The Nilotes People


The Nilotes make up a large number of the population of southern Sudan, southwestern Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. Today they number close to 10 million in total, though figures vary greatly from one group to another. In Sudan alone they represent one-third of the total population of the country, or close to 4 million people. The term Nilote comes from the language they speak, Nilote or Nilot, which belongs to the Nilo-Saharan language group. Nilotic peoples tend to be tribal in their traditional sociopolitical organization with an eco-nomy based mainly on cattle, though some Nilotessuchasthe AnuakinSudanand the Luo in Kenya are primarily settled agriculturalists. The Shilluk of southern Sudan developed into a state with a divine king called a reth, who embodies the Shil-luk people and who is thought to possess the soul of their cultural hero and first reth Nyikang.

Nilotes, with a pastoral economic base, were only able to move south once the barrier of permanent river-flooding became seasonal in the second millennium and movement with their cattle was pos-sible. These cattle people, called the Jii, also raised cereal crops and began to replace older populations called the Koman. Koman vocabulary was adopted particularly into Luo and aspects of Sudanic religion with the concept of a Divinity became part of Jii culture.

Nilotes are divided into three main groupings: the Southern Nilotes, who pushed into Kenya and Tanzania around 500 BCE; the Eastern Nilotes who also pushed south into Kenya around 500 to 1000 CE; and the Western Nilotes, most of whom live in southern Sudan. The Nilotes home region is in central (the Gazira) and southern Sudan, and they con-tinued to occupy areas in the Gazira until into the 15th century, when the Dinka were eventually pushed south into their present area in southern Sudan. The Western Nilotes include the Luo, Shilluk, Anuak, Acholi, Jur, and the Dinka and Nuer, the most powerful groups in southern Sudan and among the largest. The Dinka are the single largest Nilotic population in Sudan and account for a full 10 percent of the country’s population while the Nuer count for 5 percent.

The Eastern Nilotes include the Maasai, Sam-buru, Karamajong, and Turkana. The Southern Nilotes include the Pokot, Kalenjin, and Kitoki. It is possible that the Tutsi of Rwanda and Burundi emerged from the combination of Hinda, Hima (southern Nilotic peoples) and ruling Bantu lineages, who imposed a system of vassalage on settled Bantu farmers who became the Hutu.Nilotic peoples are characterized by being mainly cattle herders. Among many Nilotic peoples, such as the Nuer of Sudan, cattle play a vital role in the lives of the people, which the British anthropologist Evans-Pritchard notes, “Cattle are their dearest possession and they gladly risk their lives to defend their herds or to pillage those of their neigh-bors” (16).

Deng notes the same sort of love for cattle by the Dinka: “[A] Dinka will kill and even risk his life for a single cow” (2). This strong attachment to their livestock, in particular to their cattle, has given rise to the concept of the “cattle complex” to describe the close relation-ship and social value placed on cattle by many Nilotic peoples. Cattle are adorned with large bells and woolen tassels attached to the ends of their horns; horns are weighted to be shaped for easier and quick identification, and bride wealth pay-ments are calculated in numbers of cattle, as are payments such as in compensation for causing the death of another.

Evans-Pritchard noted that the Nuer language has a large number of terms to describe the color or combination of colors and hide patterns for their cattle. Milk, rather than meat, is the main diet for many Nilotic peoples, and the Maasai, for exam-ple, mix milk with fresh blood drawn from one of their cows for a high-protein drink that is the staple of their traditional diet. In the past, during the dry season when cows are not lactating, the Maasai drank fresh cows blood from a wound on the neck which, and once a jug had beenlled with the steaming, hot blood, it was closed with a plaster of mud and the cow was released.

Young boys among many Nilotic peo-ples are presented with their first ox as part of coming of age and, in many instan-ces, even take on the names of their favor-ite ox. Deng relates the Dinka tale that explains their heavy reliance on cattle. In the past, while hunting, the ancestors of the Dinka killed the mother of both the buffalo and the cow. The buffalo became the enemy of man and will attack him whenever he approaches, while the cow took revenge in a different manner. The cow allowed herself to be domesticated and made man her slave to fight to possess her and to protect her. The Maasai justified cattle raiding in the past by saying that in the distant past, all cattle belonged to them, and cattle raids were a means to try to get them all back.

Many Nilotic peoples practice some form of scarification and/or circumcision of both boys and girls. Scarification is often part of initiation ceremonies, and for the Dinka, 7–10 incisions are made on the male initiate’s forehead. Deng notes that the initiate tries to remain still and serene while chanting songs of bravery; however, the loss of blood can be great enough that they faint. The closely related Nuer also have long incisions made on the forehead of young men as a central part of the initiation ceremony. The Nuer usually cut three long incisions, and Evans-Pritchard noted that the cuts are deep enough to actually scar the skull. The inci-sions are rubbed with ash in order to stop the flow of blood and to cause the scars to form a raised ridge or lump.

In Sudan, most Nilotes, with the notable exception of the Dinka, do not practice circumcision, perhaps as a means of separating them-selves from their Arab Muslim neighbors. In Sudan, generally only those who have converted to Islam are circumcised. Else-where, such as in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, Nilotic people mark coming of age with circumcision.The Maasai practice both male and female circumcision. Once a young man reaches the age of between 15 and 18 and a young woman between the ages of 12 and 14, they are circumcised. The male is required to stay outside all night in the cold and is drenched in cold water (to help deaden the pain) before the operation.

Taunted by his age mates (to mentally toughen him), he is circumcised in the early morning at the entrance to the fam-ily’s cattle kraal. He is not to cry out or to give any indication that he has felt pain. Maasai circumcision leaves a flap of skin under the head of the penis. The boy may bleed a great deal, and a calabash of fresh cow’s blood is given to him to help replace the amount of his blood he might lose. Maasai girls are allowed to cry out from the pain of the operation. She is circum-cised by woman who uses a special curved knife to cut away the clitoris and the labia minora. She is held by her female relatives who give her encouragement, laugh, and joke, while the girls frequently cry out and plead for the women to stop.

All hope the operation is successful and the girl is inspected after her recovery. If not enough had been cut away due to the girl’s strug-gling, she may be forced to endure the operation again.Most Nilotic peoples have age set organization, and both boys and girls go through important steps in life, such as ini-tiation, together in groups. Age sets help form other strong bonds between members of the group in addition to those of close kinship. Dinka of Sudan do practice cir-cumcision, which they do when the child is around six years old. The operation is done by tying a string made of hair from a giraffe tail around the foreskin and then using a knife to cut it off.

To help distin-guish themselves from Arabs, they also remove the bottom six front teeth, using a fishing spear to pry loose each of the teeth and make sure the whole tooth, including the root, is forced out of the gums. Ritual scarification, removal of teeth, and lip plugs/dishes may have started as ways of making themselves less attractive to slavers.Following their circumcision, Maasai boys become warriors or moran.This stageintheirlivesismarkedbywearing their hair long, and their bodies are smeared with red ocher and animal fat as well as decorated with bead ornaments made by a warrior’s numerous preteen sweethearts.

Warriors are not allowed to marry, but may have as many sweethearts as they want from among the prepubescent girls of the camp. In order to lessen the problem of possible out-of-marriage preg-nancies, no girl who has had a period is allowed to be a warrior’s girlfriend. After seven years as warriors, the moran are ready for the next stage in their lives, to become elders or ilterekeyani. The time for the ceremony, called eunoto,is selected by a laibon or diviner-priest. The ceremony is marked with great emotion, as the warriors have their heads shaven by their mothers and all of the trappings of being a warrior are taken from them, and they are given instead those that mark them as elders, a cloak and walking stick, and they may then marry.

Closely related to the Maasai are the Samburu of northern Kenya. The term Samburu stems from the Maasai word samburr for the goatskin bag worn by most of the tribesmen and containing the essentials for travel. In the 19th century, the Samburu were frequently called the Burkineji or “people of the white goats.” Their own name for themselves, Lokop or Loikop, and its meaning is an ongoing debate. It seems to mean something like “owners of the land.” The people and their language are close to Maasai in that over 95 percent of the vocabulary is the same, and some have proposed that they descend from the Laikipiak Maasai, who were mainly destroyed in the 19th century.Other sections of the Samburu may be of Turkana, Rendille, and other pastoralists who coalesced in the late 19th century.

The Samburu practice many of the same customs as the Maasai, including male and female circumcision. The Sam-buru are a pastoral people, and young men enter a long period of serving as war-riors following their circumcision. The warriors, like their Maasai counterparts, dress up in beaded necklaces, bracelets, and earrings as well as wear beaded head-bands. Their hair is elaborately coiffed with red clay. Most Samburu wore two pieces of cloth, one wrapped around the waist and a second around the shoulders. Until recently, colors and patterns of the cloth helped identify the age of the wearer. The Samburu have begun to wear nontra-ditional clothes such as trousers, shorts, and shirts since the 1990s.

Samburu camps remain generally small and may only consist of a single family. Eachwifeamantakeshasherownhut and the housing is made of sticks, cattle dung, and grass. Nearby are the nightly cat-tle and sheep pens protected from wild ani-mals and thieves made of thorn bush fences.Among the greatest of changes that have been made on the Samburu in recent years is the change in their diet. More and more, they have become dependent on buying corn meal and other foods from local merchants with the monies they have made selling livestock. As a result, sugar is on the rise to sweeten porridge and tea. While the traditional milk-and-blood diet is still consumed, a few Samburu have turned to farming.

The Turkana are another greatly isolated Nilotic population living in the arid northwest of Kenya near the borders with Uganda and Ethiopia. The Turkana are also related to the Maasai, but claim their origin is from across the Red Sea in Arabia. They have taken on a number of aspects such as clothes that make them hard to distinguish from the Samburu, but in the past, they wore leather wraps and capes decorated with ostrich shell beads. An unusual aspect of tra-ditional dress was the wrist knife. The wrist knife was shaped like a bracelet, and when swinging his arms, the wearer was able to slash his opponents. These are not worn to-day, but they are collectors’ items in the African art market. Although isolated from much of Kenya, the Turkana have felt the impact of the modern state more keenly than the Samburu.

The majority of Nilotes still practice their traditional religions or have been converted mainly to Christianity. In Sudan, some have converted to Islam, such as one of the chiefly families of the Ngok Dinka. Figures for the numbers of Christian converts in Sudan are in doubt, as they are for all Nilotic peoples; for example, 25 percent of Maasai are esti-mated to be Christians, but this is ques-tioned by some experts as being too high. Figures for the Turkana in Kenya, is between 5 and 10 percent Christian, which may be closer to the reality for most Nilotes. The remote region inhabited by the Samburu have both Protestant and Catholic missions established, and there has been some conversion, but these cen-ters also offer education and health serv-ices that might be more attractive than the pull of conversion.

In Sudan, the British imposed a policy that isolated the south from the Arab,Muslim north of the country at the behest of the British Commissioner in Egypt, Eve-lyn Baring Lord Cromer, and British Governor-General of the Sudan, Sir Regi-nald Wingate. In an effort to keep East Africa British and Christian spheres of in-fluence, the two men developed policies to lock out Arabs and Muslims from southern Sudan. The policy came into place in 1904 shortly after the reconquest of the Sudan and the fall of the Mahdist state in 1899.

They opened up areas for Protestant and Catholic missionaries, and education was left in the hands of the missionaries. Suda-nese independence in 1956 did not bring the north and south together in an easy bond. Shortly following independence, the northern-based government began to close missions and attempt to attract southerners to Islam. Today, it is estimated that only about 20 percent of southern Sudanese are Christians (including non-Nilotic peoples such as the Zande), and the majority fol-low traditional religions. Only a small minority of southern Sudanese converted to Islam, perhaps less than 10 percent. Among those who converted to Islam are some of the lineages of the Ngok Dinka.

Most Nilotes were brought under colonial authority only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It can be questioned whether or not the Nuer ever really recog-nized colonial authority. Sudan was incor-porated into a larger Egyptian-Turkish state in 1821 when Ibrahim Pasha, son of the Egyptian ruler Muhammad ‘Ali, began the conquest of Sudan. Ibrahim Pasha was able to extend Egyptian authority over much of Sudan and established what is called the Turkiyah, meaning the “Turkish State” (Egypt being nominally under the Ottoman Sultan).

Isma‘il (1863–1879), one of Muhammad ‘Ali’s line to rule Egypt, was able to push ever further into Sudan and defeatedthe mixedArab-Nubian Shay-qiyah tribal forces, which he subsequently recruited as irregular cavalry. Khartoum was founded as the capital of the new prov-ince in 1825. Egypt’s rulers wanted to be sure that Egypt, not the British or French colonial powers, would have control of the source of the Nile and encouraged the southern expansion by the Turko-Egyptian officers. They were successful in extending their control into southern Sudan, mainly along the course of the Nile, and established the province of Equatoria in the 1870s, though they exercised no real control over the Dinka and Nuer.

In 1881, Muhammad Ahmad ibn ‘Abdallah rose to challenge the Turkiyah. The Turko-Egyptian government had gen-erally been very abusive of Sudanese sub-jects, and Muhammad Ahmad opposed the legitimacy of the Turkiyah on religious grounds. He gathered a following whom he called the Ansar after those who gath-ered around the Prophet Muhammad in Madinah, and had significant victories over better-armed Turkiyah forces. He declared himself to be the Mahdi or “the Guided One” sent to renew Islam. By 1885, the Mahdi’s forces had nearly all of Sudan under their control. That year, the Mahdi died and was succeeded by ‘Abdallah ibn Muhammad as his Khalifah (a title first used by the successor of the Prophet Muhammad), who counted on his own Arab Baggarah tribe for support.

The Mahdiyah state allowed enslaving of non-Muslims, and the Shilluk, Nuer, Dinka, and others were subject to raids. Nonetheless, the Ngok Dinka forged ties with both the Turkiyah andwiththe Mah-diyah governments, resulting in a stronger, more centralized authority unlike the rest of the Dinka.The British had little impact on most of the Nilotes in southern Sudan for the first several decades after the reconquest in 1899. The first two officers sent to deal with them were both killed in 1919 by theDinka and1927bythe Nuer,respec-tively. Incorporation of the south into the rest of Sudan did not really take place until 1956.

Independence governments tended to marginalize the Nuba,Dinka,Nuer, Fur, and even the Arabic-speaking Baggarah in favor of the riverine Arabs such as the Shayaqiyah, Ja‘aliyin, and Danqalah, the main sources for the Mahdis Ansar and the Turkiyah’s Jihadiyah troops. They are also called the awlad al-bahr or riverine Arabs who see themselves as being culturally superior to the awal al-gharib or Westerners, which include both Arabs, such as the Baggarah, and non-Arabs, such as the Fur, who are considered to be less “civilized.” Conflict between the Arab, Muslim north and the non-Arab and non-Muslim south erupted as early as 1955 with a mutiny by southern soldiers. Problems escalated until 1958, when the Sudanese army took over the central government in a military coup.

The long-running civil war in Sudan began. The rebel guerrilla army eventually took the name of Anya-Nya (the origin and mean-ing of the name is still obscure) which served as a refuge for the beleaguered civilian population of the south against the forced cultural unification policies of the central government.In 1972, the Addis Abba Agreement was signed in order to bring the 17-year war to an end. The attempt was to not include in any way things that would derail the negotiations, including any mention of the war’s many atrocities against civilians. Not all southerners were willing to abide by the agreement, and those members of the Anya-Nya who refused to put down their weapons were referred to as Anya-Nya II.

The Southern Peoples Liberation Move-ment/Army (SPLM/A) was founded in 1983 by John Garang, a Dinka. The SPLA became so identified as a Dinka organiza-tion that anyone who was a Dinka was automatically seen to be a rebel and a member of the SPLA. Garang was a well-educated man with a BA in economics from Grinnell College in the United States and an MA in African agricultural econom-ics from the University of Dar es-Salam in Tanzania. As a student, he met Yoweri Museveni, later president of Uganda, and the two remained close allies. Garang joined Anya-Nya in 1971 and rose steadily through the ranks to become a colonel after completing the U.S. Army Infantry Offi-cer’s Advance Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1974.

He finished his PhD in economics at Iowa State University at Ames in 1980. In a period of reconciliation between the north and south, Garang was appointed to be the head of the Suda-nese Staff College in Omdurman in 1982. Shortly afterward, he was sent south by the Sudanese government to deal with the Dinka, organized the SPLM/A, and the fighting erupted again. Garang defected to the rebels and quickly became their main voice. Garang died in 2005 after actively participating in the attempt for a compre-hensive peace settlement signed in Kenya in January of the same year. Garang, unlike many other southern Sudanese, supported unification with the north in a type of federal system.

The Nilotes of Sudan voted during the week of January 9, 2011, in a referen-dum either for continued unity with the north or for total separation. Initially, the northern government of ‘Umar Bashir declared that, though it would allow the referendum to take place, it would not agree to the south separating. The vote needed to have at least a 60 percent turn-out of the southern electorate and in the weeks leading up to the referendum, it became clear that the south would vote to separate. Rhetoric from Khartoum began to change as did coverage on Sudanese satellite TV channels.

President Bashir himself made a final visit to the south before the elections, during which he declared that Sudan would be happy to help with the emergence of its new neigh-boring state. After five decades of civil war, perhaps southern Sudan can now deal with the process of peace with the north and internal development.Other Nilotes in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania tend to remain on the political fringes of the state. The Kalenjin produced one Kenyan president, Daniel Arap Moi, who served from 1978 to 2002, when the constitution did not allow him to run again.

The Moi years saw the emergence of a single-party state in Kenya and the growth of human rights abuses. The Acholi in Uganda also produced one short-lived presidency in a military coup, but under Idi Amin, many Acholi military officers and soldiers were killed by government forces. In Tanzania and Kenya, Nilotic peoples tend to live in isolated areas and receive minimal education. Nonetheless, picturesque Sam-buru, Maasai, Turkana, and others serve as important draws for African safaris. Bead-work made by their women is an important source of local income for them.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Beckwith, Carol, and Angela Fisher. African Ceremonies. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2002.

Collins, Robert. A History of Modern Sudan.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Deng, Francis Mading. The Dinka of the Sudan. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc., 1984.

Essien, Kwame, and Toyin Falola. Culture and Customs of Sudan. Westport, CT: Green-wood Press, 2008.