20 Oct 2021

Anyuak (Anyuaa)

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The Name | Demography and Geography | Environment, Economy and Natural Resources | Mythology and History | Language | Society, Social Events, Attitudes, Customs and Traditions | Socio-Political Organisation | Spirituality, Beliefs and Customs | Culture: Arts, Music, Literature and Handicraft | Neighbours and Foreign Relations | Latest Developments | Diaspora | Further Readings

The Name

The people call themselves Anywaa; others particularly their neighbours simply know them as Anyuak.

Demography and Geography

The Anywaa-land originally was the stretch of territory extending along the Sobat River with its tributaries of Baro (draining western Ethiopia) and Akobo-Pibor.

This land extends into Gambella region and further to Ilemi Triangle in the south. Much of this land was lost to the Nuer migration in the 19th - 20th centuries; and what used to be Anywaa settlements e.g. Abwong, Adong, Akobo, etc. are now clearly Nuer or Dinka after the dispersal or assimilation of the Anywaa inhabitants. The Anywaa, who now number a little below the 100,000 live in Pochalla and Akobo Counties.

Environment, Economy and Natural Resources

Lying in the plains below the Ethiopian highlands, Anywaa land has the characteristics of marsh land, rich savannah forest and grassland with annual rainfall of about 800mm. This has tremendous influence on the economy and lifestyle of the Anywaa.

They are predominantly subsistence agriculturalists growing sorghum, maize, simsim, beans and tobacco. They raise cattle, goats and fowl, which are used for trade and sacrifices to the spirits. The cattle-raiding practice of their neighbours, the Murle, has discouraged them from keeping large herds of cattle.

Anywaa-land has a huge potential in wildlife especially large game such as elephants, buffaloes, etc. The annual migration of the white-ear cobs pass through Anywaa-land, which becomes a yearly source of proteins but has a huge potential for tourist attraction. There is also a potential for exploiting the shea nuts, acacia Senegalese (gum arabica) and lalob which are abound in the forests.

The Anywaa youth pan and extract gold nuggets and dust from the streams that drain the western Ethiopian highlands near Dima and Maji. The gold extracted is used for trade with Ethiopian highlanders or exchanged for dimuy – beads, used for settling marriages.

Mythology and History

The Anyuak account of their origin differs from that of the Shilluk. It is said that women, as they went to fetch water discovered a mysterious person with a kaak (fishing spear). The man would disappear into the river to avoid contact with the people. One day they managed to capture and bring him to the village.

His name was Ocwudho. He, however, would not talk, eat nor drink. Afraid that the stranger may die of hunger, Akango told his small daughter to look after him. She took water and food to him, which he drank and ate and developed a relationship with the girl.

It turned out later that the girl had conceived. When, he discovered that the girl was pregnant, he disappeared into the river leaving beads (ocwak, nyalo, garmuto and ganga) as gifts for the father of the girl.

The girl gave birth to Gilo, who is renowned as the great grandfather of the Anywaa nation. When the Anywaa Nyie (king) passed away a few years ago, he is said to have gone back into the river like Ocwudho.


The Anyuak speak dho-Anywaa, almost a 100% intelligible to the dhi-Pari, and very close to dhok-Chollo (Shilluk language) and dho-Luo of Bahr el Ghazal.

Society, Social Events, Attitudes, Customs and Traditions

The Anyuak society was originally divided into two large clans: Tung Goc and Tung Odolla, which were perpetually feuding and competing for dominance. The Anyuak settled in big villages along the Akobo and Baro as well as Gilo Rivers and there are several such villages. Each Anyuak village has a Nyie (king) or Kway-Luak (sub-chief) in control of the social and administrative matters of the village.

The Anyuak society is communal. It is obligatory to share resources and assist one another in times of famine and disease. The Anyuak engage in collective construction and building of the King''s royal palaces; the cultivation and weeding of his fields and gardens.

The Nyie obligates for these services by providing drink and food for which the people feast, dance and sing for several days in his home. Other social activities include hunting and fishing. However, the acquisition of fire arms has made hunting a solitary affair.

The Anyuak have no ceremonies attached either to birth, graduation into adulthood; nyako for girl and wadmara for the boy or marriage. The only custom linked to marriage is the payment of demuy (beads) and a few heads of cattle as dowry.

The bride stays in her parents’ home until the dowry or half of it has been paid, after which she moves to her husband. Sometimes a poor groom may raise up to two children with his wife while she is still staying with her parents.

The Nyie gives his daughters to wealthy grooms. Indeed, flirting with the Nyie’s daughter could invoke his wrath resulting in confiscation of one’s wealth or abduction of three girls from one’s village. Several (sometimes up to ten) Anyuak marriages could be broken by breaking one marriage in the line. The demuy have become rare, so they are circulated and hence could even come back to the original owner in the course of several marriages.

The Nyie does not die but returns to the river. When he discovers that he can no longer hold on, he announces to his court that he has already returned to the river so his anointed son remains with the people.The new Nyie is placed on the Ocwak (royal throne and bead). The deceased Nyie is buried in an ordinary way, since his spirit is assumed to have returned to where he came from.

People don’t cry, they instead beat the royal drums and blow the trumpets singing song of praise to the departed Nyie. Sometimes, a person would mention in praise of the Nyie all the materials things he received from him.

Socio-Political Organisation

The Anyuak kingdom used to be a federation of villages headed by an independent Nyie. These villages were constantly feuding among themselves for the control of the Ocwak – the royal throne and bead.
This state of insecurity prompted the British colonial administration to make Nyie Agada Akway king of kings ostensibly after the Ethiopian feudal system (Emperor Haile Sellasie, was king of Kings) rendering the Ocwak to permanently remain in his possession and protection (Adongo area has a huge army to protect the Ocwak).

All other Nyie come to his court to be put on Ocwak temporarily, for a few days depending on how much he trusted him, after the payment of three demuy. The Nyie has several kway luak or sub-chiefs who administer smaller villages.

Spirituality, Beliefs and Customs

The Anyuak are strongly religious and have strong beliefs in spirits to which one returns when one dies. One could communicate with the departed through a medium or when one becomes possessed by the spirit. The Anyuak attach important to "cien" or curse and "gieth" or blessing and the two create order in Anyuak society. For instance, before a man dies, he confides his will to somebody, who declares himself as the trustee of the will once the death is announced. Tradition has it that nobody can change or disobey the will of dead person.

Marriage is expected of every adolescent. He pays bride price in demuy, cattle and sometimes money. The tradition of money started with the Ethiopian Anyuak and has now become common due to the scarcity of the demuy.

Marriage to blood relatives and incest is abhorred such that the social stigma can force one to find ease by going to live in a far off place. The Anyuak have an attitude of keeping pure by not marrying from certain ethnic communities neighbouring them.

Naming: The Anyuak have typical first (Omot/Amot), second (Ojullo/Ajullo), third (Obang/Abang) and twin (Opieu/Apieu; Ochan/Achan; Okello/Akello) births with ‘O’ and ‘A’ connoting male and female respectively.

A child left in the womb by the death of the father is named Agwa; and Ochalla/Achalla stand for the child born for a dead brother. Beside these names, the Anyuak have many different and occasional names including names of the important personalities in the clan or communities as a whole.

Culture, Arts, Music, Literature and Handicraft

Anyuak literature is orally expressed in form of poems, songs, folktales, riddles and stories. These are handed over from generation to generation. The main music instruments included: thom (guitar), bul (large drum), tung (horn of kudu fitted with awal) (guard), odolla (small drum).

The Anyuak like other Nilotes have pany (hold in the ground for founding sorghum), lek (pole for founding) and lul (for winnowing of sorghum.) The Anyuak wear lots of beads and other artefacts like the tail of giraffe.

Neighbours and Relations with Foreigners

The Ajiebo (Murle), Nuar (Nuer), Dhuok (Suri), Galla (Oromo) and others neighbour the Anyuak. Their relations are far from cordial particularly with the Nuar who have perpetually pushed them to the east.

The Anyuak used to engage in slave raids on their neighbours. They sold their slaves to the Highlanders for firearms. This must have been the source of conflict between Nyie Akway Cham and the British colonial authorities in 1912.

Latest Developments

Nyie Adongo Agada was enthroned in 2001. In May 2003, a peace agreement between the Anyuak and the Murle was sealed in Otallo under the auspice of Nyie Adongo. This has stabilised the relationship with the Murle. The conflict in Gambella between the Anyuak and Ethiopian Highlanders is affecting the Anyuak in Pochalla and Akobo.


The war in Sudan and the demise of Mengistu in 1991 have pushed many Anyuak to seek resettlement in America, Europe and Australia. There is a large Anyuak Diaspora in Canada and USA.

Further Reading

E. E. Evans-Pritchard, ‘The political system of the Anyuak of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.’ SNR

Per Säfholm, ‘The River-Lake Nilotes – Politics of an African tribal group.’ Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Studia Sociologica Upsaliensia, Uppsala, 1973, pp 148 – 163

Conradin Perner , ‘The Anyuak – Living on Earth in the Sky.’ Volume I. The Sphere of Spirituality. Helbing & Lichtenhahn Verlag AG, Basel, 1994

Conradin Perner , ‘The Anyuak- Living on Earth in the Sky.’ Volume II. The Human Territory, Helbing & Lichtenhahn Verlag AG, Basel 1997.

Last updated at 5/17/2021