Saturday, May 12, 2007


Numbering approximately one million, the Nuer are the second largest group (second to the Dinka) in south Sudan. The Nuer live mostly in Southern Sudan, in the east Upper Nile Province around the Nile River, the Bahr el Ghazal and Sobat Rivers, and extending up the Sobat across the Ethiopian border. Oral traditions indicate that the Nuer moved east of the Nile River over the past 200 years.The Nuer are tall and very dark people who are reported to be related to the Dinka, as their cultures are very similar. The Nuer call themselves Naath, meaning "human beings." The Nuer land temperatures year round is between about 27-45C. Because there is no industry in southern Sudan and no cars, the air is clean and clear, and smells sweet.

Drinking fresh milk straight from the source

A people whose material culture is as simple as that of the Nuer are highly dependent on their environment. The Nuer are cattle herders, whose complete way of life revolves around their livestock. Cattle provide companionship, food, social and economic security, and a cultural identity. The Nuer refer to their cattle according to the coloring and spotting patterns of their coats. There are twelve separate words for the unique pattern groupings commonly referred to. Cattle are owned by the family, herded by men and milked by women, but under the control of the head of the household. Most conflicts involve cattle. Fines for offenses are assessed in cattle. Cattle are also used for payment of debts and as bride prices (dowry) in marriage. Nuer will risk their life to defend them or to raid and pillage his neighbor’s cattle. Prestige and wealth is measured by the quantity and quality of the cattle a man owns. Men and women take the names of their favorite cattle and prefer to be greeted by their cattle names. While they do engage in agricultural pursuits, as grains and vegetables supplement their diet, the care of cattle is the only labor they enjoy. It is said that conversation on virtually any subject will inevitably involve a discussion of cattle.

'A tassle-horned song bull'
Young bulls, particularly those with well patterned coats, are often selected at an early age to be 'song bulls'. They are usually castrated (so they are really 'song bullocks'), and their horns are pared away just above the base so that the left one grows forwards, and the right one grows backwards. When they get older, a tassle is hung through holes in the tips of its horns for decoration. Song bulls are highly valued and very well treated. Their owners groom them, sing songs to them, and develop a close and special relationship with them. 'Horn surgery', as the shaping of cow horns is known, is recorded in the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt, so has obviously been practiced along the Nile for thousands of years.

Nile perch is also an essential part of their diet, especially during the dry spells. None of the food commodities are produced for market purposes. Cattle are not primarily raised for meat, but for their blood and milk. Meat is eaten at important celebrations when an animal is sacrificed. There is one rainy season each year, between May and September, during which time people live in permanent villages. For the rest of the year, most members of the family move with the animals following the new grass, which grows on the receding water meadows. The need to find water and grazing for their animals governs life for the Nuer. Cattle need to be watered every 1-2 days, sheep and goats every 1-4 days.


Young Nuer Girl grinding sorghum for food

The Nuer are organized into sub-divisions of clan lineages descended through the male line from a single ancestor. The lineages are a major structural factor for political order. These lineages are significant in the control and distribution of resources, and tend to coalesce with the territorial sections. Marriages must be outside one's own clan, and are made legal by the payment of cattle by the man's clan to the woman's clan, shared among various persons in the clan. The territorial groupings and lineage groupings are more closely aligned for some purposes than for others.

There is no overall political authority in the tribal structure. Political activity involves various grouping or separation of the many territorial and clan sections. Nuer society is patrilineal; all rights, privileges, obligations and relationships are regulated through kinsmen.

Nuer Children

Urine is sterile and antiseptic. In a country with no easily accessible sterile water, and little firewood to use for boiling water, cow urine is used for washing and is sometimes mixed with milk for drinking.

The Nuer living pattern changes according to the seasons of the year. The Nuer determine their calendar based on current activity and weather conditions. The fishing season begins in December and lasts until the season of rain (spring) begins. Next comes the plantation season (summer), followed by the season of winds (autumn). As the rivers flood, the people have to move farther back from the river onto higher ground, where the women cultivate millet and maize while the men herd the cattle nearby. In the dry season, the younger men take the cattle herds closer to the receding rivers. The Nuer practice astronomy by watching the stars, and have their own names for various stars and constellations. The evening star, for example, is called “Lipai chiing.” To the Nuer, it looks like a girl in a village waiting for the moon to rise, and the name means “waiting in the village for the moon.”

Roofing a barn

Plastering a barn

Nuer woman plastering a hut

Nuer build only temporary houses or shelters. Houses in wet-season settlements have circular mud walls over stick frames with thatched roofs. As grain is harvested, it is dried on temporary scaffolds. In dry-season camps, men sleep with the cattle in shelters made from local grasses. Women may remain in or near the wet season areas when the men follow the receding waters toward the lower areas. Extended family groups live around communal cattle camps.

Marriage dance

Marriage is one of the most important Nuer traditions, and is arranged by the families of the bride and groom. Divorce among the Nuer is not unheard of; it is usually caused by a lack of children. If a woman does not produce children, a man can demand the return of the cattle he paid for the marriage and can send the woman back to her own village. Marriage takes place in stages, however. A marriage is not finalized until the bride has given birth to at least two children. When a third child is born, the marriage is considered "tied." At this point, the wife and the children become full members of the husband's clan. Women desire to have six children. A man may have multiple wives, who do not necessarily live close to each other. But they will all live in the area of the husband's clan.

Nuer Leopard skin chief

The Nuer are an excitable people, and individuals are very independent and prone to take offense. A casual slight may lead to a quarrel or fight. When violence or the threat of violence erupts, age-mates or family leaders are called on to cool things off. In dire circumstances, a special group called the leopard-skin chiefs are invoked. These special individuals have no formal political authority, but are honored for their moral and spiritual authority. The chiefs may even offer sanctuary to murderers. They can then moderate negotiations for compensation, the only alternative to violent clan feuds.

Tribal markings using razor incisions

The Nuer, like the Dinka, wear little or no clothing, especially the men. Women will more commonly wear a brief skirt of cloth or skin. Women wear wire and bead necklaces and headdresses. Young men are initiated by circumcision and six cuts across the forehead. A man is named by the coloring of his ritual bull, given him at initiation. He composes songs of affection and praise to that bull.

Animal sacrifice

A woman praising God after the sacrifice

Cattle play an important part in Nuer religion and rituals. Cows are dedicated to the ghosts of the owner's lineages and any personal spirits that may have possessed them at any time. The Nuer believe they establish contact with these ancestor ghosts and spirits by rubbing ashes along the backs of oxen or cows dedicated to them, through the sacrifice of cattle. No important Nuer ceremony of any kind is complete without such a sacrifice.

The Nuer have a traditional religious world view usually called "animistic," but they worship a supreme being called 'Kowth,' who has various manifestations, with which some claim to have personal relationships. The Nuer pray for health and well-being, offering sacrifices to Kowth so he will answer their petitions. There is no organized religious hierarchy or system, but many individuals serve as diviners and healers.

Nuer Worship center

They do not believe in a place of afterlife for the spirit, and their religious concepts deal with concerns of this life. They do believe the spirits of the dead can affect their current life. The more recently deceased, the more influence they have. The Nuer honor and appease the spirits of their ancestors. Cattle are sacrificed to God and the spirits.

School boys with missionary teacher

There have been attempts to evangelize and convert the Nuer to Christianity. There are a number of churches in southern Sudan. The Nuer New Testament was completed in 1968, and the Old Testament is in progress. However, a majority of the Nuer remain animist, and only nominal Christians.

The light is fading, the dung fires have been lit, and the cows will soon return from their day's grazing.
  • In the morning, all the cow dung is collected and dried; in the evening, the dried dung is lit to make smoky fires. The smoke drives away biting insects and allows the cattle to get some rest. The ash from the fires also repels insects; cows can be seen flicking it over themselves, dogs sleep in it, and people, particularly children, powder themselves with it. The smoke and smell of cow dung fires is a characteristic part of life in southern Sudan.
  • Cattle are given much greater care and attention and will live beyond 15 years if war or famine do not interfere. There is a great bond between people and cattle, and young men in particular will spend much time caring for their favorites, including singing to them.

Listen to Nuer Music by Nuer Singer Koang Duoth

Watch an intriguing 15 minute film on the Nuer

Information and Photos Indiana University
Nuer profile By Strategy Leader
The Dinka and Nuer Agro Pastoralists of Southern Sudan
Nuer Sudan 101
Nuer Time and Space
The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People E. E. Evans Pritchard


Anonymous said...

Hello Liz,

Thank you for these wonderful information. But there is anything I hate is the truth that some fellow Africans todate go naked! This is very barbarica I think.

I'm sorry for being harsh but I think they have to do something to cover their private parts!



Habari Tanzania Boy!

I admire their way of life when I compare it to the complex system the so called 'civilized world' we live in today with its hustle and bustles. Inherently, it is important to bear in mind that we are all brought up in distinct societies with varying norms, cultures and attitudes that clearly shape our characters and lifestyles.

Also it worth noting that as a result of instability and conflict in this region most of the Nuer have been displaced from their homes. Plus with the constant streams of missionaries going to this region to spread christianity, one begins to witness the Nuer way of life slowly changing and adapting to western trends and even wearing clothes.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you Liz, totally and completely!


AW said...

Also, the ancient Greek men did all their athletics naked. They exercised and competed with no clothes at all, not even a loin cloth. They considered themselves *highly* civilized, and people generally still do. It's all a matter of how you're brought up!

Anonymous said...


I have got your point. Thank you!


Anonymous said...

first of all i'm nuer and nuer people are christans and they do where cholthing you should update your info because most of that was true a long time ago

Anonymous said...

I am Nuer too but this didn't really bother me. Its some how an encouragement for us to do something more for our people. It is also true that all of these pictures were taken a long time ago, but that doesn't mean it is not happening today. We shall aviod pretending that we are at the level of civilized nations. Today 90% of our Nuer people never ever seen a video leave alone taking a picture. So what do we think as Nuer? I only wish to have something to help my people Nuer and Sudanese at large. Let them suffer, God will give me a chance one day to have the power of leadership so that I can help with all my energy.

José Solano said...

Would you be so good as to answer a question that is somewhat controversial. It is said that at time women marry women among the Nuer. I have heard many Nuer people say that this form of "marriage" is not a homosexual relationship but more related to property distribution.

Would you be able to clarify this issue?

Thank you.

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