The People Of Africa


Identification and Location. The Dinka belong to a larger group known as the Nilotics. The term “Dinka” was invented by outsiders and no one knows the origin of the word. The people now known as the Dinka actually call themselves Muonjang or Jieng. Among the Dinka, only an educated minority knows that they are called Dinka. Dinkaland lies in the province of Bahr al-Ghazal and extends east into the savanna and swamplands around Lake No and Bahr al-Jebel in Upper Nile province, approximately 500 miles south of Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. Their territory is so vast, their settlements so widespread, and divided by many rivers that many of them do not know all the sections of fellow Dinka.

The part of Sudan that the Dinka occupy is landlocked. It is surrounded by Arab pastoralists in the north, the Nuer to the east, the Fertit to the west, and a variety of smaller ethnic groups to the south. Traces of influence from each of these groups can be found in language, economic activity, and culture of the inhabitants of Dinkaland. Dinkaland and Dinka people have been politically under the modern state of Sudan since the formation of the polity in the 1820s, when Muhammad Ali, the Viceroy of Ottoman Sultan in Egypt, invaded Sudan in search of slaves. However the Dinka, the largest ethnic group in Sudan, and many of the other peoples of South Sudan remain resistant to that polity. As a result, Sudan is generally referred to in terms of north and south as culturally and politically as well as ecologically distinct regions.

The government whose center is located in the north is in the hands of Arabicized Muslims, while the Dinka and the rest of South Sudanese view themselves as African. The Arab north assumes the position of power through a long history of alien intrusion. The Arabs were succeeded by the Turks, whose rule was followed by British colonial occupation. After independence, the Arabs again took control. 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. Two north-south civil wars have ensued, the latest of which continues unresolved at the beginning of the twenty-first century. This Arab/African divide is the main cause of the Dinka resistance to the encompassing authority of the Khartoum government. Other causes include religious-cultural differences between Islam in the north and Christianity in the south, and the differences between the economically marginalized in the south and the better developed areas of the north.

Demography. The records of the first post-colonial government indicate that after the first north-south civil war (1955-1972) the Dinka numbered nearly three million in a country of only fifteen million. That number was estimated to have gone up to four million when the second round of civil war resumed in 1983. Over the eighteen years of the war, half of the two million estimated deaths are thought to be Dinka, bringing their current population to approximately three million out of Sudan’s total estimated population of twenty-six million.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Summer Institute of Linguistics lists Dinka language as belonging in a sub-grouping, Nilo-Saharan language, that includes Nuer, Luo, Shilluk, Anyuak, and a number of others. Within this group there appears to be a special relationship between Dinka and many languages of the Upper Nile. The vocabulary shows a considerable degree of borrowing between these languages.

History and Cultural Relations

The origin and history of the Nilotics, the group to which the Dinka belong, is widely contested. Historians suggest that Nilotics were a group of agriculturists who settled in the Bahr al-Ghazal region of South Sudan, where they acquired the techniques of domesticating cattle. With a predominantly cattle economy, the Nilotics began to migrate from the Bahr al-Ghazal during the fifteenth century. The Dinka did not move far. They remain in the area where they continue to eke out their existence by cattle herding; their system and area are now part of what is referred to as the “cattle complex.”

The Dinka are divided into about twenty-five mutually independent tribal groups. But despite the heterogeneity among these sections, they remain united by their physical characteristics, their pride in being Dinka, and their remarkable cultural similarities. The most important of these similarities is the Dinkas’ love for cattle. They have numerous myths that explain their acquisition of, respect for, and devotion to cattle. Cattle provide the Dinka with much of their worldly needs. Cows provide dairy products that the Dinka consider the best and most noble food. The Dinka do not slaughter the animal solely for meat, except in sacrifice to God, spirits, and their ancestors, but they also keep the animals for meat since every animal is eventually eaten no matter what the cause of death may be.

Cattle are of supreme importance to the Dinka, both symbolically and practically. These animals form the basis of Dinka livelihood, religion, and social structure. The importance of cattle in the Dinka economy has had great influence in the politics of contact between the Dinka and other pastoral peoples neighboring them. This contact was initially based on exchange, but has gradually developed into hostility, as Dinka’s herding neighbors started to desire access to Dinka cattle and the grazing plains of Bahr al-Ghazal. Cattle have been both directly and indirectly a major cause of the rise of conflicts in that they represent social, cultural, and economic security. This security came under assault when the nation-state began to view cattle as an important economic asset to be incorporated into the national economy through commercialization and commodification. These economic factors have been important in the Sudanese civil war (which resumed in 1983 after the first conflict of 1955-1972). The war pits the north and various southern groups, especially the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA), against each other.

Shared economic resources, similarities in language and cultural norms, and myths of genealogical connection between all the different sections of Dinka create a sense of collective identity. This identity is built on the selfidentification as “blacks” and “Africans” who are marginalized by “Arabs” and “Muslims.” Their collective identity also depends on the cultural patterns that distinguish them from other “Africans.” Nonetheless, the Dinka are not the homogeneous and static group that ethnologists often portray. They are composed of many sections with remarkable regional variations, especially between western and eastern Dinka or between the Dinka of Upper Nile and the Dinka of Bahr al-Ghazal.


Because much of Dinkaland is flat and susceptible to flooding, they tend to pack their villages into the few elevated areas, and therefore there is no particular order to the settlements. Roads that could attract people to build their settlements in relation to traffic are almost non-existent in Dinkaland. 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. Soil erosion has been a major cause of frequent movement of villages and one often finds many disserted villages that have been taken over by bush. Over the last two decades movement of villages has also been prompted by war and population displacement. A large number of Dinka currently live in refugee camps inside Sudan as well as in the neighboring countries. Much of Dinkaland gets flooded during the rainy season, but western Dinka becomes extremely dry during the months of November through April when there are no rains. Consequently, a pattern of seasonal migration occurs to areas near the rivers and swamps. Access to clean drinking water during the dry season is rare and such seasonal movement is the solution to this problem. It was only as recently as the 1980s that the United Nations responded to this crisis by erecting water hand pumps, which reduced the movement of people in search of water. Now the Dinka can devote their time to clearing cultivation fields in anticipation of rains.

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Subsistence. 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). The importance of wild foods and fishing became magnified during the last two decades of the twentieth century because of the war-provoked destruction of assets and the ensuing famines. For this reason, the Dinka could be characterized, instead of as “pastoralists, ” as “agro-fiscatorial pastoralists. ” Although these economic activities operate concurrently throughout time and space, there are certain times of year when one of these components is more functional than the others. It is, therefore, safe to describe Dinka economy as a food economy since the main goal of activity is not so much to maximize profit and accumulate material wealth as it is to sustain a subsistent existence.

A majority of households in Dinkaland keep varying sizes of cattle herds and maintain gardens that supply their staples (sorghum grain, maize, groundnuts, sesame, and assorted vegetables). Historically, the soil had been a deep black cotton soil. But due to overgrazing during the last three decades of the twentieth century, the soil in large parts of the land has turned to sand, making it only suitable for some of the staple crops. However, households with large herds of livestock usually fertilize their gardens with manure, making cattle herding and horticulture interdependent. The Dinka feel that success of agriculture largely depends on cattle ownership, and although agriculture occupies a central position in food sources, it also plays into mechanisms of cattle acquisition, circulation, and redistribution. Dinka agriculture is similar to horticulture. It uses multi-cropping and rotation of fields rather than rotation of crops. The Dinka use the hoe and slash and burn techniques, and rely exclusively on human labor. The hoe and axe are the primary implements of gardening; pork hoes were recently introduced through international disaster relief. A Dinka household plants an average of two acres with most of the area devoted to sorghum, depending on land fertility. The soil that turns sandy becomes suitable for groundnuts, sesame, and beans.

Commercial Activities. 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 Dinka, provide a medium of exchange for livestock, as well as acquisition of town items such as cloths, medicine, salt, and sugar. Economic changes however, have been very rapid. In the past, for example, the sale of cattle was considered shameful. But each of the successive governments has attempted to get the Dinka to sell their cattle because livestock are a major part of the national economy. When the colonial administration imposed a poll tax and insisted that taxes and fines be paid in cash, the Dinka had no choice but to sell their livestock.

Traditionally when people were short of grain, they collected wild grain and nuts or went fishing. With the advent of the modern market, grain became available in the shops owned by Arab traders. It was however, procurable with cash, which the Dinka did not have, and could only obtain by the sale of cattle. Over time, the Dinka themselves slowly got into trading. Many Dinka sell several cows in order to procure salt, cloths, and medicine from the city and exchange them for grain in the country, only to sell the grain back to other Dinka for more cattle during a lean season. This has added to the usual Dinka mechanisms of cattle circulation and redistribution through marriages.

Industrial Arts. Dinka produce a variety of industrial arts including clay pots, mats, and baskets. Mats are particularly important for Dinka since they are the main items of bedding. These are made from papyrus cut from the Sudd, the largest swamp in the world. The Dinka also engage in elaborate bodily beautification arts, making beads that they wear around their necks and waists, as well as elephant tusk bracelets, anklets, and earrings.

Trade. Words such as “trade,” “market,” and “profit” have no direct translations into Dinka and one may find that the word used for “buy” has the same origin as the word for “sell”: hocand hac respectively. This suggests a short history of trading as a primary occupation. Arabic words may be used even among people who do not speak Arabic, because of the historical association through trade between the Dinka in South Sudan and Arabs. However, informal market exchange has always played a large role in resource distribution. Despite the civil war, which has crippled the local economy, trading remains a strong pillar of Dinka economy and involves long distance travel between Dinkaland and northern Sudan, and between South Sudan as a whole and the neighboring countries of Uganda and Kenya to the south. International humanitarian aid, which has been going on since 1989 to relieve the war-provoked famines, has also added to the feasibility of trade. At times relief items make up the only trade goods in South Sudan.

Division of Labor. Division of labor among the Dinka is not very different from that of many other East African peoples. In general, women work around the homestead, managing the household, farming, and preparing food. Men’s labor takes them farther away from home, since much of it involves grazing cattle. Women, in addition to sharing food production with men (they both grow crops and women do the weeding), are responsible for childcare, preparing and serving the family meals, cleaning the homestead, and milking the cows. Men take primary responsibility for harvesting the sorghum. Construction of houses is shared as the men prepare the walls and put up the frame and women thatch the grass roofs. Gender division of labor is flexible, however, and couples generally help each other when need be. The exception is in the area of cooking and milking the cows. Men never cook and initiated adult males never milk cows. There is so much rigidity in these two areas that when a man is forced to milk the cows when no one else can do it, he cannot drink the milk as it is believed that act would bring calamity to his herd.

Land Tenure. All the land in Dinka country is under communal ownership. It is free and individuals only own it through continual use. Few disputes arise over land use, as the territory is expansive and population is sparsely distributed. At times land may be sold for an ox if the person who has worked the land and tamed it moves to another location and another person desires to take over. The sale is not for the value of land itself but for the labor expended in taming it. The only land that seems to cause occasional disagreements is the grazing plains near the main tributaries of the Nile, called toc. Here, the grazing plains are used daily by all without segregation, but the camps to which the herds return every evening and where the grazers reside during the dry season are divided among different clans and Dinka subtribes. Such a camp is called wut and each one of these camps has a leader who regulates things and keeps order. The camp is particularly desirable because it is often more elevated than the rest of the area, which is swampy.


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 bloodlines. People establish blood relation by reference to clan names. Those who share the clan are considered relatives no matter how distant from each other. Members of a clan share a totem and believe in their common descent from that totem. This is the basis on which strong prohibition against marriage between people of the same clan is enforced. But individuals are considered to be related equally to other kin through both the mother’s and the father’s sides.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is strictly enforced in addressing each other. For example, children have to address their older relatives with the appropriate kinship terminologies and are prohibited from using personal names, at least to the elders’ faces. Dinka kinship terminology is classified as bifurcate collateral.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage in Dinka is exogamic up to several generations. Traditionally, marriage is everyone’s goal and having a family is regarded as the ultimate fulfillment in life. Men seek women through courtship. A man may create songs in which he praises his intended bride and her relatives and urges his own relatives to support him. Most marriages are through consent of the couple. When a man is regarded as eligible for marriage by his family, they sit with him to decide which, among the girls he has courted, he loves the most. He could also make suggestions and the family chooses from his list. Once an agreement is reached on the bride, his family makes a visit to her home to announce their intention and to discuss the number of cattle to paid in bride-wealth. Sometimes disagreements may arise and the man and woman may decide to elope. Once married, the couple may reside with the man’s family for some time before they move out and establish their own home. They are free to live anywhere they desire, but newly-married couples generally reside with the man’s family.

Dinka marriages are quite stable; divorce only occurs when the woman is unable to conceive. The bride’s family usually makes sure the chances of saving the marriage are exhausted before agreeing to divorce, as termination of the union would mean return of the bride-wealth. If the union has produced children, part of the bride-wealth is kept by the bride’s family as payment for the children who remain with the man.

Socialization. It is preferred for a family to raise children within their patrilineages, although many households send newly weaned children to their maternal clan, where they may remain for as long as one year. Children are cared for by both parents, grandparents, elder siblings, and any other relatives who can spare their time. The socialization of Dinka children differs according to gender. Boys are concerned with livestock and with serving the adults. Both genders are expected to identify more with the fathers than with the mothers, although it is realized that girls are generally closer to their mothers than sons are.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Dinka society is generally organized around sub-section (wut), clan (dhieth), family, or patrilineage (mac thok ). While the clan is used to recognize blood relatives throughout Dinkaland, the patrilineage dictates village structure. Although people who belong to different clans may share a village, the most common structure is for people of a lineage 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 sees over 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 sub-chiefs fall under the position of the executive chief, who serves as the liaison between the government and the people. Throughout Dinka history, the position of highest “tribal” administrator has changed from “paramount” chief to court president to executive chief. Ideally, the paramount chief presides over regional courts, which stand above the executive chiefs, the sub-chiefs, and clan leaders.

Before the second civil war (beginning in 1982), the lowest political organization revolved around the authority of elderly community men who were respected because their roles as politicians involved religious leadership. These men managed the community with little opposition. Such people remain at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and their authority extends into control over decisions regarding cattle movement and fishing of dry season pools. But their main political role is participation in the chief’s decision-making body. The chief has to work together with community elders over matters of political following, security and war, poll tax collection, and inheritance of political leadership.

Social Control. There exists a strong socialization emphasis on self-control, respect for others, and adherence to basic Dinka norms. Dinka also instill fear in everyone about the supernatural wrath against social offenders. Mocking the sick or the poor, or failing to help at times of dire need are all punishable by gods. Gossip and the importance of reputation serve as mechanisms for sanctioning deviation, but the most powerful deterrent to anti-social behavior is the fear of punishment for wrongdoing by supernatural forces.

Conflict. Although Dinka are a gentle people and attempt to avoid conflicts with neighbors, they have been under constant attack by northern Arabs since the first half of the nineteenth century. The last fifty years of the twentieth century have seen so many wars that Dinka youth are now almost conditioned to violence. Serious crime, especially homicide, was rare but is becoming more common.

The neighbors of the Dinka, the Nuer, although the most intimate in their dealings and the mostly closely related, have often waged war against the Dinka mainly for the purpose of cattle raid. These have been disastrous to Dinka lives and property, and have worsened over the last decade of the twentieth century because of the increased prevalence of small automatic arms which the Nuer have acquired from Ethiopia.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. 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 Nhiali and he is the source of sustenance. Deng is the most noteworthy of the lower gods and Abuk is a female god. Educated Dinka tend to conceive of Deng and Abuk as the equivalents of Adam and Eve.

Ancestral spirits are presumed to be able to increase productivity of the land, multiply cattle, and provide safety for all. They are thought to watch over the living, to reward good behavior with fortune, and punish wrongdoing with a calamity brought upon the individual, family, or whole group. They are the mediators between the people and the high god. Many of the gods and spirits are considered good natured and capable of being appeased when angered by human behavior, but there are also a number of free-roaming, largely malevolent spirits, who can be deployed by individuals with special capabilities to do evil.

When Christian missionaries first came in contact with the Dinka, they concluded that the Dinka were worshiping idols and ancestors. From the Dinka point of view, this was untrue, as these objects and locations are merely places of worship, analogous to the church, mosque, or synagogue. For this apparent misunderstanding, Christianity was resisted vigorously throughout the nineteenth century. It was not until the late twentieth century that large numbers of Dinka were converted. Dinka Christians comprised about 20 percent of the population at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Christianity plays a vital role in the lives of many people, including non-believers, because of the Islamic extremism in the north, and also because of increased churchrelated aid.

Religious Practitioners. The central figure in Dinka religious practice is the master of the spear. He has proven to possess certain powers to heal and bring fortune through his prayers to God, and whose prayers for good health, cattle safety, and fertility are met. Many Dinka believe that this aspect of their religion does not contradict Christianity, and so continue to believe in both.

Ceremonies. Many elaborate ceremonies take place around the social life of Dinka. Year-end celebrations, healing ceremonies, entertainment, dance, and singing are all part of an expressive culture for which Dinka are famous. Animal sacrifices are important rituals and are held at designated times of the year, such as at the beginning of the rainy season, at the blessing of the crops, and at harvest and end of the year celebrations. The sacrifices are usually conducted at the location of the totem such a fig tree, river, or at a shrine. At these prayers, spiritual leaders call for adequate rains, cattle and human health, and peace.

Funerals of spiritual leaders are elaborate affairs where men and women engage for days in dance, singing, and mock battle. In earlier times, well-known spiritual leaders were buried alive. When he was thought to be dying, cattle camps moved into the leader’s village. He was then placed in the grave, and people danced around it until his final breath. This practice was prohibited by the British colonial government to no avail and continues to this day, though on a limited scale.

Medicine. Dinka traditional therapeutic practices include bone setting, various kinds of surgery, and dispensing medicinal plants. Such treatments are straightforward and can be learned by anybody. Other kinds of practitioners who derive their skills from special unworldly efficacy are found throughout Dinkaland. These include diviners who hold possession sessions and are thought to receive their special powers from God. Biological medicine, especially injectable modern antibiotics, has largely replaced many of these practices, although many forms of divination remain strong.

Death and Afterlife. A person’s soul is thought to move to a special world to meet all the dead relatives already there. Before death, when one is seriously sick and seems to be dying, the Dinka believe that the soul is negotiating with the relatives who have gone to the other world. When he or she recovers from sickness, it is usually presumed that the spirits of the deceased relatives have won and chased back the sick person’s soul to the world of living; thus the phrase “our fathers have refused to take him away. ” Stories of those returning from the dead abound. They usually report a stiff struggle between the dead and the dying. Death means the defeat of a sick person’s soul, while recovery from illness implies victory of the ancestors. Dinka bury their dead inside the house, and their ghosts are presumed to roam the air around the living.

For the original article on the Dinka, see Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.

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