The People of Northern Bahr el Ghazal State
Dinka & Luo in Northern Bahr el Ghazal
The Dinka is the largest single national grouping in Northern Bahr el Ghazal followed by the Luo. According to a myth held by many Dinka section in Northern Bahr El Ghazal, 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 descended.
The Dinka language (Thong muonyjang or thong-Jieng) is the language being spoken in Northern Bahr El Ghazal. Arabic is also spoken by some sections of the population.
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 other relationships. 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 kit (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 hundred (Bahr el Ghazal). In the same way the bride price is raised by the groom’s family – through 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 a 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 a source of conflict and clan fighting. Incest is usually unimaginable and indeed abhorred.
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.
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.
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 home.
The most important cultural asset of the Dinka is the cattle camp, where all social activities; traits and behaviors 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 dueling with great dexterity from their youth.
The Dinka have cultural and linguistic affinity to and share much with the Luo in Northern Bahr el Ghazal.
Modernity and foreign ideas have permeated Dinka culture and are slowly replacing their traditions and customs. Many Dinka have converted to Christianity and Islam - . 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 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 Luo in Northern Bahr El Ghazal
Demography and Geographic Location
The Luo number 55,410, according to the 2008 census. The Jo-Luo are found in Barmayen, Aroyo County of Aweil State. Their main settlement is Aroyo County.
The land is rocky, fertile and covered by thick forests. The Jo-Luo society is sedentary agriculturalist, but individuals keep few cattle, goats, sheep and fowl. Important economic activities include bee-keeping, fishing, hunting and crop cultivation.
The main crops are sorghum, simsim, groundnuts, maize, cassava, sweet potatoes and beans. In the past, they used to produce iron products: hoes, spears, arrows, which they traded with their neighbours. Tradition has it that the Jo-Luo are part of the larger Luo family made up of Shilluk, Anyuak, Acholi and the Luo in Kenya. The claim to have come from Anyuak though they live in Bahr el Ghazal. The Luo people speak Luo Language but still some of them speak Dinka and Arabic.
Jo-Luo marriage is arranged according to seniority at birth. The eldest son marries first before others. The boy and girl enter into an oath (otoya) which they pledge to remain together in good or bad times. The two exchange their beads. A ceremony is performed with the ear of a goat - brought by the parents of the boy - is cut and with a bead, is tied around their necks. The Jo-Luo pay dowry according to the capacity and ability of the suitor. In the past it used to be in form of beads, hoes, spears, axes, and other iron products. But in recent times, it varies from 16 cows, 30 goats to about 500,000 Sudanese Dinars.
At delivery the girl (woman) is required to confess (kwano) all the sexual relationships she had as a girl. The reason being that the child could die if the father did not know his wife’s ex-friends. Naming of the new born is performed with a ceremony 3 (boy) and 4 (girl) days after birth.
In this ceremony the elders feast and shout some important traits they wish for the baby. For the boy they would wish him courage, valour, hard-work, good hunting, cultivation signified by hoe, spear bow and arrow.
For the girl they wish her good housekeeping, caring for the children, taking good care of husband and relatives. The first born child is named after the grandfather (boy) or maternal grandmother (girl). Other names describe the situation of the parents or the environment of birth.
Death is mourned and this differs with age. For a young person people may mourn for 3 days. The relatives slaughter a goat and the old women tidy-up the grave. In the case of older persons, the people beat the war drum. They dance for 3 days praising (mwoch) the departed and his ancestors.
After 4 years the family conducts funeral rites and a bull is slaughtered as a sacrifice. A widow co-habits (lak) with any of the close relatives she chooses until the children have come of age. The Jo-Luo people have ghost fathers, probably adopted from the Dinka.
In the past the Jo-Luo used to have kings (Ruot) and the strongest persons (Jaa) in the village. Now they have executive chiefs, sub-chiefs, group leaders or elders whose function in society is conflict resolution and keeping harmony in the community.
The culture of Jo-Luo is essentially oral. It is transmitted in song, music, dance and other bodily expressions. Dance and songs are very important in Luo culture and one distinguishes oneself through them. They perform funeral/war dance (gumo) for the departed elders.
The Luo have several dances, and have perfected the art of making whistles and their sounds for different occasions. The Jo-Luo people are famous for iron smelting and they produce hoes, axes, spears and arrows. Their handicrafts include baskets, mats, pottery and chairs.
Most of the Luos are in neighbouring Kenya.