20 Oct 2021

Nuer (Naath)

community map
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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 Name

The Nuer are believed to have separated - at a certain stage in the past - from the Dinka but in their latter development and migration assimilated many Dinka in their path.
‘Nei ti Naath’ which translates simply into ‘people’, is the second largest nationality in South Sudan.

In the beginning of the 19th century the Naath started to migrate and expand eastwards across the Nile and Zeraf rivers. This was done at the expense of, and more often than not, conquest and assimilation of their neighbours (most the Dinka, Anyuak and Maban).

The Naath now dominate large parts of Upper Nile extending from River Zeraf through Lou to Jikany areas on the River Baro and Pibor rivers. Nuer expansion pushed into western Ethiopia displacing the Anyuak more to the highlands.

Demographic and Geographic Distribution

District Major Section Sub Sections Clans
Bentiu  Bul Gok 
 Dok The Naath who number approximately 2 million are to be found as a federation of sections and clans in western (Bentiu), central (Pangak and Akobo) and in eastern (Nasir) Upper Nile. With the river Nile as the principal geographic dividing line, nei ti Naath Ciang (homeland Nuer) and 'nei ti Naath Door' (wilderness Nuer) form the first level federal division of the 'rool Naath' (the Nuer land).

Environment, Economy and Natural Resources

Most of Naath homeland is located in the swamp areas of Upper Nile. The influence of the environment on the lifestyle of the Naath is obvious. Naath are sedentary (although individual families domicile in solitary settlements) are agro-pastoralists balancing subsistence agriculture with cattle herding – Naath keep large herds, fishing and hunting.

The main crops are sorghum, maize (Jikany most probably adopted from the Anyuak) and tobacco. However, the Lou demonstrate yearly transhumance. The arid nature of their homeland in central Upper Nile dictates their dry season migration to the Sobat basin or to Zeraf basin precipitating feuds with Jikany (fishing rights), Gawaar and Dinka, respectively.
Western Nuer homeland is imbued with enormous deposits of petroleum. The discovery, development and exploitation of this natural resource is more of a curse to the Naath than a blessing. It is the cause of immense humanitarian disruption and destruction unprecedented in Naath history. Other natural resources potential include wildlife, fisheries, acacia senegaleise (gum arabica), and balantines aegyptiucm (laloob).

Mythology and History

The Naath rose as a separate people (from the Dinka) in Bull area at the beginning of the 18th century under circumstances that continue to inform today their mutual prejudices and relations with the Jieng.
The myth, which has several variants, runs that both Naath and Jieng were sons of the same man, who had promised that he would give the cow to Jieng and its young calf to Naath. Jieng because of his cunning and intelligence deceived their father and took the calf instead of the cow therefore provokingl Naath’s perpetual contempt and disregard for the Jieng up to today.


Thok Naath – Nuer language is spoken all over the rool Naath. Being Nilotic, thok Naath is very close to the Jieng and Chollo languages. In fact, the Chollo and Jieng may have the same word 'cen' or 'cingo' (hand) the Naath calls it 'tet'. On the other hand the Naath and Chollo agree on 'wic' (head) while the Jieng call it 'nhom' and so on. The closeness of the language lays credence to the theory that the Naath, Jieng and Chollo have a common origin in time and space.

Society, Social Events, Attitudes, Customs and Traditions

Naath remove the 4 incisors and 4 lower canines as a sign of maturity for 'dholni' (children) of both sexes. However, initiation into 'wut' (adulthood) which is usually cutting 5 to 6 parallel lines across the forehead is undertaken among dhol (boys) of the same age, which like in other Nilotic groups form them into a 'ric' (age set).
The nyal and wut are now ready for marriage, which is prohibited among blood relatives or kins. Marriage is settled in cattle, whose numbers vary from section to the other but ranges from between 35 to 45 on average.

Political Organisation and Structure

The Naath political organisation and structure could be categorised as a confederation of independent and autonomous sections and clans. According to Säfholm, “the organising principle within the Nuer political structure, which gives it conceptual consistency and a certain measure of actual cohesion… is in the status of the diel. Its unity is expressed in the idiom of lineage and clan affiliation. Thus dominant clans have the greater political importance.”

The political life of a village and the organisation of the cattle camps are in the hands of the 'gaat tuot' – elders of the dominant clan. A rul could become a 'tutni' if he wielded prowess through influence and speech or wealth. Nevertheless, tutni belonging to the dominant clan wields more influence in the political system. The Naath clans have no hereditary leadership; a senior lineage does not rank higher than others; there is no father of the clan; and there is no council of elders. However, the leadership of a localised lineages such as cieng, is hereditary.

Indeed personal qualities including lineage, age, seniority in family, large number of wives and children, marriage alliances, wealth in cattle, prowess as a warrior in youth, skill in debate and some ritual powers combine to produce a social personality who is regarded as 'kuar' or 'tut wec' (leader) of the village or camp.

Other Naath political offices include: war general or expert - 'gwan muot'; the custodian of the land – 'kuar muon'. In fact, the importance of kuar muon is demonstrated in his authority over cases of murder, incest, and other important disputes. An elaborate system of administrative elected chiefs: head chiefs, court presidents, and sub-chiefs have evolved in Nuer land since 1932.

Spirituality, Beliefs and Customs

The Naath believe in Kuoth (God) the creator but like others, believers in the traditional systems of beliefs have not systematised these beliefs. The Naath prophets arose and left their mark on the Naath nation. Ngundeng, who rose in Lou, remains the most revered.
Younger and less important prophets have arose with the last one who left an impact being wud Nyang (1991-1993).

Culture: Arts, Music, Literature and Handicraft

Naath arts, music and literature like in most unwritten culture are orally transmitted over generations in songs, stories and folktales. The Naath are rich is songs, and folktales. Naath articles of arts and music include 'thom' and 'bul', which are similar to those of other Nilotics. Their articles for self-defence include different types of ket (stick) mut (spear). A man carries goh or gok (charcoal and tobacco bags) and a 'thiop kom'.

The different Naath sections have evolved their different dances: 'buul' performed during the early afternoon especially for marriages; dom-piny (a hole in the ground covered with a skin) is performed during the night where wut and nyal court themselves. Of the most important handcraft the Naath have developed is the dieny (basket for carrying everything including children when on a long journey).

Naath cultural initiatives that have now become Sudanese national cultural heritage is the Mound of Ngundeng at wic Deang in Lou.

Neighbours and Foreign Relations and Co-operation

With strong and powerful neighbours the Naath can maintain peace and harmony with their neighbours. The Naath have cordial relations with the Tet (Chollo) from whom they have intermarried with. Naath cherish independence and freedom including freedom to invade others and take over their property, which makes for uneasy and sometimes violent relations with Dinka and Anyuak. They abhor anything that insults their sense of homeland for instance at their initial contacts with the Arabs and Turks, the Naath took offence of Muslim prayers in their land.

Latest Development in rool Naath

Modernity, monetary economy, war, discovery of oil have had profound impact on the Naath traditional ways. Increased violence has resulted in massive displacements and movements of people that out of necessity have resulted in some positive change in attitudes and perceptions.


There is a large Naath Diaspora in North America and Australia. Like the seasonal labour migration to northern Sudan, this could be temporary because most of the Naath in the Diaspora are still intimately attached to their home and are likely to return now that peace is back in South Sudan.

Further Reading

Recent Books on the Nuer written by:
Douglas Johnson
Hutchington Sharon
Hutchington Sharon & Jok Madut
E. E. Evans-Pritchard, ‘Kingship and Marriage among the Nuer.’ Calrednon Press, Oxford. 1951

Seligman, C. G., and Seligman, B. Z., ‘Pagan Tribes of the Nilotic Sudan.’ George Routledge & Sons Ltd., London, 1932. 

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