THE SOCIAL ORDER
Local ethnic communities remained in the early 1990s the fundamental
societies in rural Sudan, whether they were fully settled, semisedentary,
or nomadic. Varying in size but never very large, such communities
formerly interacted with others of their kind in hostile or symbiotic
fashion, raiding for cattle, women, and slaves or exchanging products
and sometimes intermarrying. In many cases, particularly in the
north, local communities were incorporated into larger political
systems, paying taxes to the central authority and adapting their
local political arrangements to the needs of the central government.
Even if they were not incorporated into major tribes or groups,
many people considered themselves part of larger groupings, such
as the Juhayna, the Jaali, or the Dinka, which figured in a people's
system of ideas and myths but not their daily lives. In the north
the Muslim religious orders were important. They brought religion
to the people, and their leaders acted as mediators between local
communities. Despite these connections, however, the local village
or nomadic community was the point of reference for most individuals.
Most of these communities were based on descent, although occupation
of a common territory became increasingly important in long-settled
communities. Descent groups varied in hierarchical arrangement.
In some, the people were essentially equal. In others, various
lineages held political power, with their members filling certain
offices. Lineage groups might also control religious ritual in
the community. On the one hand, people who held ritual or political
offices often had privileged access to economic resources. On
the other hand, many communities granted formal or informal authority
to those who were already wealthy and who used their wealth generously
and with tactical skill.
Theoretically, descent-group societies are cohesive units whose
members act according to group interests. In practice, however,
individuals often had their own interests, and these interests
sometimes became paramount. An individual might, however, use
the ideal of descent-group solidarity to justify his behavior,
and an ambitious person might use the descent-group framework
to organize support for himself. Sudanese communities always have
experienced a good deal of change, either because of forces like
the Muslim orders, or as a result of dynamics within the groups
themselves, like the expansion of Nuer communities.
The Anglo-Egyptian condominium (1899-1955) weakened the role
of hitherto autonomous communities and created a more stable social
order. Warfare and raiding between communities largely ended.
Leadership in raids was no longer a way to acquire wealth and
status. Although many local communities remained subsistence oriented,
they became more aware of the world economy. Their members were
introduced to new resources and opportunities, however scarce,
that reoriented their notions of power, status, and wealth and
of the ways they were acquired. If one invested in a truck rather
than in a camel and engaged in trading rather than herding, one's
relationship to kin and community changed.
The central authorities--links with the world economy and with
services like education and communications--were located in the
cities and large towns. Urban centers therefore became the sources
of change in the condominium era, and it was there that new occupations
emerged. These new occupations had not yet changed the social
In rural areas several large-scale development projects were
introduced, resulting in major rearrangements of communities and
authority structures. The most significant example was the Gezira
Scheme, located between the Blue Nile and the White Nile, and
considered the world's largest single-management farming enterprise
(about 790 hectares were covered by the project). The scheme involved
small-scale farmer tenants producing cotton under the administration
of the Sudan Gezira Board, a state subsidiary.
Data as of June 1991