the Toposa people at arms length. At some point they cooperated with the government for the recapture of Kapoeta but later changed sides.
Social services in health, veterinary, water wells, and education have been extended to the Toposa that they have access to medical care, clean water and many of their children are now attending schools in Narus and Natinga. War and modernity is fast eroding the traditional social fabric.
The introduction and easy availability of light weapons and small arms have a great impact on the life of the Toposa. The catholic Diocese of Torit is trying against odds to proselytise among the Toposa.