Nuba, or Nubans


Nuba, or Nubans (not associated with Nubians), is a general term given to peo-ple of non-Arab descent living in the Nuba Mountains of southern Kordofan, Sudan. There are more than 60 main groups with as many as 100 mutually unintelligible languages belonging to the Nilo-Saharan language phylum, and Ara-bic is the lingua franca. Most of the Nuba are subsistence farmers. Some groups are Muslim, some Christian, and many still practice a traditional religion. For centu-ries, they suffered slave raids, which dev-astated the population. Today, about 2 million live in the mountains.

The Nuba have occupied the moun-tains, long a place of escape for people fleeing surrounding areas, for 1,000 years. References to “Black Nubo” or “mountain people” appear as early as the 4th century, buttherewasnoactualcontactuntilthe 16th century when an Arab holy man arrived and married the daughter of a chief, founding a kingdom and converting the inhabitants to Islam.

Arab traders fre-quented the hills, which became a source of slaves. In the 18th century, the Baggara, nomadic Arabs to the north, began raiding lower regions, causing an increase in the numbers of refugees, pushing the Nuba higher into the mountains. The slave trade grew in intensity in the 19th century along with Arabization in the northern hills. Conversion to Islam was a means of pro-tection against slave raids in that Islamic law forbids enslaving a free Muslim. The religion also encourages owners to a free slave who, as a slave, converts to Islam.

The Nuba live in permanent, clan-based settlements with farming dependent on rainfall. The leader of the community is the rainmaker, a hereditary position. Crops include sorghum, tobacco, cotton, and vegetables. Nuba also raise cattle, goats, and pigs. Women enjoy considerable free-dom, choosing their husbands and partici-pating in religious and cultural activities. Nuba are known for their intricate body art, including body painting and scarification. Wrestling is an important social activity practiced by both men and women.

Traditional religions are based on ancestor spirits contacted by means of an intermediary or kujur who can be male or female. The kujur is consulted in all aspects of life, including when to plant and harvest crops. Among Islamic groups, this role has been adopted by holy men. Ties to ancestors give Nuba an important connection to their homeland.

In the early 20th century, policies of the Anglo-Egyptian government were instru-mental in minimizing Islamization and containing Arab herdsmen. Nuba was included in the southern area of British control that was closed to Arabs and Mus-lims. The policy was favored by Evelyn Baring Lord Cromer, the British commis-sioner in Cairo, and Sir Reginald Wingate, the Governor-General of the Sudan, fol-lowing the defeat of the Mahdist state in 1899.

As in the other parts of the south, the British encouraged English and Chris-tianity instead of Arabic and Islam, and schools were in the hands of Christian mis-sionaries. However, with independence in 1956 and an Arab central government,Islamization in the region intensified and conflicts with Baggara herdsmen over grazing and water rights ensued. Indepen-dence also brought civil war to Sudan between the Arab north and the non-Arab south, catching the Nuba in between.

Fric-tion mounted in the 1970s and 1980s, lead-ing some Nuba to join the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). In retaliation, the government armed the Bag-gara, who killed thousands of Nuba. In 1992, the government forced Nuba into “Peace Villages,” demanding conversion to Islam and enlistment in the army to fight against the southern rebels. At the same time, rebels were conscripting Nuba to fight the northern government forces. Years of civil war have brought the Nuba way of life to near extinction. A cease-fire negotiated in 2002 has brought some hope to the Nuba.

Geri Shaw

Further Reading

Insoll, Timothy. The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cambridge: Cam-bridge University Press, 2003.

Olson, James. The Peoples of Africa: An Eth-nohistorical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Ruhhal, Suleiman Musa. The Right to Be Nuba. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, Inc., 2001.

Seligman, C. G. and Brenda X. Seligman.Pagan Tribes of the Nilotic Sudan. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1965.

Stokes, Jamie. “Nuba.” In Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Africa and the Middle East.New York: Facts on File, 2009.

Taschen, Angelika, ed. Africa: Leni Riefen-stahl. Cologne, Germany: Taschen, 2005.