Location: The Dinka are a group of several closely related peoples living in southern Sudan along both sides of the White Nile. They cover a wide area along the many streams and small rivers, concentrated in the Upper Nile province in southeast Sudan and across into southwest Ethiopia.
Identity: The Dinka are one of the branches of the River Lake Nilotes. Though known for centuries as Dinka, they actually call themselves Moinjaang, â€œPeople of the people.â€ The more numerous Southern Luo branch includes peoples throughout central Uganda and neighboring sections of Zaire and the lake area of western Kenya. The Dinka peoples still live near the hot and humid homeland of the River-Lake Nilotes. They are the largest ethnic group in southern Sudan. The Dinka groups retain the traditional pastoral life of the Nilotes, but have added agriculture in some areas, growing grains, peanuts, beans, corn (maize) and other crops. Women do most of the agriculture, but men clear forest for the gardening sites. There are usually two plantings per year. Some are fishers. Their culture incorporated strategies for dealing with the annual cycle of one long dry season and one long rainy season.
The Dinka are split into twenty or more tribal groups which are further divided into sub-tribes, each occupying a tract of land large enough to provide adequate water and pasture for their herds.
Corseted Dinka Man, Sudan Besides cattle, the most coveted possession of a Dinka man is an intricately beaded corset. This corset is sewn on tightly and worn until marriage. The height of the beaded wire at the back indicates that the wearer comes from a family rich in cattle.
The Dinka have lived pretty much on their own, undisturbed by the political movements in their area. They did fight the Ottoman Turks when they were ruling Sudan. They have periodically had clashes with neighboring peoples, such as the Atuot, with whom they have fought over grazing areas. They have not been active in national politics.
Before the coming of the British the Dinka did not live in villages, but traveled in family groups living in temporary homesteads with their cattle. The homesteads might be in clusters of one or two all the way up to 100 families. Small towns grew up around British administrative centers. Each village of one or more extended families is led by a leader chosen by the group.
Traditional homes were made of mud walls with thatched conical roofs, which might last about 20 years. Only women and children sleep inside the house, while the men sleep in mud-roofed cattle pens. The homesteads were located to enable movement in a range allowing year-round access to grass and water. Permanent villages are now built on higher ground above the flood plane of the Nile but with good water for irrigation. The women and older men tend crops on this high ground while younger men move up and down with the rise and fall of the river.
Polygamy is allowed among the Dinka, though many men may have only one wife. The Dinka must marry outside their clan (exogamy), which promotes more cohesion across the broader Dinka group.
A â€œbride wealthâ€ is paid by the groomâ€™s family to finalize the marriage alliance between the two clan families. Levirate marriage provides support for widows and their children. All children of co-wives are raised together and have a wide family identity. Co-wives cook for all children, though each wife has a responsibility for her own children.
RIGHTS OF PASSAGE – INITIATION
Initiation marks a young man’s passage from boyhood to adulthood. An initiate is called a parapool – “one who has stopped milking”. Initiation means he no longer does a boy’s work of milking, tethering the cattle, and carting dung. Initiation is marked by mutilation – tribal marks of several parallel lines or V-shaped marks – are scarified onto the youth’s forehead. The pattern of scars may change over time but the parapuol is always easily recognisable as belonging to a particular tribe. This scarification takes place at any age from ten to sixteen. Initiates are warriors, guardians of the camp against predators – lions, hyenas – and against enemy raiders. Some stay with the cattle all year round. All of them stay with the cattle during the dry months but most return to the villages to help cultivate the crops during the wet season. Even in this duty, the parapuol have the role of warrior protectors. The cattle, protected by the parapuol who remain with them, are kept in camps on the plains at the base of the foothills for the entire wet season.
Photo by Foto Morgana
Initiation occurs around harvest time. The night before the ceremony the boys come together to sing the songs of their clans. Their heads have already been shaved in preparation for the initiation ritual itself. At dawn, they are collected by their parents and taken to where the ceremony will take place. After receiving a blessing, the boys take their places in a row, sitting cross-legged, the rising sun behind their backs. As the initiator comes to each boy in turn, he calls out the names of his ancestors. The initiator clasps the crown of the boy’s head firmly and spins it past the blade of an extremely sharp knife. After the first cut, the initiator makes the second and third, etc., whatever the clan pattern of scars might be. The cuts are deep, in fact skulls have been found that have the scars visible on the bony forehead. The initiate, psyched up by a night of clan song-singing, looks straight ahead and continues to recite the names of his ancestors.
This is the moment he has been waiting for; when he joins the ranks of the warriors and puts aside the lowly status of boyhood and the demeaning chores it represents, and takes on the status of warrior, with all the privileges and honour this brings. His initiation scars declare him to be a warrior and a man, and therefore brave and proud. To flinch or scream during the initiation ritual would be to deny his own courage and therefore to disgrace his family and his ancestors. A kink in his initiation scars would brand him a coward, visible for all to see.
When all initiates have been ritually scarred, their fathers wipe the blood from their sons’ eyes and mouths, then wrap a broad leaf around their foreheads. Initiation scars mean that a man is able to marry – the parapuol may now begin to court eligible girls. The boys are presented with a spear, a club and a shield – necessary accoutrements of a warrior. There is great rejoicing within the group, with singing and dancing going on for several days. After his initiation, a parapuol is given an oxen, his “song oxen”. It is his most precious possession and he will lavish care on it, even to the extent of delicately training its horns into unusual, often asymmetrical, shapes.(http://www.ptc.nsw.edu.au/scansw/dinka.htm)
Girls learn to cook, but boys do not. Cooking is done outdoors in pots over a stone hearth. Men depend upon women for several aspects of their life, but likewise the division of labor assigns certain functions to the men, such as fishing and herding, and the periodic hunting. After initiation to adulthood, the social spheres of the genders overlap very little. The basic food is a heavy millet porridge, eaten with milk or with a vegetable and spice sauce. Milk itself, in various forms, is also a primary food.
The Dinka wear few clothes, particularly in their own village. Adult men may be totally nude except for beads around the neck or wrist. The women commonly wear only goatskin skirts, but unmarried adolescent girls will typically be nude. Clothes are becoming more common. Some men will be seen in the long Muslim robe or short coat. They own very few material possessions of any kind.
Personal grooming and decoration are valued. The Dinka rub their bodies with oil made by boiling butter. They cut decorative designs into their skin. They remove some teeth for beauty and wear dung ash to repel mosquitoes. Men dye their hair red with cow urine, while women shave their hair and eyebrows, but leave a knot of hair on top of the head.
The major influence formerly was exercised by â€œchiefs of the fishing spearsâ€ or â€œspear masters.â€ This elite group provided health through mystical power. Their role has been eradicated due to changes brought about by British rule and the modern world. Their society is egalitarian, with no class system. All people, wealthy or poor, are expected to contribute to the common good.
The primary art forms are poetry and song. There are certain types of songs for different types of activities of life, like festive occasions, field work, preparation for war and initiation ceremonies. History and social identity are taught and preserved through songs. They sing praise songs to their ancestors and the living. Songs are even used ritually in competition to resolve a quarrel in a legal sense. Women also make pottery and weave baskets and mats. Men are blacksmiths, making all sorts of implements.
The Dinka lifestyle centres on their cattle: the people’s roles within the groups, their belief systems and the rituals they practice, all reflect this. Cattle give milk (butter and ghee), urine is used in washing, to dye hair and in tanning hides. Dung fuels fires from which ash is used to keep the cattle clean and free from blood-sucking ticks, to decorate the Dinka themselves (body art), and as a paste to clean teeth. While cattle are not killed for meat, if one dies or is sacrificed, the meat is eaten and the hide cured. Skins are used for mats and drum skins, and belts, ropes and halters are also made from it. Horns and bones are used for a range of practical and aesthetic items.
Religion: The Dinka believe in a universal single God, whom they call Nhialac. They believe Nhialac is the creator and source of life but is distant from human affairs. Humans contact Nhialac through spiritual intermediaries and entities called yath and jak which can be manipulated by various rituals. These rituals are administered by diviners and healers. They believe that the spirits of the departed become part of the spiritual sphere of this life. They have rejected attempts to convert them to Islam, but have been somewhat open to Christian missionaries. Cattle have a religious significance. They are the first choice as an animal of sacrifice, though sheep may be sacrificed as a substitute on occasion. Sacrifices may be made to yath and jak, since Nhialac is too distant for direct contact with humans.
ABOUT SAHARAN VIBE
Welcome! Karibuni! Isibingelelo! Kushe! Akwaba! to Saharan Vibe. The darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it. Saharan vibe will strive to be your source on all that is African bringing African news to a global audience. From Cairo to the Cape of Good Hope, Africa encompasses 53 nations, nearly a billion people and more than 800 distinct ethnic groups. From the arts, the culture, entertainment, politics join me on a safari as we explore a remarkable people and their distinctive way of life and in the celebration of African life.
SAHARAN VIBE: DINKA OF SUDAN.