In the 1990s, most of Sudan's diverse non-Muslim peoples lived
in southern Sudan, but a number of small groups resided in the
hilly areas south of the Blue Nile on or near the border with
Ethiopia. Another cluster of peoples commonly called the Nuba,
but socially and culturally diverse, lived in the Nuba Mountains
of southern Kurdufan State.
Nilote is a common name for many of the peoples living on or
near the Bahr al Jabal and its tributaries. The term refers to
people speaking languages of one section of the Nilotic subbranch
of the Eastern Sudanic branch of Nilo-Saharan and sharing a myth
of common origin. They are marked by physical similarity and many
common cultural features. Many had a long tradition of cattlekeeping,
including some for whom cattle were no longer of practical importance.
Because of their adaptation to different climates and their encounters,
peaceful and otherwise, with other peoples, there was also some
diversity among the Nilotes.
Despite the civil war and famine, the Nilotes still constituted
more than three-fifths of the population of southern Sudan in
1990. One group--the Dinka--made up roughly two-thirds of the
total category, 40 percent or more of the population of the area
and more than 10 percent of Sudan's population. The Dinka were
widely distributed over the northern portion of the southern region,
particularly in Aali an Nil and Bahr al Ghazal. The next largest
group, only one-fourth to one-third the size of the Dinka, were
the Nuer. The Shilluk, the third largest group, had only about
one-fourth as many people as the Nuer, and the remaining Nilotic
groups were much smaller.
The larger and more dispersed the group, however, the more internally
varied it had become. The Dinka and Nuer, for example, did not
develop a centralized government encompassing all or any large
part of their groups. The Dinka are considered to have as many
as twenty-five tribal groups. The Nuer have nine or ten separately
Armed conflict between and within ethnic groups continued well
into the twentieth century. Sections of the Dinka fought sections
of the Nuer and each other. Other southern groups also expanded
and contracted in the search for cattle and pasturage. The Nuer
absorbed some of the Dinka, and some present-day sections of the
Nuer have significant Dinka components.
Relations among various southern groups were affected in the
nineteenth century by the intrusion of Ottomans, Arabs, and eventually
the British. Some ethnic groups made their accommodation with
the intruders and others did not, in effect pitting one southern
ethnic group against another in the context of foreign rule. For
example, some sections of the Dinka were more accommodating to
British rule than were the Nuer. These Dinka treated the resisting
Nuer as hostile, and hostility developed between the two groups
as result of their differing relationships to the British. The
granting of Sudanese independence in 1956, and the adoption of
certain aspects of Islamic law or the sharia, by the central government
in 1983 greatly influenced the nature of relations among these
groups in modern times.
The next largest group of Nilotes, the Shilluk (self-named Collo),
were not dispersed like the Dinka and the Nuer, but settled mainly
in a limited, uninterrupted area along the west bank of the Bahr
al Jabal, just north of the point where it becomes the White Nile
proper. A few lived on the eastern bank. With easy access to fairly
good land along the Nile, they relied much more heavily on cultivation
and fishing than the Dinka and the Nuer did, and had fewer cattle.
The Shilluk had truly permanent settlements and did not move regularly
between cultivating and cattle camps.
Unlike the larger groups, the Shilluk, in the Upper Nile, were
traditionally ruled by a single politico-religious head (reth),
believed to become at the time of his investiture as king the
representative, if not the reincarnation, of the mythical hero
Nyiking, putative founder of the Shilluk. The administrative and
political powers of the reth have been the subject of
some debate, but his ritual status was clear enough: his health
was believed to be closely related to the material and spiritual
welfare of the Shilluk. It is likely that the territorial unity
of the Shilluk and the permanence of their settlements contributed
to the centralization of their political and ritual structures.
In the late 1980s, the activities against the SPLA by the armed
militias supported by the government seriously alienated the Shilluk
Bari, Kuku, Kakwa, and Mandari
Several peoples living mainly to the south and east of the Nilotes
spoke languages of another section of the Nilotic subbranch of
Eastern Sudanic. Primary among them were the Bari and the closely
related Kuku, Kakwa, and Mandari. The Bari and Mandari who lived
near the Nilotes had been influenced by them and had sometimes
been in conflict with them in the past. The more southerly Kuku
and Kakwa lived in the highlands, where cultivation was more rewarding
than cattle-keeping or where cattle diseases precluded herding.
Murle, Didinga, and Others
Two other tribes, the Murle and the Didinga, spoke Eastern Sudanic
languages of subbranches other than Nilotic. The Murle had dwelt
in southern Ethiopia in the nineteenth century and some were still
there in the 1990s. Others had moved west and had driven out the
local Nilotes, whom they reportedly regarded with contempt, and
acquired a reputation as warriors. Under environmental pressure,
the Murle raided other groups in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Along the mountainous border with Ethiopia in Al Awsat State
lived several small heterogeneous groups. Some, like the Uduk,
spoke languages of the Koman division of Nilo-Saharan and were
believed to have been in the area since antiquity. Others, like
the Ingessana, were refugees driven into the hills by the expansion
of other groups. Most of these peoples straddling the Sudan-Ethiopia
border had experienced strife with later-arriving neighbors and
slave-raiding by the Arabs. All adapted by learning the languages
of more dominant groups.
In western Al Istiwai and Bahr al Ghazal states lived a number
of small, sometimes fragmented groups. The largest of these groups
were the Azande, who comprised 7 to 8 percent of the population
of southern Sudan and were the dominant group in western Al Istiwai.
The Azande had emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
when groups of hunters, divided into aristocrats and commoners,
entered the northeastern past of present-day Zaire (and later
southwestern Sudan) and conquered the peoples already there. Although
the aristocrats provided ruling kings and nobles, they did not
establish an inclusive, centralized state. The means of succession
to kingship, however, encouraged Azande expansion. A man succeeded
to his father's throne only when he had vanquished those of his
brothers who chose to compete for it. The brothers--princes without
land or people but with followers looking for the fruits of conquest--would
find and rule hitherto unconquered groups. Thus, the Azande became
a heterogeneous people.
Their earlier military and political successes notwithstanding,
the Azande in the twentieth century were poor, largely dependent
on cultivation (hunting was no longer a feasible source of food),
and afflicted by sleeping sickness. The British colonial authorities
instituted a project, known as the Azande Scheme, involving cotton
growing and resettlement in an effort to deal with these problems.
The program failed, however, for a variety of reasons, including
an inadequate understanding of Azande society, economy, and values
on the part of the colonial planners. Azande society deteriorated
still further, a deterioration reflected in a declining birthrate.
Azande support of the Anya Nya guerrilla groups, as well as conflicts
with the Dinka, also served to worsen the Azande's situation.
In the early 1980s, there was talk of resurrecting a revised Azande
project but the resumption of the civil war in 1983 prevented
Bviri and Ndogo
Several other groups of cultivators in southwestern Sudan spoke
languages closely akin to that of the Azande but lacked a dominant
group. The most important seemed to be the Bviri. They and a smaller
group called Ndogo spoke a language named after the latter; other,
smaller communities spoke dialects of that tongue. These communities
did not share a sense of common ethnic identity, however.
The other groups in southwestern Sudan spoke languages of the
central branch of Nilo-Saharan and were scattered from the western
Bahr al Ghazal (the Kreish) to central Al Istiwai (the Moru and
the Avukaya) to eastern Al Istiwai (the Madi). In between, in
Al Istiwai, were such peoples as the Bongo and the Baka. The languages
of Moru and Madi were so close, as were aspects of their cultures,
that they were sometimes lumped together. The same was true of
the Bongo and the Baka, but there was no indication that either
pair constituted a self-conscious ethnic group.
Living in the Nuba Mountains of southern Kurdufan State were
perhaps three dozen small groups collectively called the Nuba
but varying considerably in their culture and social organization.
For example, some were patrilineally organized, others adhered
to matrilineal patterns, and a very few--the southeastern Nuba--had
both patrilineal and matrilineal groupings in the same community.
The Kurdufanian languages these people spoke were not generally
mutually intelligible except for those of some adjacent communities.
Despite the arabization of the people around them, only small
numbers of Nuba had adopted Arabic as a home language, and even
fewer had been converted to Islam. Some had, however, served in
the armed forces and police. Most remained cultivators; animal
husbandry played only a small part in their economy.
Data as of June 1991