Peoples and cultures of two Sudans

From The Sudan Handbook

Peoples and cultures of two Sudans
"Sallow 2" by Mohammad Omar Khalil, oil & collage on wood, courtesy of Al Masar Gallery
By John Ryle  •  2011  •  Chapter 4 of The Sudan Handbook  •  Posted 2016  •  5,592 words

Whether Sudan is considered as one country or two, cultural diversity and ethnic complexity are among its most immediately striking features. Between them, the republics of Sudan and South Sudan are host to two world religions, myriad local belief systems and hundreds of indigenous languages. (In this last respect they rival Africa’s most polyglot nations: Nigeria, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo).

The modes of livelihood of contemporary Sudanese range from the daily commute of the urban middle-class from the expanding suburbs of Khartoum to the long-range migrations of camel pastoralists in the arid lands of eastern Sudan, from the deal-making of merchants and itinerant street-traders in urban centres such as Wadi Halfa, or Juba, to the field labour of tenant-farmers in the Gezira. They include, also, the seasonal movement of cattle keepers in the swamps and savannahs of Bahr al-Ghazal and the small-scale domestic cultivations of Equatorian forest-dwellers.

Ethnic groups in Sudan are numerous; and individual and group identities have multiple aspects. As with most peoples, Sudanese differentiate themselves – or have been differentiated by others – using a range of overlapping criteria: lines of descent from a single ancestor, a common language or place of origin, mode of livelihood, physical characteristics, and political or religious affiliation. The resulting categories may appear to perpetuate difference, but they also enable its opposite: the ordering of relations of exchange and cooperation between communities. Ethnic and other categories change and crosscut one another, reflecting shared histories.

Sudan’s inhabitants have been progressively linked together over centuries by patterns of trade and migration, and by an emerging political economy that has changed their relations to state power and to each other. Their labour—and their ancestors’ labour—has been exploited, often by force, and their livelihoods modified or transformed. They have been both victims and instruments of political turbulence and military devastation. Such disruptive episodes, particularly in recent times, have forced many, particularly those living outside the northern heartland in the Nile valley, to move in order to survive, engendering further economic and cultural transformations

Understanding these Sudanese communities and the relations between them requires an approach that combines geographical, historical and anthropological forms of knowledge. For this purpose, Sudan may be divided into a number of regions. One is the northern heartland that lies along the Nile between Dongola and Khartoum, and between the Blue and White Niles, which has formed the economic and political centre of successive states in modern times. A second is Nubia, in the far north towards Egypt. A third is the desert region in the east stretching to the Red Sea hills and the coast. A fourth region comprises Darfur and Kordofan in the west; a fifth, the north-south borderlands along the Tenth Parallel; a sixth, the extensive floodplain of the White Nile that forms the southern heartland; and, finally, to the South, beyond these, a seventh, the wooded ironstone plateau of Equatoria, on South Sudan’s borders with East and Central Africa.

People from all these regions have long been resident in major towns all across north and South Sudan (and in neighbouring African countries, and – more recently – in the cities of Europe, North America and Australia). Yet local origin and a sense of belonging based on kinship or common language remain the primary components of identity for most Sudanese, even for those born and raised far from their places of familial or ancestral origin, as increasing numbers are. Kinship is the fundamental language of social association; and the greater the distance from the centres of power and the reach of central government the greater the importance likely to be accorded to it, and the less compunction in invoking it.

Some aspects of the cultural diversity of north and South Sudan may be understood as the product of long-term movements of people into or across geographical zones, and corresponding changes in their modes of production, a process that starts with the first expansion of early humans into north-eastern Africa. Historical geography is thus a starting point for understanding certain aspects of the contemporary distribution of peoples. This diversity is also the product of much more recent events, however, and processes of interaction and redefinition that are still in progress. As the Anglo-Sudanese novelist Jamal Mahjoub has written, Sudan has a multi-layered history, one that has “crystallized from the crucible of possibility”.

Migration, settlement and state formation

In prehistoric Eastern Africa, the unchronicled migrations of hunters and gatherers were followed, first, by the introduction of domesticated animals from Asia, notably the long-horned, auroch-like cattle whose descendants are still the source of livelihood for stock-keepers in south Sudan and the north-south borderlands. Then —around the fifth millennium BCE—came the introduction of agriculture. The states that arose in the Nile Valley thereafter owed their wealth and power to the ability to produce food surpluses from the labour of slaves, usually raided from populations further south (raids that were themselves carried out by slave armies) and to the extraction of natural resources such as gold, ivory, skins and timber. This pattern of accumulation endured through the rise and fall of the Nubian kingdoms of the pre-Christian era, through the Christian kingdoms of the middle ages, into the Muslim polities of the sixteenth century, and beyond. Its legacy in interethnic relations can still be seen in Sudan today.

In the current era, the most significant event in Sudan’s demographic and social history has been the process of Arabization and Islamization, an epochal change that transformed indigenous societies across the African continent. After the advent of Islam in the seventh century, a pre-existing pattern of small-scale population exchange between Arabia and Africa was succeeded by a long-term process which combined the physical migration of people from the Arabian peninsula with assimilation between these migrants and indigenous African populations, and the establishment of trade networks that linked Egypt and the Middle East to West Africa. In time, this was to bring a new religion, a new language and a new source of social organization to a region stretching from Senegal to the Red Sea, the region known to the Arabs as Bilad al-Sudan, “the land of black people”.

Research - Peoples and Cultures of Two Sudans-1

Principal ethnic and ethnolinguistic groups in Sudan and their approximate home territories

Following the first Islamic conquests of North Africa, small numbers of armed traders followed the Nile Valley southward to Nubia: a seventh-century agreement, the Bakt, records the establishment of relations between the new Muslim rulers of Egypt and the indigenous Nubian kings, marked by an annual tribute of slaves. Later, in the fourteenth century, conflict in Egypt encouraged Arab migration southwards to Nubia, and, from the sixteenth century onwards, the Arabization of the central area of Sudan gathered pace.

This cultural penetration has been characterized by some historians as a predominantly non-violent process, involving the progressive assimilation of indigenous populations by marriage and proselytization. By this account the paradigmatic bearers of Islam were itinerant holy men and teachers (who were sometimes also traders). With them came the slow spread of literacy and a new grammar of kinship, one that gave recently Islamicized communities the opportunity to create lines of patrilineal descent linking them to the family of the Prophet Mohamed or his followers, thus merging diverse local cultures into an Arab ethnic identity. The legend of the wise stranger, a founding ancestor of Arab origin who is given the daughter of a local ruler in marriage and becomes ruler in his turn, is widespread among communities in the north and west of Sudan.

From the sixteenth century onwards new centres of power emerged in the region that was to become Sudan: the Funj kingdom in the Nile Valley around Sennar—an area that is still a key part of the heartland of the modern northern Sudanese state —and, in the west, the Fur sultanate and the Masalit sultanate, both of which endured into the twentieth century. The rulers and the subjects of the Fur and Masalit sultanates were Muslims, but most of them did not embrace an Arab identity in the way that some of the Funj peoples and others closer to the Nile came to do. Nor did they abandon their native languages. Today, considerable sections of the population of northern Sudan – in Darfur and elsewhere, while practising Islam and speaking one of the Sudanese dialects of Arabic as a lingua franca, retain their own languages. They remain culturally distinct from Arab communities living alongside or among them. These differences may be underlined locally, in rural areas, by differences in modes of livelihood – most Arab groups in Darfur, for example, are primarily nomadic pastoralists; while many of the non-Arab groups are sedentary farmers. But ethnicity and livelihood do not map onto each other with any consistency: non-Arabs can be pastoralists; groups and individuals of Arab origin may settle and become farmers.

Arab identities in northern Sudan

The historical limits of Arabization can be seen in the overall distribution of languages and cultures in contemporary Sudan. In the central areas of northern Sudan in the Nile Valley, the great majority of the inhabitants identify as belonging to one or another of a dozen or more Arab tribal groups: they practise Islam, claim Arab descent and speak only Arabic. These children of the river, awlad al-bahr, have dominated the post-Independence state. In the far north and in the east of the country, however, as in Darfur, non-Arabic languages are still spoken and non-Arab identities maintained.

In the east, the Beja, an indigenous people over a million strong, who occupy most of Red Sea State (and whose presence there is recorded from antiquity), preserve, for the most part, clear cultural differences from neighbouring Arab communities, whether they continue the traditional Beja life as rural camel-breeders, or live in towns such as Port Sudan, where many have been compelled to migrate by drought. Here, Arabic may be the language of religion, of government and commerce, but Bedawi, the Beja language, forms the fabric of everyday domestic life. In Nubia, between Wadi Halfa, on the border with Egypt, and Dongola to the south, several indigenous languages are still spoken, at least by those of an older generation. And traces of pre-Islamic Nubian culture can be discerned upstream from Dongola, among the more Arabized peoples towards the centre of the country. South of Khartoum, beyond Kosti, the limit of Arab-Islamic cultural influence coincides, more or less, with the border between north and south Sudan (though a form of Arabic is the lingua franca of the south).

Today something over half of the inhabitants of northern Sudan—between fifteen and twenty million people—would define themselves as belonging to one or another group of Arab, or Afro-Arab, descent. Most of these descent groups fall, in theory, under one of two higher-order groups, Jaali and Juhayna. The logic of patrilineality is liable to break down on examination, however; there is often a lack of fit between particular Arab tribal identities and these overarching categories. The sedentary peoples of the central Nile valley mostly define themselves as Jaali (to be distinguished from the Jaaliyin, a Jaali subgroup), and many claim lineages which link them to a common ancestor, Ibrahim Jaal, and through him to al-Abbas, uncle of the Prophet Mohamed. The other overarching Arab group, the Juhayna, includes most present-day nomadic groups, and a number that were historically nomadic but have long been settled.

The educated elites of three groups in the central Nile valley, groups that came to prominence in the Turco-Egyptian and Condominium periods, have, to a significant extent, monopolized state power in the post-independence era. The Jaaliyin, who are a Jaali subgroup with an historic centre in Shendi, are the first of these. Jaaliyin have also, historically, dominated trade and business in the towns and cities of the north and, until the second civil war, in the south. The second of the key groups in northern politics is drawn from the Shaigiya, a tribal confederacy known historically for initial resistance to the Turco-Egyptian invasion of Sudan and subsequent cooperation with the invaders, and later for their domination of Sudan’s armed forces. The third of the triumvirate of riverain groups from which the political elites have been drawn is the Danagla, the people of Dongola in southern Nubia. Danagla are found in every town and city of the north (as are Shagiya and Jaaliyin), while the original Dongolawi communities maintain a traditional rural life as date-farmers, cultivating the strip of fertile land along the banks of the river downstream of the great Nile bend. Here a Nubian language continues to be spoken, adding a significant undertone to an otherwise Arab-inflected cultural identity.

Beyond the northern Sudanese heartland, away from the two Niles, in Kordofan and parts of Darfur, is the territory of nomadic Arab camel and cattle pastoralists. Many Arabs in Kordofan and Darfur trace their ancestry, nominally at least, to a second wave of migration sometime after the seventeenth century, which entered Sudan from the east. Their traditions and ways of life—and their historical origins —are distinct from those of the farming people living along the river and the latter’s urbanized relatives in the cities of the heartland. This difference is reflected in a paradoxical use of the term ‘Arab’ in riverain communities: it may be used as a self-description, but it may also be used in a pejorative sense to refer to these desert-dwelling nomads.

The Kababish, an historically recent confederation of camel keepers who live in the arid lands of northern Kordofan, have been seen as typifying the way of life of the desert-dwelling Arab peoples—though since the 1980s many of them have lived in poverty on the fringes of Omdurman, having lost their livestock to droughts and misgovernment. In northern Kordofan and in northern Darfur there are numerous other such groups of Abbala—camel-keeping groups—wresting a living from the harsh environment, as herders and as harvesters of gum Arabic. Further south, in southern Darfur and southern Kordofan—in the northern part of the north-south borderlands—where greater rainfall expands the possibilities of livestock husbandry, is a broad belt of cattle-keeping Arab peoples, known collectively as Baggara (their name derived from the Arabic term for cow). Baggara groups include the Hawazma, Misseriya, Rizeigat, Taisha and Habbaniya. To a still greater extent than other Arab incomers, these cattle nomads of the west have politically and economically assimilated indigenous populations, while themselves being physically assimilated, an ancestry visible in skin tones that are darker than those of most other Arab Sudanese—as dark as many southerners.

Skin-colour, it may be noted, though it is not a matter of indifference to Sudanese, does not map onto ethnic divisions, here or elsewhere. Thus the Juhayna group also includes the Shukriya in the Butana region and the mainly pastoralist Rufaa al-Hoi and Kenana on the Blue Nile. The latter two groups tend to be paler-skinned than other Sudanese, with more recent narratives of arrival from the Arabian peninsula. (The most recent of all Arab migrants to Sudan are the Rashaida, who settled in the eastern borderlands in the 1860s.)

From the 1920s onwards Sudanese nationalists, mainly from riverain groups, worked to develop a self-consciously Sudanese Arabic cultural identity. After independence, accordingly, a policy of arabization, tariib, was adopted by successive governments in Khartoum and propagated in every region of the country. But government policies of Arabization and Islamization, which involved, among other measures, the expulsion of western missionaries from the south and the replacement of English with Arabic as the language of instruction in southern schools, served to sharpen differences rather than elide them. The near-monopoly of political power on the part of elites from the central riverain region encouraged the growth of an idea of Arab racial supremacy. Southerners, in particular, were often targets of ethnic prejudice that invoked an earlier history of enslavement of people from the south. This contributed, in time, to insurgencies in the peripheries, first in the south and then in the west. In the civil wars that followed successive governments in Khartoum resorted to an ethnically based counter-insurgency policy that involved the use of tribal militias recruited from Arab groups to attack non-Arab communities in areas of rebel support, a strategy that has provoked polarization between these communities.

The limits of Arab cultural influence

In the heart of Darfur, before the colonial era, the forebears of the non-Arab Fur established the Darfur sultanate on the fertile slopes of the Jebel Marra massif, and ruled there, from the seventeenth to the twentieth century (with an interruption during the Mahdiyya), over an ethnically heterogenous population that included both nomadic Arab groups and non-Arab farming communities. Today, though, Fur territory and other parts of the Darfur region are in increasingly disputed political space. Due to a significant extent to the government’s use of militias drawn from Arab nomadic groups and the ethnic divide-and-rule strategy of which this is a part, tribal identities in Darfur have become militarized; and rights to land brutally contested.

Another non-Arab group involved in the Darfur conflict is the Zaghawa, whose territory extends across the border into Chad. Traditionally camel pastoralists, over the last two generations many Zaghawa have metamorphosed into transnational traders. Their truck convoys span the Sahara from the oases of the Sahara to Suq Libya on the outskirts of Omdurman. But Zaghawa communities, also, have participated in, and suffered from, the effects of civil war. In recent years large numbers of Darfuris—including Zaghawa, Fur, Masalit and other ethnic groups—have been driven from their villages and forced into displaced camps on the outskirts of towns, contributing to a wider drift towards urbanization.

In scattered communities in western Sudan and, to a greater extent, in the central Nile Valley— particularly in the Gezira—descendants of migrants from West Africa have a significant presence. Before the advent of air travel, Muslims from West Africa travelled through Sudan on the overland pilgrimage route to Mecca; some remained, encouraged by the opportunities offered by colonial development schemes, and settled as wage labourers, principally in the Gezira, on the vast irrigated cotton-growing project between the Blue and White Nile south-east of Khartoum. The majority of these settlers were Hausa from northern Nigeria; the rest were drawn from other West African ethnic groups, some of them speaking Hausa as a lingua franca. In Sudan the settlers became known as Fellata. This was originally a term for the Fulani, one of the non-Hausa groups; in Sudan it was applied by other Sudanese to all descendants of West Africans and acquired a pejorative connotation. Today the term “Hausa” is often used to refer to all Sudanese of West African descent, but communities of Fulani-speakers, mainly seasonal cattle nomads, maintain distinct cultural features. In recent years some Sudanese Hausa have begun to assert an Arab identity, illustrating the flexibility in ethnic affiliation that is a persistent theme in Sudanese history.

Among the indigenous non-Arab peoples of northern Sudan, the hill-dwelling Nuba of southern Kordofan are the most culturally and linguistically diverse. Dozens of language groups are represented in a few thousand square kilometres of the Nuba mountains. Some originate from as far north as Nubia, but Nuba communities have their historical origins in many different areas of the country, diverse populations having been displaced over long periods of time and found refuge in these mountain redoubts. Today, some Nuba are Muslim; some Christian; some are neither; most groups are patrilineal, reckoning descent through a line of male ancestors as Arab, or Arabized, peoples do, but some are matrilineal, a form of social organization with a pre-Islamic origin. They share their territory, often acrimoniously, both with transhumant Baggara pastoralists and with the large-scale agricultural schemes established in recent decades by incomers in the valleys between the hills.

The peoples of the Nuba Hills (known outside Sudan for their traditions of wrestling and body decoration), are connected to northern Sudanese central riverain culture and economy through labour migration. For several generations there has been large-scale recruitment of Nuba into the ranks of the Sudanese Armed Forces. Yet during the second civil war in the south, resistance to acculturation and to the economic domination of the centre drove many of them, under the leadership of Yousif Kuwa, a Miri Nuba, to join the SPLA. (Raised as a Muslim, Yousif Kuwa described his political awakening in cultural terms, explaining that he had grown up believing he was an Arab, until he heard the Arab headmaster of his school say: “What is the use of teaching these Nuba, who are only going to work as servants in houses?”) Despite the lack of a common language— apart from Arabic—and their existence as distinct communities living in different hill areas, an emerging political consciousness gave some Nuba a sense of common destiny.

There are similar, smaller, hilly redoubts on the Ethiopian border, home to groups such as the Ingessana (Gamk in their own language), and the Uduk (‘Kwanim Pa in their language). These too are increasingly, affected by the expansion of the state and its attempts to control the periphery, and the conflicts this has brought in its wake.

Chiefs and tribes

In the twentieth century, under British rule in Sudan, tribal identities such as these, in rural areas of the north and the south, were institutionalized in a system of indirect rule that was adapted from colonial administration in British West Africa. In Sudan the British administrators aimed to restore the authority of certain of the ruling families and structures of authority that had been destroyed during the preceding era of the Mahdiyya. Where these did not exist they were created. Local leaders and men of influence in rural areas were recognized as omdas, sultans or chiefs, in a system known as idarra ahliya, native administration.

Native administration served to increase the power of local elites, and perpetuate ethnic distinctions, sometimes deepening them. Some groups were amalgamated with one another by edict; others were effectively created as an indirect result of the colonial dispensation. British rule thus simultaneously exploited the mutability of ethnicity and exalted the frequently mythical notion of common descent on which many ethnic identities were based. Native administration in northern Sudan also involved the recognition of collective rights to tribal lands or dur (plural of dar, homeland or territory). This further entrenched the authority of leading families of those groups that were recognized by the government, and left, in some cases, a problematic legacy of land tenure. Although the system of native administration was formally abolished by the regime of Jaafar Nimeiri in 1971, elements of the system of rule through chiefs and omdas have endured, and some have been restored in recent years, both by the government in the north and by the government in the south.

Tribal identity may be reinforced in other ways. Some Sudanese carry outward signs revealing ethnicity. Despite official disapprobation, traditions of facial scarring, shulukh, continue in rural areas of both north and south. Ritualized surgery of this kind may be for beautification or for therapeutic purposes; or it may provide an indication of the community into which a person has been born. The once-commonplace T or H shaped facial scars of Jaali men and women and the three horizontal lines of the Shaigiya are seen infrequently today, but the candelabra forehead marks on Dinka men from Bor, or the horizontal lines of the Nuer are still a relatively frequent sight. (Scarification is a coming-of-age ritual among the Nuer and the Dinka, a procedure that, for boys, follows earlier removal of the lower front teeth.)

A particularly contentious type of body modification that is widely practised in various forms in northern Sudan is female circumcision, or genital cutting. Anthropological accounts of the lives of women in communities in the north stress local understandings of this practice as part of a symbolic affirmation of female fertility, a ritual separation from the world of men. Female circumcision is the subject of a continuing campaign in Sudan for its abolition or modification. Male circumcision is ubiquitous among Muslims in Sudan, and is also practised by some non-Muslim groups in the south, where female circumcision is unknown. In the south, although the respective roles of men and women are closely defined by cultural practice, there is generally less physical segregation in social relations. Despite extensive mixing between Sudanese from north and south over centuries, formal unions between people from the northern riverain areas and those from the south are not frequent. The absence of female circumcision in southern communities is not the only obstacle, nor even the main one. Many communities in the north, for instance, favour marriage between certain categories of cousin; and other biases may come into play. Within the north, unions between people from riverain communities and those from the west, or other peripheral regions, may not be regarded with favour by the families involved.

Peoples and cultures of South Sudan

South of the Tenth Parallel, Arab and Islamic influence diminishes markedly. But the peoples of the south are as varied in their ways of life and the moral worlds they inhabit as those of the north. Until the mid-nineteenth century much of what is now southern Sudan was sequestered from the north by impassable swamplands, but under Turco-Egyptian administration in the nineteenth century, Upper Nile and Bahr al-Ghazal and areas to the south were opened as a hunting ground for slaves, a time that is not forgotten in collective memory. In the twentieth century the British colonial administration discouraged Arab and Islamic influence in most of the region, and attempted, usually successfully, to establish rule through chiefs, a system similar to the native administration in the north. Meanwhile missionary activity and Christian influence grew. Today, many in the south are adherents of indigenous religions; others have been Christians for generations; a few are Muslims; some span more than one world of belief.

Southerners in rural areas—still the great majority—live variously as sedentary farmers and as agro-pastoralists. In many parts of the south there is a general aspiration to ownership of cattle. Cattle give status; and are an important element in patterns of exchange and cooperation, particularly in marriage negotiations, and often across apparent boundaries of ethnicity. But almost all of those commonly referred to as cattle pastoralists also grow crops, and most practise seasonal fishing: the choice of livelihood strategy is driven by geographical circumstance as much as ethnic identity. In terms of indigenous political organization of the peoples of the south there is also wide variation: some southerners live in communities under the authority of a hereditary monarch; others are reluctant to acknowledge any political authority at all, internal or external.

The pattern of life of southern societies, as with those in the north, is framed by the environment they inhabit. The basin of the White Nile, the pastoral domain of southern Sudan, is a vast, grass-covered clay plain, parched in the dry season and swampy in the rains. The population of the floodplain and surrounding areas have adapted to these extremes of climate by seasonal movement towards and away from the Nile or its many tributaries, moving annually between wet-season villages, where they cultivate a range of crops including dura (sorghum) and maize, and dry-season cattle camps, close to rivers, where their herds can find grazing until the rains come again.

Chief among these communities are the Dinka (Jaang or Monyjaang in Dinka) and Nuer (Naath in Nuer), peoples with closely-related languages and similar ways of life. Other communities pursuing a primarily pastoral existence include the Murle of Jonglei, the Mandari of Central Equatoria and the Toposa and Nyangatom in Eastern Equatoria. Though they generally practise mixed agriculture, gaining a living from seasonal crops and fishing, as well as from livestock husbandry, cattle are prominent in the culture of these groups: exchanged in marriage, seized in raids, imitated in dances and celebrated in song. Conflicts over livestock and access to water and grazing are commonplace. Recurrent feuding between tribes or tribal sections is also widespread. The resultant cycle of revenge killings has traditionally been resolved by the payment of cattle as blood price. In recent times, however, settlement mechanisms have been strained by the spread of firearms and the exacerbation of feuds by wider political and military conflicts.

Until the time of the Condominium, communities in the south lived largely beyond the influence of any state, recognizing only diffuse and localized forms of authority. In the nineteenth century the size and range of Nuer communities expanded at the expense of the Dinka in the east; Dinka communities in turn expanded further south and west. Intermarriage between them continues to be routine. Among the Nuer and the Dinka, certain religious leaders, known in academic literature as prophets, have had a significant influence. Nilotic prophets had a role in resistance to British colonialism; and their teachings, particularly those of the Nuer prophet Ngungdeng Bong, are still invoked to explain current political events. In the recent civil war, Dinka and Nuer took a leading role in southern resistance to rule from Khartoum. Ambivalence towards central authority remains widespread among members of these communities, despite the fact that they are well represented in the government of South Sudan.

Related to the Dinka and Nuer linguistically, and through shared myths of origin, are the Shilluk, or Collo. The Shilluk live north of the Nuer, mainly on the west bank of the White Nile, between Malakal and Renk. They are part of the archipelago of Luo-speaking communities that extends south to the Great Lakes region of Central Africa and is distributed widely across southern Sudan, where it includes—besides the Shilluk—the Anuak of Jonglei, the Jur-Luo of Bahr al-Ghazal and the Acholi and Pari of Lafon in Eastern Equatoria. Unlike the Dinka and Nuer, Shilluk political organization was historically centralized under a monarchy with divine authority established near the town of Fashoda. Interaction between the Shilluk kingdom and the polities to the north has been continuous since the time of the mediaeval Funj sultanate; yet there is strikingly little Islamic influence among the Shilluk. (This is in contrast to the Dinka groups across the Nile on the east bank, the Abialang and Dungjol Dinka, who are now mostly Muslim). The Shilluk king, the Reth, still exerts a powerful influence on the affairs of the Shilluk people.

The south-western area of Sudan, the fertile wooded country on the ironstone plateau between the floodplain and the Nile-Congo divide and towards the border with Uganda, is the home of a number of communities who live largely by agriculture. The Bari-speaking peoples of Central Equatoria, living on each side of the White Nile, include the Kuku of Kajo-Keji, the Madi, the Pajulu and—around Juba—the Bari themselves. In Western Equatoria, the Zande occupy an extensive area from Maridi, through Yambio to Tambura. The last two towns are named after Zande kings, scions of a conquering aristocracy, the Avongura, who created the Zande empire in the eighteenth century—incorporating indigenous peoples—in the area where Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo now meet. The military-political organization of the Zande was dismantled by European colonial powers, but it has left an enduring cultural and ethnolinguistic legacy.

Between the Zande country and the Dinka area to the north, and extending west to Wau and Raga, live a range of much smaller groups, historically subject to absorption by their larger neighbours, from the Jur-Bel and Jur-Modo and Bongo in Lakes and Warrap to the Fertit peoples in Western Bahr al-Ghazal, who extend to the border with Darfur. Finally, east of Juba, in the mountainous areas of Eastern Equatoria, are a number of sizeable groups, notably the Lotuko, the Acholi and the Didinga, who practise mixed economies of agriculture and livestock raising.

Migration and nation

A survey of the peoples of Sudan such as is offered here, and the glimpses it provides of the histories that have shaped the social categories through which they exist, can provide only a bare indication of the lived experience of language and culture. The story of Sudanese people—as of people in most times and places—is one of movement: of expansion, contraction, displacement, migration, and sometimes decimation. At the individual and group level Sudanese still survive largely by moving: they may move seasonally for grazing, for work, or for education, unseasonally to escape war and famine. Increasingly also, they are likely to migrate permanently from rural to urban areas. The towns and cities of Sudan have grown rapidly: first, Greater Khartoum and, more recently, former provincial centres such as Nyala and Juba, the latter now the burgeoning capital of South Sudan. Villages become suburbs or slums; villagers become townsfolk.

The displaced and migrant populations of Sudan are sustained, as they have always been, by kin-based affinities. But kinship takes its place in an expanding set of social bonds, of personal loyalties and patron-client relationships. Individual Sudanese, like others in the world, negotiate overlapping identities in the realms of ethnicity, language, religion and professional roles, adapting to circumstances, invoking collective histories and acquiring new social repertoires as required for survival. Indigenous languages are likely to be a casualty of the large-scale movement of people and accompanying social changes. In the era of two Sudans—or more—the challenge remains: to widen the moral community to include all citizens and all dimensions of the cultures they inhabit. This is a vision of nationhood that has yet to find consistent political expression, either in the north or in the south.

Recommended Reading

Asad, Talal. The Kababish Arabs: Power, Authority and Consent in a Nomadic Tribe. London: Hurst, 1970.

Cunnison, Ian. The Baggara Arabs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966.

de Waal, Alex. ‘Who are the Darfurians?’, African Affairs 104, 415 (2005): 181–205.

James, Wendy. War and Survival in Sudan’s Frontierlands: Voices from the Blue Nile. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 2009.

Hutchinson, Sharon. Nuer Dilemmas: Coping with Money, War and the State. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996.

Sharkey, Heather. ‘Arab identity and ideology in Sudan’. African Affairs 107, 426 (2008): 21–43.

Hassan, Yusuf Fadl. The Arabs and the Sudan: From the Seventh to the Early Sixteenth Century. Edinburgh:Edinburgh University Press, 1967.

Deng, Francis. War of Visions: Conflict of Identities in the Sudan. Washington DC: Brookings Institution, 1995.