The Nuer traditional Time: Social life and Culture

By Peter Reat Gatkuoth

November 17, 2010 (SSNA) — The Nuer (Naath) people in South Sudan are one of the largest ethnic groups in the northeastern Africa which stretches from Egypt for 2000 km and westward from the Red Sea for 1500km. They are the second largest tribe in South Sudan, numbering over one and half million people. Principally, the Nuer inhabits the swamps and expansive open grassland on either side of the Nile River, and its tributaries in the Southern part of Sudan. Although these people have never had a kingdom and have no technological skills, they are internationally known for their strong individualistic personality, routed in an egalitarian philosophy with social order maintained by community value, culture and lineage system. Therefore, the scope of this analysis will explore and focus primarily on the beliefs, marriage and lineage system or culture in general.

The Nuer (Naath) people are an extremely religious people whose beliefs can be summarized by the word Kuoth (God). “Kuoth (God) is an all-encompassing God associated with the sky, but is always present in all things, living and dead, and is also associated with many spirits; and the spirit form of Nuer tradition.” In the Nuer culture, Kuoth (God) “supplies explanation for phenomena which cannot be explained in everyday life.” Because of the fact that it is accepted without question, the Nuer have difficulty of explaining Kuoth (God) because of “its abstract nature and the fact that it’s used to generalize the spirits of who possesses people.” Kuoth (God) is always given the role of creator, and is said to be the origin of the ancestors.

The Nuer people, however, were traditionally sophisticated enough to adhere to the concepts of “aliveness” which include the notion of a soul or spirits residing in the object. They treat the objects they consider animate as if these things had a life, feeling, and a will of their own, but “did not make a distinction between the body of an object and soul that could enter or leave it.” The reverence that Nuer people in Sudan grant to deceased relatives is based on believing that in dying, they have become powerful spiritual being or “even admittedly less frequently to have attained the status of gods.” This is usually based on the belief that ancestors are active members of society, and still interested in the affairs of their living relatives.

The cult of ancestors is certainly common although not universal and has been particularly well documented in many African societies. In general, “ancestors are believed to wield a greater authority, having special powers to influence the course of events or to control the well-being of their living relatives.” They are often considered as the “intermediaries between the supreme God, the people and they can communicate with the living through dreams and by possession.” The attitude toward them is one of mixed tear and reverence and If neglect, the ancestors in heaven may cause diseases, drought, famine and misfortunes. Instantly in the Nuer societies, “propitiation, supplication, prayer and sacrifice” are the various ways in which the living can communicate with their ancestors. Ancestors worship is a strong indication of the value placed on the household, and of the strong ties that exist between the past and the present. “The beliefs and practices connected with the cult help to integrate the family to sanction the traditional political structure, and encourage respects for the living elders.”

The Nuer’s dearest possession is cattle. Life in earliest time depends on cattle and the Nuer always risks their life to defend the animals when external enemies come to take them. Their traditional world view usually is that of a Herdsman, and prestige is measured by the quantity and quality of the cattle owned. “Both men and women take the names of their favorite oxen or cows in ritual of honor and most typically prefer to be greeted by their “cattle names.” While the Nuer people usually engage in the agricultural pursuits, the care of cattle is the only labor they enjoy as a part of agricultural practices. It is said that conversation on virtually any subject “usually inevitably involves a discussion of cattle.” In this ways, it is easy for the people to understand why cattle play an important part in the Nuer’s religion, daily activities and ritual ceremonies. Cows are usually dedicated to the ghosts of the lineages of the owner and any personal spirits that may have possessed them at any time. The cattle usually become something of an extension of the family for the Nuer in traditionally setting. “The Nuer establishes contact with those ghosts and the spirits by rubbing ashes along the back of oxen or cows dedicated to them through the sacrifice of cattle.” There is no important Nuer ceremony of any kind that is completed without such a sacrifice in Nuer Land. Cattle in traditional setting were used to buy everything from food to bride, and to pay for anything from personal debts to fines.

Many aspects of the Nuer culture are sometimes similar to the cultural aspects of the Bible’s Old Testament people which include feature of their social structure, the kinship reckoning and the extended family aspects of marriage, divorce, rite of passage and even religious concepts of God, spirits, sin and sacrifice. In the spiritual beliefs of Nuer culture, “women who are having their menstrual period cannot drink milk, visit the cattle area or eat food that had been cooked in kettle used for boiling milk because doing so would be harmful to the cattle.” If the child suffers from vomiting immediately after the villages have been visited by strangers, they are suspected to be the cause of the sickness. But “standing up certain type of green grasses near the back door of hut usually prevents harm from coming to a sick person within the houses.”

Culture is very important for the Nuer people in Sudan. Gender roles have traditionally been well-defined. “Men always tend to care for cattle and were the warriors fighting neighboring societies for land use, cattle, and out of a sense of pride in their tribe and abilities.” While women managed the household and “make most decisions regarding the rearing of children,” The men play their role of war and war related concern in the field. Besides that, the idea of home includes both men and women; “without a man, there is no home and without a woman there is no home.” In most cases, “women are often consulted on the issue of public affairs and play an important role in mediating the disputes, be it community dispute or family dispute.”

Marriage concept is usually an ultimate goals in the life of Nuer men; women and is the primary ambition of all children. “Marriage among the Nuer is brought about by payments of bride-wealth, and by performance of certain ceremonial rites. The rite cannot take place without payments, but transfer of cattle does not by themselves bring about the union.” Both are necessary and they are process in connected movement towards the full establishment of the union. “Each enforces, and reinforces the other.” The bride’s people “can enforce by holding up the rites, put the pressure on the bridegroom’s people to make the payments and also the bridegroom’s people can reinforce by withholding the cattle, induce the girl’s family and kin to advance the ceremony.” First, one pedal is pressed down, and then the other as the marriage is propelled to its appointed end. It is often clear that payments should reach a certain point before a certain rite is held, and the performance of the rite is usually in the recognition of the transfer of cattle, an estimate of 40-100 cows depend on the quality of the girl (education and beauty).

The new social ties of conjugality and affinity are made stronger by each payment and each ceremony so that a marriage which is insecure at the beginning of negotiations becomes surer with every new payments and rite; both sides by, the giving; “the receiving of 40 cows and by joint participation in the rite become more deeply committed to bringing about the union.” Therefore, a marriage that has reached the final rite may be regarded as a “stable union and will generally prove to be so.” Generally, girls are marrying around the age of seventeen, eighteen and above. If the man impregnates a girl, “he is expected to marry her and he is sometime likely to find himself subject to the girl’s family raiding his land, properties, and taking his cattle by force.” Most marriages in Nuer Land are always intertribal marriage. “Men tend to marry women who are within visiting distance of their village, but they are strictly forbidden to marry women to whom he is even distantly related because doing so will cause an incest which is a dead cultural relations’ disease. After the couples agree to marry, “the announcer usually goes to the villages, singing and dancing to inform the people about the coming celebration. The first day of celebration is always declared to both sides and preparation will take place for three months to four. Marriage in Nuer culture has many ceremonial steps. These ceremonies include betrothal, wedding and the consummation.

A betrothal ceremony is necessary, but it is sometimes possible to proceed at once to the full wedding ceremony, and “this is usually done when the bridegroom is a rich man with plenty of cattle, and when the bride is a girl who has passed the usual traditional age of marriage.” Usually, the betrothal ceremony is held in the rainy season, and the wedding in the following windy season. If there is a longer interval, it is “generally due to the immaturity of the bride.” The holding of the betrothal ceremony always means that “the marriage is provisionally agreed upon by both sides.” The transfer of cattle to the bride’s family of the betrothal is always from “three to ten head for further acknowledgement of this understanding.” Before the ceremony take place, it always been agreed upon how many cattle should eventually be handed over to the bride’s family.

In most instance, the wedding day is one of importance event that also takes place some weeks later, and in the meanwhile there are always further discussion of a bride-wealth; not only in the home of the bride’s father, but also in the home of her senior uncle who is responsible for the negotiations on the mother’s side. The uncle’s claims are usually less flexible and there cannot be many disputes about them. So it sometimes happens that “they are settled provisionally in the father’s byre, and that the final discussion will be with the uncle himself who might live far away and sometime the issues are left until after the wedding or until after the consummation ceremony is done.” Usually there always been an urgent need from both sides because they want to complete the marriage without undue delay and release the girl to her new husband.

In most instances, “the bridegroom’s people want their wife and the bride’s people want their cattle so that they can finalize marry in short period of times.” They might not even include or care to use the cattle of the betrothal for this final purpose because these are only on pledge and if negotiation breaks down, they have at once to be returned (cows) back to the owner without any cow remaining behind. In this time, the marriage is usually still not yet considered to be completed until the consummation ceremony and the birth of the couple’s first child. After this, “the wife is given the name newlywed and is given her own hut ( from her parents) along with other various gifts such as cooking sets, butter, and other special things to care of her husband who usually come in distant to meet her in her father’s home.”

In the Nuer traditional culture, arrangements are made to hold the wedding on a certain day. In the homestead of the bride, they usually make many foods, wine (beer), two oxen are usually killed and in the homestead of bridegroom there is always much rejoicing. “Men and women plays, chanting poems in that night before they go to the wedding center on the next day.” Early in the morning, the bridegroom’s kin discuss the situation in his father’s byre. Most of the time, they know what “outstanding claims are likely to be advanced because they know the persons on the other side who stand in those relationship to the bride, and to which beasts are due by the custom.” They usually run over quickly in the morning, the herds and assign particular beasts to meet probable claims from the girl’s relative ranging from Father, Cousin, uncle, brothers and the mother. “A marriage concluded without all those concerns and dowry means humiliation and even dishonor to the wire.”

Divorce can also be granted for several reasons such as “drunkenness, sexual and temperamental incompatibility and unfriendly relationship with mother-in-law, adultery; barrenness and impotent.” In South Sudan, when the woman divorce, the child custody typically goes to the males (problem of gender balance). If the husband and wife are having a lot of crises, “the members of the extended families, both men and women will discuss the situation. The wife usually goes to her parent’s house and the husband usually will remain home and his relatives will then meet with the male relatives of the wife’s family to further discuss the situation and determine a course of action.” In most of the case, the husband and the wife will follow the recommendation made by both the relatives and the elders of the other family who are invited during the discussion.

On the other hand, one of critical events that also take place in the Nuer traditional culture is “cutting of six tribal scars/marks on each side of forehead.” This cutting of scars is a transition of childhood to adulthood or is ways of qualifying a boy for manhood and he is then able to fight in the battles. At the time of cutting, the boys always remain emotionless while this is occurring for two reasons. First, “the girlfriend of the boy attends to see how brave the boys act during that period of intense suffering, and showing fear would subject the boy to ridicule insult and ignorance from the society.” Second, the cut could be made uneven, “bearing a permanent sign that the boy flinched while they were being cut.” After they all finish, the mothers of the boys will dance and the big cow (bull) is always killed to show that we have a young men. In the preparation for the ceremony, “all hair is shaved off, all clothing is removed and all ornaments are discarded from the boys.” This ritual is usually performed on a group of boys at one time to allow them the comfort and companionship of each other.

The Nuer people have many traditional things that they considered as important for their life, and they value this traditional system and community value that guards them through their lives. Nuer people traditionally value things that are not considered important in other part of the world as important to them. One of the most important things is the burial of dead person. Burial process for the Nuer is another important ceremony. After the death of a Nuer man or woman, “a grave is unceremoniously dug, and the person is buried as quickly as possible. Grave-digging privileges are given to the other relatives of the deceased persons,” and only family members attended the burial at that movement. Graves are always dug on the left side of the person’s hut. All the ornaments are always removed from the person and the body is placed in the grave facing west. At this point, no ritual occurs at the grave site. A few days after the burial, “the ritual expects of the family make a sacrifice asking the ghost of the deceased person not to bother the living family members.” The mourning period always lasts until the mortuary ceremony which happens several months after the death of the person.

In general, the period of mourning lasts five to six months for a man, but only two to three months for a woman or a child who died for natural death. During this time, “all hairs are shaven off and no bodily ornaments are worn unless the person was murdered because Nuer do not mourn much for a man who is murdered, knowing that they will revenge.” The primary purpose of the mortuary ceremony is always to finally severe the ties between the dead and the living, and also to prevent the misfortune from happening to the alive relatives.

The Nuer people are strongly known in Sudan for their social order and community value. Traditional system is only one thing that Nuer beliefs the most then the other things. The community is ruled by people selected through the election, but leader must have certain characters that he might be known for before he becomes a leader. Leaders emerge in the community after demonstrating leadership qualities and gaining the respect of the other community members. In many Nuer villages, people are always generous to each other, but “any request which has an overtone of an order can quickly anger them.” Friends must have an obligation to be hospitable to each other. Hospitality offered by one friend must be returned by the other at a later time. Relative age is of great importance in interpersonal relations in society and in a group clubs. Every person is in categories in terms of age set which is an association made up of equal in age. Therefore, the Nuer always considered their culture, lineages or kinship system as the best among the best cultures in the world according to their view of others’ culture.

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