The Dinka

By Dr. Jok Madut Jok Assistant Professor of History Loyola Marymount University

The Dinka belong to a larger group known as the Nilotics. Dinkaland lies in the province of Bahr el-Ghazal and extends east into the savanna and swamplands around Lake No and Bahr el-Jebel in Upper Nile province, approximately 500 miles south of Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. The government whose center is located in the North is in the hands of Arabicized Muslims while the Dinka and the other South Sudanese view themselves as African. Sudan has experienced a long history of alien intrusion; first the Arabs, then the Turks, then the British colonial occupation, and finally the Arabs again after independence from Britain. All of them had their own interests at heart in controlling Dinkaland rather than the interest of the Dinka, and all have concentrated education, development and other services in the North to the total neglect of the South. This pattern of concentration of services in the North has continued since independence in 1956, resulting in southern rebellions and two North-South civil wars. Over the twenty years of civil war, close to one million Dinka have died. Their current population is approximately three million out of Sudan’s total estimated population of twenty-six million. The Dinka are the largest ethnic group in Sudan. Cultural Relations: Cattle dominate almost all sectors of the Dinka economy, as they are also essential in acquiring and maintaining prestige, influence and political power in the community. The Dinka see their lives and those of their cattle inextricably intertwined. The centrality of cattle to Dinka culture has resulted in the cow serving as the most important element in their religious beliefs and practices as well as their social organization. Shared economic resources, similarities in language and cultural norms, and myths of genealogical connection among all the different Dinka tribal groups create a sense of collective identity. This identity is built on the self-identification as “blacks” and “Africans” who are marginalized by “Arab” and “Muslims.” Their collective identity also depends on the cultural patterns that distinguish them from other “Africans.” Settlements: Because much of Dinkaland is flat and susceptible to flooding, the Dinka tend to pack their villages to the few elevated areas, and therefore there is no particular order to the settlements. The elevated dirt roads that were built during the colonial times, and which have historically connected the villages to the towns, have now given way to disrepair due to the war. Over the last two decades, movement of villages has also been prompted by war and population displacement. Large number of Dinka currently live in refugee camps inside Sudan as well as in the neighboring countries. Subsistence: The Dinka economy can be characterized as standing on four main pillars. These are, in the order of their perceived importance: livestock (especially cattle), agriculture, trading, and wild foods (including fishing, fruits, and wild nuts). Commercial Activity: Apart from forming the staple foods for the rural folk, crops such as sorghum, groundnuts, sesame, and millet, which are grown in most areas of western Dinkaland, provide a medium of exchange for livestock, as well as for the acquisition of town items such as cloths, medicine, salt, and sugar. Division of Labor: Division of labor among the Dinka is not very different from that of many other East African peoples. In general, women’s work tends to occur around the homestead, i.e. managing the household, farming, and food production; while men’s labor takes them farther away from home since much of it involves herding and feeding cattle. Women, in addition to sharing food production with men (they both grow crops and women do the weeding), are responsible for child care, preparing and serving the family meals, cleaning the homestead, and milking the cows. Men take primary responsibility for harvesting the sorghum. Land Tenure: All the land in Dinka country is under communal ownership. It is free and individuals only own it through continual use. Hardly any disputes arise over land use as the territory is expansive and the population is distributed sparsely. Kin Groups and Descent: The Dinka are patrilineal. The term dhieth, in its most general sense, refers to all kinds of relationships that can be established through blood lines. People establish blood relations by reference to clan names. Those who belong to the same clan are considered relatives no matter how distant from each other. Marriage and Family: Marriage in Dinka is exogamic to any individuals with whom a blood relationship can be established on both male and female lines going back several generations. Traditionally, marriage is everyone’s goal and having a family is regarded as the fulfillment of life. Dinka marriages are quite stable; the only ones that are terminated result from the failure of the woman to conceive. Sociopolitical Organization: Dinka society is generally organized around sub-section (wut), clans (dhieth), family, or patrilineage (mac thok). While the clan is used to recognize blood relatives throughout Dinkaland, patrilineage dictates village structure. Although people who belong to different clans may share a village, the most common structure for people of a shared lineage is to occupy their own village. Every clan has a headman known as nhomgol. These men are expected to exercise leadership roles in support of the sub-chief who oversees a section of Dinka. Political Organization: The traditional Dinka political system is structured around the concept of clan headman. A collection of clans headed by clan leaders form a higher political body known as the sub-chief, and several subchiefs fall under the position of executive chief, who is the liaison between the government and the people. Religion: The majority of Dinka practice traditional religions whose central theme is the worship of a high god through the totem, ancestral spirits, and a number of deities. The high god is called nhialic and he is the source of sustenance followed by Deng who is the most noteworthy of the lower gods and Abuk who is a female god. Dinka religious practice involve the sacrifices of animals at designated times of year such as the beginning of the rainy season, and blessing of the crops at the harvest. Christianity now plays a vital role in the lives of many people, including the non-believers. The Dinka Christians currently number about 20%. This is because of the Islamic extremism in the North, and because of the increased church-related aid over the past decade.

Two concepts have always guided me in my works on the Sudan and in my message to the Sudanese in the Diaspora: they are the metaphor of a tree with deep roots and the notion of an invisible bridge. A tree with deep roots, I argue, will withstand even a hurricane, while a tree with shallow roots can easily be knocked down, even by a light wind. Likewise, a person who moves away from home or country, and loses contact, whether physically, emotionally, or intellectually, is a person gone adrift, while the one who remains connected through the invisible bridge, albeit a state of mind, that allows a to and fro movement between the homebase and any destination away from home, maintains a degree of continuity and security. Roots are where a person comes from: family, lineage, community, tribe, region and country. The invisible bridge means knowing one’s identity and background: who you are, where you come from what in substantive terms that means, and how that reinforces and strengthens your efforts toward selffulfillment, wherever you are and whatever you do. It is with these principles in mind that I offer a cultural heritage of the Dinka, with its values and institutions, as an example for our people, wherever they happen to be. It is my firm belief that all of the peoples of the South have a proud cultural heritage from which we can learn. I use the Dinka only as an example of what I believe is widely shared among the peoples of the South, if not the Sudan in general and because I know the Dinka culture best. Although Sudanese societies may differ on details, to all of them, the family is the foundation of the culture and its value system. The main objective of the family is the continuity of the ancestral line. With respect to the Animist South, traditional religion does not promise a paradise to come after death. Although people believe in some form of life after death that conceptually projects this world into the hereafter, death for them is an end from which the only salvation is continuity through posterity. Ancestral continuity through the lineage implies a system of values that links the interest of every individual in the line to that of the collective interest of the lineage or the clan. This is a system that emphasizes unity and harmony despite, and perhaps because of, its inherent individualism, competitiveness, tensions and conflicts. Central to the Dinka value system is a concept known as cieng, which literally means “to live together”, “to look after” or “to inhabit”. At the core of cieng are the ideals of human relations, family and community, dignity and integrity.