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The Dinka people are the most prominent ethnic group inhabiting the southern regions of Sudan and the independent nation of South Sudan.
Yousef M. Sharqawi
The Dinka people are the most prominent ethnic group inhabiting the southern regions of Sudan and the independent nation of South Sudan. Collectively, these people constitute nearly half of the population residing in southern Sudan.
The origins of the Dinka people trace back to the Nilotic peoples, who, in ancient times, arrived in southern Sudan from the foothills of the Ethiopian plateau and settled in the region.
The Dinka people in South Sudan predominantly inhabit areas in close proximity to seasonal wetlands that flood periodically. This environmental characteristic poses significant challenges to their way of life. In addition to the natural challenges, manmade factors have influenced the Dinka people’s migration away from their traditional territories in South Sudan. Notably, the Sudanese civil war was pivotal in compelling countless Dinka to migrate, many relocating to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, or across the border.
Historian Ahmed Abdullah Adam, the author of The Tribes of Sudan: A Model of Intermingling and Coexistence, categorises the Nilotic peoples into two branches: the Nilotic and the Nilo-Hamitic. The Dinka people belong to the former category. It is important to note that before South Sudan’s secession, the Dinka were the most numerous tribe in Sudan.
According to the data from the 2003 and 2006 censuses, the Dinka population totalled approximately three million people. Some sources suggest that the Dinka are the second-largest people in Africa, following the Maasai people in Kenya.
Adam further subdivides the Dinka into two major groups: Dinka Lit and Dinka Akwi. The first is named after a Dinka ancestor called Lit, while the second is named after Ouk Awi, whose name symbolises a potent, white falcon known for its speed and precise strikes. Three lineages stem from the Dinka Akwi group: the Rek Dinka, the Gogrial Dinka and the Malual Dinka. Among these, the Malual Dinka group – which is primarily situated in Aweil City, South Sudan – is the largest.
The term “Dinka” can etymologically be deconstructed into two basic components: “Din,” signifying origin, and “Ka,” meaning home. Consequently, the comprehensive meaning of “Dinka” can be interpreted as “the origin of the home.”
As elucidated in the book Dinka Tribe of South Sudan, the Dinka people live a pastoral-agricultural way of life. Their sustenance depends on a mixed practice of tending livestock in encampments adjacent to rivers during the dry season while cultivating sorghum and various other grains in permanent settlements in the rainy season.
Linguist Joseph Greenberg places the Dinka language within the second family of African languages, known as Nilo-Saharan. The Dinka language, commonly referred to as “Dinka,” uses a writing system based on the Latin alphabet, enriched by the inclusion of local elements.
“Chi back” is a common greeting among the Dinka people, meaning “How are you?”. The response to “Chi back” is “avado,” which signifies that the individual is feeling well or is in the best of conditions.
Sudanese journalist Jamal al-Badawi suggests that the Dinka people have a unique set of beliefs grounded in distinctive myths and rituals, almost constituting their own religion, complete with a creation story and rituals surrounding death.
According to researchers, the Dinka believe in a single god, known as “Nhialic,” whose spirit resides within the tribe’s members. They also hold the belief that their ancestor, Deng Det, shares traits and characteristics akin to prophets. According to al-Badawi, in Dinka tradition, Deng Det’s birth is likened to the birth of Jesus Christ.
The myth revolves around the arrival of the revered Dinka ancestor, Deng Det, whose name in the Dinka language translates to “supreme God.” The story recounts how, on a rainy day with heavy clouds, a tall and elegant girl named Alwet descended from the heavens. She was visibly pregnant and, immediately upon her arrival, gave birth to a beautiful baby whose teeth dazzled all onlookers. Alwet promised to reveal more about the child, but only after the Dinka would slaughter white bulls, feast and celebrate.
As legend has it, Alwet revealed the child’s name to be Deng Det. She foretold that Deng Det would safeguard the Dinka and serve as a vital link between her and them.
Subsequently, Alwet vanished. Amid heavy rain, lightning and thunder, she returned to the sky, leaving her child in the care of the Dinka, who now regarded him as their grandfather. Deng Det imparted moral and spiritual values, advising against theft, encouraging generosity and emphasising respect for women, especially the elderly. He also discouraged adultery and treachery, advocated hospitality towards strangers and promoted the use of cows as dowry in marriages.
It is noteworthy that an alternate myth attributes the Dinka’s origins to a different ancestor: Garang.
Death Rituals: The Kujur
The Dinka tribe holds a profound belief in immortality through the reincarnation of souls and by immortalising the deceased’s name to perpetuate their memory. The Dinka religion acknowledges the existence of the “kujur,” which is a spirit residing in a chosen individual, serving as a mediator between our world and the spirit world. The kujur of the deceased can reincarnate in an animal, a tree, rain, fire or other natural elements, although this casts a spell upon the associated animal or object, making it a member of the family.
Deng Gog, a researcher specialising in southern heritage, explains, “For instance, I am from the Dinka tribe, and my family considers the lion part of our kin. We were born together and share the same blood.
Consequently, we do not hunt or harm the lion, even if it threatens our livestock. In such instances, it claims a share of the family’s wealth. However, if a lion kills one of our family members, it is believed that insufficient sacrifices were made during a family member’s marriage to avert harm.”
The Dinka people have intricate rituals surrounding death stemming from their belief in eternal life after death: “These rituals differ between common individuals and sultans, providing solace that the departed souls reside in peace. Neglecting the rituals is thought to invite misfortune upon the family.”
The Myth of God and Life
One of the most fundamental Dinka myths centres around the relationship between God and life. The book Dinka Tribe of South Sudan describes the belief that once a close and continuous connection between the earth and the sky existed, making God more accessible to humans. Old age was not a source of fear; those who reached it could travel from earth to heaven and return with youthful vigour once the crescent moon appeared. A rope connecting heaven and earth facilitated the journey.
According to a Dinka myth, death and old age were introduced when a female bird named Atoc took offence after a woman killed one of Atoc’s offspring while shooing them away from the sorghum she was grinding. In retaliation, Atoc severed the rope between heaven and earth, depriving humans of the joy of life. According to the Dinka, death has been part of human existence since that day.
The Jonglei Canal
The Jonglei Canal project, initially proposed during the British occupation of Sudan and Egypt in the 19th century, seeks to alter the course of the White Nile, diverting water from the wetlands in South Sudan to prevent water loss. The White Nile is one of the two major tributaries of the Nile River.
Construction on the project started decades ago but was halted after completing approximately 70 per cent as a result of the Sudanese civil war that raged from 1983 to 2005. Some argue that the canal’s construction played a role in instigating the civil war and, later, South Sudan’s independence in 2011.
The project continues to draw mixed reactions. Supporters believe it will enable the use of excess swamp water that would have otherwise evaporated, benefiting Egypt and Sudan.
Conversely, residents of the south, including the Dinka people, view the canal as a threat to their pastures. They also believe that once completed, the canal’s waters will flood the Aliyab Valley, where they graze their livestock. For this reason, the canal project was a target for separatist forces during the civil war.
John Garang, a historical leader of the South Sudan separatist movement and a Dinka himself, completed a doctoral thesis addressing the adverse impacts of the canal project on traditional residents of Jonglei State.
Overview of the Political Conflict
Various groups within South Sudan have voiced their concerns regarding the Dinka people’s dominant influence both before and after the region’s secession from Sudan.
The Nuer people, led by Riek Machar, have been prominent opponents of the Dinka at various points in Sudan’s history. Their longstanding rivalry came to the forefront when South Sudan gained independence in 2011.
Machar, a former vice president of South Sudan, continues to be embroiled in heated political disputes with President Salva Kiir, who represents the Dinka in South Sudan’s current political landscape.