Dinka (Jieng, Muony-Jang)
The Name | Demography and Geography | Environment, Economy and Natural Resources | Mythology and History | The Language | Society: Social Events, Attitudes, Customs and Traditions | Marriage | Birth |Naming | Divorce | Relationships | Death |Social and Political Organisation, Traditional Authority, etc. | Spirituality, Belief and Customs | Culture: Arts, Music, Literature, Handicraft | Neighbours and Relationships | Latest Developments | Diaspora
The people call themselves Jieng (Upper Nile) or muonyjang (Bahr el Ghazal). The Nuer call them ‘Jiang’; Shilluk call them ‘Jango’; Arabs and Equatorians call them Jiengge; all stemming from Jieng.
Demography and Geography
The Dinka is the largest single national grouping in South Sudan. Numbering about 2.5 to 3 million and constituting of more than 25 aggregates of different Dinka sections (Wut). The Dinka are found in Bahr el Ghazal, Upper Nile and Southern Kordofan regions. Each Dinka section has a separate political entity with established rights to a well-defined territory. The main sections and sub-sections and their geographic locations include.
Geographical Location Section (s)
Aweil - Rek
Pangak -Thoi Luach
Bailiet - Ngok Renk
Bentiu - Ruweng
Bor - Bor, Twic, Nyarweng, Hol
Rumbek - Agar Gok
Tonj - Rek Luach
Gogrial - Rek
Yirol - Aliab, Ciec
Abyei - Ngok
Environment, Economy and Natural Resources
The Dinka habitat ranges from ironstone plateau of Bahr el Ghazal and the flood plains (toch) between the White Nile River and its numerous tributaries and distributaries to the rich savannah grasslands of Upper Nile. The economy is largely traditional animal husbandry, subsistence agriculture, fishing and hunting. Ownership of livestock is familial; and is a basis of social status/standing in society. The larger the herd the more prestigious the family. The Dinka land in western and northern Upper Nile and Abyei in southern Kordofan is endowed with huge petroleum reserves. Other natural resources include forest products such as shea nuts in Rumbek and Yirol, fisheries resources, etc.
Mythology and History
According to a myth held by many Dinka sections, the first people to be created by God (Nhialic) were Garang and Abuk, understood now as being the equivalent of Adam and Eve. Deng was their first born from whom all Dinka people are descended.
The Dinka language (Thong muonyjang or thong-Jieng) and its different variations (dialects) is spoken through Dinka land. Because of this variation it is not surprising that certain sections are unintelligible to others. The Rek of Tonj is said to be the standard Dinka language. The Dinka language relates to other Nilotic group of languages.
Dinka Society, Social Events, Attitudes, Traditions and Customs
The Dinka section is as an alliance of lineages that are bound by blood and other individuals or families who had attached themselves either by marriage or otherwise. The sections identify with a particular lineage originally derived from one of the main chiefly clans (beny), who are dominant and said to have the land of the section. They claim a single ancestor and base their right to political and religious superiority on some particular important myth about their descent.
The second category of clans, the members of which had no special hereditary religious functions, is called collectively kic (commoners). They vary considerably in size and area of distribution. The ‘commoner’ clans were scarcely regarded as wut, but as disunited families with no sense of a wider agnatic relationship .
The commoner clans among the Dinka are also described as koc tong (people of the war spear, or slaves) in relation to the chiefly clans who were koc bith (people of the fishing spear). This distinction however is one of culture, not of function . Among the Dinka the chief is believed to possess supernatural powers associated with truth-telling, justice, wealth, knowledge, and prophetic vision.
The Dinka are proud and ethnocentric but, nevertheless, hospitable and friendly more often than not demonstrating a high moral standard, code of behaviour, feeding mannerism and sense of personal dignity (dheeng) and integrity. They deal with others on the basis of reciprocity. The Dinka are least touched by modernisation; their pride and ethnocentrism must be important factors in their conservatism and resistance to change . Dinka culture is centred on cattle. It is the medium of exchange whether in marriage, payment of debts and blood price, or for sacrifices to the spirits and on major occasions and rites.
Every Dinka male is given an ox by his father, uncle or whoever is responsible for him. His ‘bull-name’ like other Dinka names also derive from colour of their cattle and a girl (Ayen, Yar, etc.) or a boy (Mayom, Mayen, Malith, etc.) could be named after the colour of the best ox (mayom, malith, mayen) or cow (ayen, yar) that was given in marriage by the father. Like other Nilotics, the Dinka have special names for twins: Ngor, Chan, Bol, etc. indicating being a twin.
The Dinka have large vocabulary for cattle, their colours and take great interest and pride in the art of making different conformations to which their horns can be trained to grow. When discussing, debating about anything or in a dance, a Dinka usually throws up his arms in imitation of the shape of the horns of ox.
Marriage is obligatory among the Dinka. Every male is expected to raise a family and can marry as many wives as possible. Relatives marry to the ghost of a male who died in infancy –many ‘ghost fathers’ exist among the Dinka.
The bride price differs from one Dinka section to the other. It ranges from some tens (Upper Nile) to a few hundreds (Bahr el Ghazal). In the same way the bride price is raised by the groom’s family – contribution, it is distributed accordingly (uncle to uncle, brother to brother, etc.) in the Bride’s clan.
Chief’s daughters fetch more cattle in the same way chief’s son is expected to pay more cattle for his wife. University graduates fetch more bride prices; a factor that is likely to positively affect enrolment of girls in schools. Like other Nilotics, sex among the Dinka is only for social reproduction. Thus, fornication is prohibited; adulterers are despised and heavily fined, sometimes this may be source of conflict and clan fighting. Incest is usually unimaginable and indeed abhorred.
Initiation into Adulthood
Initiation into adulthood takes different styles and ceremonies. They invariably remove the 4 lower canines as a sign of maturity. A girl’s physiological evolution and attainment of puberty is marked by celebration (usually by women) to demonstrate readiness for marriage. Some Dinka sections scarify the face to mark graduation into adulthood and age-group. In some, women of particular status have their faces scarified.
Social and Political Organisation
The Dinka are an acephalous nationality – a cultural rather than political federation of sub-nationalities. The concept of state and hence political institutions, structure and consequently authority does not exist among the Dinka. Each Dinka section is an autonomous political entity in itself.
Chieftainship is hereditary and holds the title of beny (plural bany), which translates into different things such as chief, expert, or military officer. The title always has an attribute in order to indicate the office, for example, beny de ring or beny rein (or riem) - Northern Dinka and beny bith in the remaining parts of the country. The word ring (or rem) probably refers to the supernatural power of the chief. Bith, on the other hand, is the sacred fishing-spear (unbarbed or un-serrated spear) as a symbol of office . The spiritual leaders (fishing spear chief, medicine women/men, and Deng’s chiefs) exert great influence. Except in few cases, the spiritual leaders more often reject secular authority. Dinka chiefs exercised authority by persuasion not through any known instruments of coercion and force.
Spirituality and Beliefs
The sphere of the living and the dead (ghosts) interact. Tradition permits addressing God and the spirits of the departed ancestors and relatives either directly or through a medium in a special offering place yik, situated in every Dinka homestead.
Dinka Culture, Arts and Material Culture
The most important culture asset of the Dinka is the cattle camp, where all social activities; traits and behaviours including dheeng, valour, generosity and respect for social norms are cultivated. Dinka literature remains orally expressed in songs, poems, and folklore.
The different Dinka sections have evolved their different articles of arts, music and folklore. There are of course many different types of dance formations and songs. The common art is that of war: spear and stick. The Dinka start practicing stick and spear duelling with great dexterity from their youth.
Relationship with Neighbours and Foreigners
The Dinka have cultural and linguistic affinity to and share much with the Nuer and Shilluk to whom they refer to in their names. The Dinka refer to other peoples as foreigners (jur) and the colour of the skin is the only distinction. ‘Jur chol’ refer to black foreigners and jur mathiang or buony refer to light skin people .
Modernity and foreign ideas have permeated Dinka culture and are slowly replacing their traditions and customs. Many Dinka have converted to Christianity and Islam - in Ngok and Abialang. They have adopted either jellabia or European dress and now nudity and wearing of skins are rare sight even in the cattle camps.
Like other nationalities in south Sudan, the Dinka have been affected by war. Many of have been displaced and live either as internally displaced persons (IDPs) or as refugees in the neighbouring countries. This has had influence on the social fabric, traditions and attitudes. In Bahr el Ghazal, Dinka interaction with war and its exigencies has resulted in use of their revered cattle in agricultural production.
Many have become traders trekking hundreds of kilometres to Uganda and Congo to sell their bulls and bring back consumer goods. International humanitarian and development aid inputs; the monetisation of economy and motorisation of transport are slowly but steadily prompting changes in the lives of the Dinka.
The war has created a Dinka Diaspora in Europe, America (Lost Boys) and Australia. Some in the Diaspora maintain strong links and communication with their family members back home; making regular remittances to support them.
Report and articles in the colonial official communication papers: Sudan Notes and Records since 1918.
Seligman, C. G., and Seligman, B. Z., ‘Pagan Tribes of the Nilotic Sudan.’ George Routledge & Sons Ltd., London, 1932. Lienhardt, Godfrey, “The Western Dinka”, in Tribes without Rulers, ed. John Middleton and David Tait. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., London, 1958
Lienhardt Godfrey, ‘Divinity and Experience, the Religion of the Dinka’. Oxford University Press, London, 1961. Gray, Richard, ‘A History of the Southern Sudan, 1839 – 1889’. Oxford University Press, London, 1961.
Swakins, John. ‘Jangara’. Longmans, London, 1963. Deng, Francis Mading. ‘Tradition and Modernisation.’ Yale University Press, New Haven, 1971, and Second edition 2004. Deng, Francis Mading. ‘The Dinka of the Sudan.’ Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc., New York, 1972.
Deng, Francis Mading. ‘The Dinka and their Songs.’ Oxford University Press, London, 1973.
Deng, Francis Mading. ‘African of two Worlds.’ Yale University Press, New Haven, 1978.
Collins, Robert O., ‘Land beyond the Rivers, the Southern Sudan, 1898 – 1918.’ Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1971. John Ryle, ‘Warriors of the White Nile, The Dinka.’ Peoples of the World, Time-Life Books, Amsterdam, 1982.