Numbering approximately one million, the Nuer are the second largest group (second to the Dinka) in south
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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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
- 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