views updated May 18 2018


LOCATION: Southern Sudan
POPULATION: 4 million
RELIGION: Traditional faith (worship of Kuoth); Christianity
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Dinka; Shilluk; Sudanese


To generations of anthropology students, the Nuer of southern Sudan have been one of the best-known peoples in Africa, thanks to the pioneering cultural studies of British social anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard.

Early in the 20th century, the Nuer were estimated to number about half a million. They occupied the swampy flood plain known as the Sudd region along the White Nile. These farmer-herders lived by raising cattle and cultivating crops, moving away from their permanent settlements in the dry season after the rains had tapered off and the floods had receded in order to take advantage of grazing in low-lying areas near rivers and streams. Fishing, hunting, and the gathering of wild fruits rounded out their diet.

When the British conquered Sudan and eventually brought the Nuer people under their control, they were surprised that the Nuer could have high population densities and broad, stable networks of social organization without any formal political organization or leadership. To account for this complexity of this relatively egalitarian organization based on kinship relations, as well as the legendary military successes the Nuer enjoyed, the famous British anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard developed the concept of “segmentary lineages.” These kinship groups, which traced descent in the male line, could mobilize in opposition to similar-level opponents in any social conflict among the Nuer or between them and outsiders. Th us, even without a centralized political leader, they could effectively unite against enemies, making them a formidable military foe. The theory of segmentary opposition and studies of the Nuer have fascinated anthropologists and their students ever since.

Thus the fame of the Nuer stems from their early notoriety as one of the most courageous and steadfast peoples of Africa in their resistance to colonial conquest and imperial domination. British and Egyptian forces conquered Sudan in 1898, and most Nuer communities had nominally submitted to British rule before the outbreak of World War I, but non-cooperation and resistance remained widespread. It was not until the 1920s that systematic efforts were made to extend effective British presence into some areas of Nuerland. The last large-scale armed uprising was not put down until the end of the 1920s, when Royal Air Force planes were deployed in an “experiment in the pacification of primitive peoples” to fire-bomb Nuer villages and the earthen mounds dedicated to their prophets. The invaders also strafed the fleeing people and confiscate their cattle.

Once armed resistance was finally crushed, the British colonizers had the difficult task of subjecting the proudly independent Nuer people to the principles of “indirect rule” and regularizing administration and taxation in spite of the lack of native institutions and structures for political control. The British never truly accomplished this task; neither did the series of Sudanese governments that followed. In fact, by the time of Sudanese independence in 1956, civil war had broken out in the southern region, eventually pulling the entire Nuer area into armed conflicts that continue into the late 1990s, with only one short relatively peaceful period from 1972 to 1983. The Khartoum government brutally suppressed the African ethnic groups in an attempt to control the oil and water on their land.

The civil war between the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) led by the late General Garang and the Government of the Sudan (GoS) raged from 1983 to 9 January 2005 when a Comprehensive Peace agreement was signed between the two parties. The war claimed millions of lives, forced many into exile and wasted livelihoods of millions of people, destroyed the physical infrastructure, hampered the economic base and caused the disintegration of social fabrics. This in turn has had a serious impact on traditional value systems, norms, and adaptation mechanisms. The treaty granted Southern Sudan a semi-autonomous status within the larger Sudan. Nevertheless, many Nuer still feel that they have been shortchanged in the composition of the Government of National Unity (GONU), headed by President Al Bashir and Salva Kiir Mayardit. They allege the government is dominated by the Dinka tribe and therefore misrepresents the Sudanese reality.


Nuerland is located in the southern Sudan between 7° and 10° north and 29° and 34° east. The main channel of the Nile River divides the country into western and eastern regions. The vast majority of the Nuer today live in their traditional homeland, located in the east Upper Nile Province around the junction of the Nile River with the Bahr el Ghazal and Sobat Rivers, and extending up the Sobat across the Ethiopian border. Nuer are geographically located in the heartland of the Upper Nile towards the Eastern Region of Jonglei state in Southern Sudan. They are bordered by the Gawaar of Ayod from the West, Dinka of Bor from the South West, Murle from the South, Anyuak from the East, Jikany of Nasir from the North East, Dinka of Ngok, and Luach from the North.

The region receives heavy rains—about 50 to 100 cm (20 to 40 in) per year—which falls almost entirely from May through October, with average daily maximum temperatures about 30° to 32°c (86° to 90°f). Dry winds blow from the north from November until April, bringing clear, sunny skies, with March and April being very hot months with high temperatures in the range of 38°c (100°f). The Nuer homeland is very flat, causing slow drainage and widespread flooding during the rainy season. Those same lands offer lush grazing for cattle during the dry season. The landscape also includes a few trees, such as small groves of thorny acacias and lalob trees, a very large shade tree, and a few palm trees.

While most Nuer still live in their home area, many have migrated to urban areas at various times to take advantage of job opportunities. During the civil wars in the period since 1955, and especially since 1983, thousands of Nuer have also fled north to the national capital, Khartoum, to other cities, or even to other countries to seek refuge from the fighting. Since the 1960s, thousands of rural Nuer have lived outside Sudan, particularly in western Ethiopia along the upper stretches of the Sobat river.

It is difficult to assess how life has changed in the traditional territories of the Nuer along the upper Nile and Sobat rivers because of the disruption of life in the region. However, in the time since the end of the colonial period, many Nuer have come to live outside their homeland, particularly in the cities of the north, where they have led very different lives. Taxes imposed by the British, as well as measures restricting Nuer raids on other groups for cattle, led to the first significant migrations of Nuer in search of work for pay. Most migrants intended to return home after a brief period, with enough money to buy a herd large enough to support a family in the traditional way of life; but the dislocations of the civil war and a devastating flood in 1964 that destroyed many herds have made returning increasingly difficult for many Nuer.

In seeking wage employment in the north, the Nuer men looked for work that they considered in keeping with their proud heritage as brave warriors. Much of the work available was in domestic service and other menial work that Dinka and other refugees from neighboring southern communities accepted, but which most Nuer rejected as demeaning. Instead, many Nuer found their way into construction labor, where they became the core labor of the labor force in many northern cities and on construction crews for irrigation dams and other structures. Women eventually began to accompany the men, and whole families would live on construction sites in shelters built from available scrap material. This reduced the living costs of the workers, but it created problems because the conditions were not compatible with the standards of female modesty and seclusion common among Muslim northerners.


The Nuer call themselves Naath, which means “human beings.” The Nuer, Dinka, and Atwot (Atuot) are sometimes considered one ethnic group. The Nuer language is a Nilotic language closely related to the speech of the Dinka and Atwot. The language is uniform with no definable dialects.

To the ears of English speakers, the Nuer language sounds airy, light, melodic, and breathy, with few hard consonants. It has several consonants that are not usually found at the beginning of English words, such as the sound ng (as in sing) or ny (as the Spanish ñ in señor or French gn in Boulogne. For example, most common names for Nuer women and girls begin with the latter sound: Nyayoi, Nyawec (the c at the end is pronounced ch). Because of these unusual sounds, the written form of the language developed by missionaries in the 1930s and 1940s includes several letters not used in writing European languages.

To identify a person, the given name is followed by the name of the father, since the Nuer consider kinship through the father's line very important. So if a man named Cuol names his son Gatkuoth and his daughter Nyaruol, they would be called Gatkuoth Cuol and Nyaruol Cuol. A child is usually named by the father or another member of the father's family and may have another name that the relatives on the mother's side use. Women do not change their names when they marry, but after a woman has a child (named Wei, for example), other women might often call her “mother-of-Wei.” People also have nicknames and ceremonial names. Among male friends of their own age groups, for example, boys and men are often called by the name of the bull they received at initiation or the name of their current favorite bull in their herd.

Most Nuer cannot read their language, but oral language is well developed. Nuer enjoy verbal wit, and are known as brilliant conversationalists. Major forms of entertainment include joking, creating and reciting poetry, and composing and performing original songs for one another. Sample Nuer expressions include wut pany (“a real man”), male magua! (“big hello!”), jin athin? (“Are you there?”=“How are you?”), and nyang (“crocodile”).


Nuer honor the memory of their famous prophets, known as guk, who are believed to be possessed by one of the sky spirits or lesser divinities. One such prophet was a man named Ngundeng, who died in l906. He was said to be able to cure illnesses and infertility. During his lifetime he and his followers constructed a large earthen pyramid, approximately 12 m (40 ft) high, made of earth, ashes and cattle camp debris; they surrounded it with over a hundred upright elephant tusks. It was built in honor of the sky god Deng and for the glory of the prophet Ngundeng; people came from miles around to help with the building and later to sacrifice cattle there. The monument was blown up by the British in 1928. The songs and prophecies of Ngundeng and other prophets are passed down the generations through oral tradition and are still influential today. It is believed that the spirit that possesses a prophet later possesses one of his descendants.


The Nuer religion involves belief in a divine creator or high god, Kuoth, who sustains life and health, and in many lesser spirits. The Nuer honor both the high god and the spirits (or lesser divinities) through observance of moral rules (including observation of kinship duties and other social obligations) and sacrifices. The two kinds of leaders in the Nuer religious system are prophets, who are believed to be earthly representatives of some of the lesser divinities/spirits of the air, and “earth priests,” also known as “leopard-skin chiefs.” The latter name for these leaders comes from their traditional mark of office, a leopard skin cape, and their recognized leadership role; but they are not really political leaders, as the term “chief” seems to imply. Instead, they are considered sacred people who can intercede with spirits, conduct sacrifices to help cure illnesses that are believed to be spiritually based, and serve as intermediaries between feuding families, as when revenge is sought after a murder. There are still some active Nuer prophets today, including Wutnyang Gatakek (whose name means “man of crocodile, son of reputation”), a young man who encourages his followers to work hard, become self-reliant, and not succumb to the tendency to blame other ethnic groups for their problems (a practice known as “tribalism”). He does not consider his spiritual leadership to be in conflict with Christianity, and he encourages Christians to continue to follow their religion.

During periods of epidemics or even individual health crises, oracles are sought out to identify the offended spirits and determine the proper recourse. Frequently an offering is presented or an animal is sacrificed in order to appease or drive away the evil spirit. The Nuer pray for health and well-being, offering sacrifices to Kuoth so he will answer their petitions. There is no organized religious hierarchy or system, but many individuals serve as diviners and healers.

The Nuer own the Bieh State, a name which originated from the emerging days of Ngun-Deng Bong, the well known great prophet of Nuer. Bieh in the Nuer language means shrine of Nyun-Deng. It is a Holy place where Nuer people including the non-Nuer from all walks of life come periodically to Bieh for worship.

The Nuer do not believe in a place of after life for the spirit, and their religious concepts deal with concerns of this life. However, they do believe the spirits of the dead can affect their current life, with the more recently deceased having more influence. The Nuer honor and appease the spirits of their ancestors. Cattle are sacrificed to god and the spirits. As among the neighboring Dinka, religious thought and practice is a dialogue with Kuoth. The Nuer pray for health and well-being to Kuoth, offering sacrifices of cattle in hopeful expectation that their sentiments may be realized. Whereas many individuals become diviners and healers (tiet), there is no organized cult or hierarchy of religious functionaries. In most cases, other available medical resources are resorted to when spiritual healing does not bring about the desired outcome. Like other Nilotic peoples, the Nuer regard long-deceased ancestors with respect and veneration, but are concerned in their earthly lives with the power of the recently deceased to cause misfortune. Cattle play an important part in Nuer religion and ritual. 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. There is also a widespread belief in the concept of the “evil eye,” where a malevolent person possessing supernatural powers can cast a spell on someone just by gazing upon them.

Although Christian missionaries had worked in some Nuer areas for several decades, relatively few rural Nuer had converted before 1964, the year when all foreign church workers were expelled by the government. In the period of peace (1972–83), however, many new Christian congregations were formed and many Nuer, particularly in the east, converted to Christianity. The majority of Sudan's people, living in central and northern Sudan, are Muslims, and although some southerners have converted to Islam, recent reports suggest that the Nuer prefer their traditional faith or Christianity. The government of Sudan, especially in the period after Islamic Law was declared in 1983, tried to pressure the non-Muslim peoples of the south to convert to Islam. Since the Islamic-led government has more respect for Christianity than for traditional African religions like the Nuer religion, many Nuer have preferred to become Christians. This has made for many interesting social dilemmas among the Nuer. For example, when Christian and non-Christian Nuer socialize together, as when an animal is sacrificed for religious reasons and later eaten, they try to avoid conflict over beliefs by not referring to the major Divinity or by asserting that “Divinity is one”; that is, they express the belief that there is only one god, even if different people use different names and worship differently.


Until recently, most Nuer did not use dates to calculate the passage of time. Even during the 1970s, most Nuer did not know in what year they were born or how old they were. A woman might tell you her daughter was born “the year of the measles epidemic” or the year of a flood when they had had to eat a lot of lalob fruit. So instead of specific dates for annual holidays, people hold rituals and celebrations whenever they seem appropriate. For example, if a group of boys is ready to be initiated, it can be done at any time of the year, although it is most likely to take place at the end of the rainy season, after harvest, when people have the time and plenty of food has been stored.


A woman in childbirth is attended to by another woman, usually a close relative, who must herself be a mother. People are careful to protect the mother and newborn child from any spiritual danger by making sure that pregnant women or their husbands do not enter the house.

The Nuer nomenclature is rather complex. In some groups the child is named along the male lineage, but traced either through the mother or father's ancestry. A similar system gives the child the last name of the paternal grandfather's first name, the middle name being the father's first name, and the first or given name selected by the father. Christian children often have Biblical names and Sudanese names, used interchangeably. First names, when used, are commonly preceded by a title, like “Mr.”

Among the Nuer, puberty is seen as the passage into adulthood and its responsibilities and is a marked occasion for both sexes. The Nuer do not circumcise either boys or girls, but they do practice certain other body modification rituals related to life transitions. For girls, passage from childhood to adulthood is marked by the first menstruation, at which time the mother prepares her for motherhood and home management.

For males, there is a complicated set of rituals which an entire village age-set progresses through, culminating in ritualized tattooings or scarifications across the forehead. In the past, nearly all boys (and, at least in some areas, girls, too) had their four lower incisors removed at about the age of eight. Aesthetically, this permanent loss of teeth was accompanied by efforts to force the top front teeth outward a little, so that the beautiful white teeth would be more visible in the smiling face. This “orthodontia” was for the purpose of making the children look more beautiful. More recently some families have refused to continue these practices.

Between the ages of 9 and 13, Nuer boys seek permission from their fathers to undergo a manhood initiation ritual. In the past, the boys were much older, about 14 to 16 during the 1930s and about 16 to 18 a century ago. They wait until a group grows to between 5 and 15 boys for mass initiation. The ritual requires extensive preparation of food, and the boys must be healthy and well fed prior to the ritual. On the chosen day, the boys' heads are shaved and anointed. The climax of the ritual is a ceremony in which the boys lie down in a row. Each in turn is cut with a knife by the scarifier, who makes six horizontal lines across the entire forehead and above the ears, all the way down to the bone. Although it is extremely painful, the boys try to show courage and remain silent. Parents and friends gather to watch. Loss of blood is a risk, and the wounds are sometimes cauterized to stop the bleeding.

After the cutting, the young men stay secluded together in a house while the scars are healing, lying for a time on their backs to keep the forehead upward. They can have unmarried people, nursing mothers, and old people as visitors, and they have nothing to do but eat porridge and milk, sleep, and play. Once they are considered healed (after some weeks), the young men are released and lead a procession to the river to bathe. They then return home and declare themselves men, and they and their families and guests celebrate with feasting, games, singing, and dancing. Traditionally the father of each initiate presents him with a spear, a fishing spear, and a bull from which he takes his “bull name.” After this initiation, boys can begin to be sexually active and marry and they take on adult work roles. Those initiated in the same period of years have a very special friendship throughout life.

Some young men today do not want to undergo this ritual, under the influence of education and Christianity. Th ose who do not undergo the full manhood initiation are being called “bull boys,” indicating that people know they are grown up, but do not recognize them as fully adult men who have proven their courage and been scarred like other Nuer.

The next significant transition rite is marriage. This usually follows a period of courtship when visits, poetry recitations, and other intimate exchanges give a couple a chance to decide whether they love each other. Incest is a taboo. If the parents agree to the marriage, the man's family must supply an agreed-upon number of cattle to the bride's family as a bride-price payment. In the old days when cattle were plentiful, the payment might be as many as 40 cows, but today marriages require fewer cattle due to the difficulties of civil war and migration. Some other valuables, such as money, can be substituted for some of the cows.

When a person dies, the corpse is laid to rest in a fetal position on a cowhide in a grave about four feet deep, then covered with another cowhide and buried. Families mourn for a few months, during which time close relatives do not wear ornaments. They then hold a ceremony in which one or two cattle are killed (both to honor the dead and to provide meat for a feast), purification rites are performed, lengthy speeches are made, prayers are offered, and people wash themselves and the possessions of the deceased and shave their heads. (Since almost everyone wears their hair short for cleanliness, it is not unusual for both men and women to shave their heads.) After these ceremonies people again wear ornaments.


Nuer place great value on behaving in a respectful way toward others, offering greetings to strangers and friends alike, and offering hospitality to travelers. It is not considered necessary to offer every visitor a meal, especially if there is no woman around at the moment (since men are not expected to cook for guests), but offering something to drink is important.

Wit, joking, and animated conversation are common among friends and as part of courtship. People generally show respect for their elders. Although men are in a social position somewhat superior to that of women, women have much personal freedom and make most of their own decisions about work, possessions, and interpersonal relations. Relative age is of great importance in interpersonal relationships, determining not only the terms of address but also the manner of acting with others. For example, men of the same “age set” will call each other “brother” and will act informally with one another. Alternatively, someone older than you is accorded utmost respect, and is referred to as “uncle” or “aunt,” or even “father” or “mother” if related by blood.

The sharing of food forms a common bond among people. Leaders who extend hospitality and do not rely excessively on others are admired. Relatives are always expected to share food with each other. Newlyweds do not eat together until after the birth of their first child, when their two families are then considered more solidly related.


In rural areas, Nuer build round, one-room houses out of poles, which are plastered with an adobe-like mixture of mud and dung that dries into solid brown walls. The tall, pointed roofs are thatched with straw. Sometimes the doorways are built very small, so that one has to crouch or even crawl to enter, making it easier to barricade the door at night as protection against wild animals. Similar construction methods are used for the large cattle barns. During the rainy season, the cattle sleep inside, and many of the young men sleep in the rafters of the barns. Since there are many insects—flies by day and mosquitoes by night—smoky fires are lit near the cattle at night; both people (especially children) and animals are often smeared with ashes to keep some of the insects off. While people may look rather strange when newly covered, this is the only insect repellent available in the villages.

Villages do not have electricity or running water, so people must draw water from wells, rivers, or pools, and they make good use of natural light, rising early, and enjoying the warmth and glow of fires at night. Furniture is simple—mats, cowhides, logs for benches, and simple stools and headrests are common; and some people have wood-frame rope beds. For containers, pottery, aluminum pots, and bottles, as well as gourds and baskets, are ordinarily used.

The Nuer homeland is not hospitable for horses, camels, and donkeys, which are commonly ridden in other parts of Sudan, since they develop hoof problems during the rainy season. When people want to travel, they either walk or get a ride on top of the load carried by one of the large open trucks that travel the bumpy, rutted dirt roads of the region. During the rainy season, the roads cannot be used. Dugout canoes or rafts are used on the rivers.

The Nuer experience numerous difficulties in accessing medical care, although to different degrees depending on background factors like educational level exposure to biomedical care in Sudan. They routinely share over-the-counter medications or borrow prescription medicines from others to treat similar symptoms. This is a result of coping with chronic shortages of medicine and severely limited care facilities in Sudan, and of course it circumscribes expensive medical costs.

Herbal preventive and curative measures are particularly relied upon where there is no access to clinics. There are multiple herbal and traditional remedies used by Sudanese. For example, a widely used cure for migraine headaches is a certain chalky compound (clay, mixed with certain leaves and water), which is rubbed over the head. To relieve the symptoms of malaria, there is a certain root chewed like a stick. One common form is called visi ri, a bitter shrub that bends its shoot to follow the sun.


Each married woman has her own house where she and her young children live. The Nuer practice polygyny, so husbands can marry more than one wife if they can afford to. Husbands sleep in the houses of their wives (if they have more than one wife, they go to whichever they wish) or in the cattle barns with other men. Several married women's houses in an extended family may surround large family courtyards, or people can live separately. Houses are usually built near the fields where crops are grown, and often there are some good shade trees and a thicket or forest nearby which can provide firewood and other wild products.

Young children usually work with their parents, gradually learning skills such as milking, gardening, herding, spreading cow dung to dry for fuel, and caring for younger siblings. Fathers and mothers as well as grandparents and other relatives enjoy playing with children. The Nuer prefer to have large families with several children, but poor health conditions and the war have made it difficult for many of their children to survive. It is probably rare today for a mother to have more than three or four surviving children.

Families often have scrawny short-haired dogs that eat scraps and help protect the homestead. They usually do not receive much attention. In contrast, the cattle, although they are the main economic assets of a family, are treated in some ways like pets. People often try to make their cattle beautiful, as by working on their horns as they grow so as to give them interesting shapes, or by brushing the coats of the cattle or decorating their horns with tassels and beads. Sometimes people compose songs or poetry praising their beautiful cattle.

At the domestic level, a woman may, with luck, give birth to six children during her childbearing years. Co-wives do not necessarily reside in proximity. And when they do, the domestic unit can easily number more than a dozen individuals.


The Nuer homeland is a hot climate, and for much of the year people do not need to wear much. Thirty years ago, a simple leather skirt or loincloth was all that a person needed while in his or her own village, although women usually had at least one good dress and both men and women wore capes or blankets tied over one shoulder when they traveled away from home. Currently, men and boys prefer to wear loose-fitting cotton shirts and shorts, while women and girls prefer colorful cotton dresses with perhaps a cape or a head scarf in addition.

Body decoration has always been important to the Nuer. Not only do they remove the lower front teeth, as noted above, but they also make decorative scars on the body in dotted patterns, especially on women's torsos, faces, and other parts of the body. Earrings are popular with both men and women, and the Nuer were doing multiple piercings of the ear long before it became popular in the West. Some people like to stretch the ear piercing with progressively larger plugs, working their way up to film canisters. One style is to loop stiff black giraffe hairs through ear piercings to make macramé-like decorations. Lip piercings decorated with metal ornaments are popular with some girls. For men especially, hair dyeing (especially orange) and patterned head shaving are popular, as is hair sculpture, with some arrangements made to look like cattle horns. Beautiful white beads are made from broken ostrich eggshells (found in ostrich nests), and these are made into stunning white necklaces and waistbands. Some people are skilled at fashioning ivory bracelets that both men and women like to wear on the wrists or upper arms. Ivory is not so common any more as the elephants have become scarce and cannot be hunted, so bone, cowrie shells, and imported plastic and glass ornaments have become more commonly used as jewelry.

Since Nuer have very dark skin, there is no tradition of tattooing, but people often mark their bodies in patterns made with temporary colorings (especially chalky white) for celebrations.


The commonest daily foods for the Nuer are dairy products, especially milk for the young and soured milk, like yogurt, for adults. Liquid butter is also made from milk that is soured in long-necked gourds and shaken for an hour or so to separate out the fat. Since there are no refrigerators to chill the butter, it remains liquid and is used for cooking or poured onto cooked foods. Grains such as corn and sorghum are cooked and eaten with large spoons like hot cereal, with milk, yogurt, or butter. Apart from cow's milk, a soft porridge made from fermented sorghum, mixed with a sour fruit, is commonly used as a weaning food (as well as a food for the infirm or elderly). In the general diet, sorghum, prepared in many different ways, is the most common starch.

The Nuer do not eat meat very often; they prefer to keep their cattle alive, but on a special occasion one of the cattle may be sacrificed and then eaten. When a cow is killed, the meat is often shared with relatives and neighbors, and some of the extra meat is hung out to dry, like beef jerky, to preserve it for future ture use. Men and older boys normally carry spears with them when they walk around the countryside, in case they have a chance to hunt an antelope, gazelle, or other animal. If they are lucky, this can mean a delicious meat meal without anyone having to give up a cow.

Fish are eaten often during the dry season when the herds are taken to pasturelands near the rivers or pools left in low places as the floods recede. River fish trapped in pools are easy to catch as the waters dry up, so that even very young children can catch them by throwing fishing spears in shallow water. Boys 8 to 10 years old can bring home dinner for the whole family while they are out playing in the water on a hot day. At times when fish are plentiful, people can catch more than they need and sun-dry the extras to sell or save for later in the year. Drying gives fish a sour, tangy, flavor that is an acquired taste.

Various vegetables—squash, tomatoes, chili peppers—are grown and cooked, generally in pots on outdoor fires. Vegetables and greens, both wild and cultivated, make up a large proportion of the traditional diet, with meats including freshwater fish, and chicken (although chickens are generally more valued for egg production).

Another very nourishing food that is an acquired taste is cooked cow blood. A small amount of blood can be taken from the neck of a healthy animal without harming it. When cooked, it becomes solid, like the blood sausage eaten by some Europeans, and eating it is somewhat like eating a hunk of bologna.

Wild fruits and nuts are favorite snacks. The most popular food is wild honey, but it is hard to find. A favorite of older people during the dry season—when there is not much work to do and plenty of grain has been harvested—is homemade beer. It looks more like a thin porridge and is very cool and filling, but only mildly alcoholic. Most younger people seem to consider beer drinking in the shade of a tree a rather boring way to spend an afternoon, and since they take pride in being healthier, stronger, and less decadent than their elders, they do not drink beer. Similarly, the pipe tobacco that is raised seems to be smoked mainly by older married men and women.


Most Nuer children today still do not have the opportunity to attend school, since the few rural schools that once existed were destroyed or disrupted by the civil war. However, concerted efforts are being made by both the Government of Southern Sudan and the international community ever since the signing of the Peace Agreement in 2005, to improve the education sector as part of the reconstruction program. Many Nuer are still returning home from refugee status. As refugees go back home they have to reconstruct their individual and family lives and it is common for children to try to support themselves by selling things in the streets or looking for jobs.

Long before the civil war, some missionary schools taught children to read their own language; they also learned English, the language of their colonial power (Britain), and then Arabic. Thus among the educated Nuer in the older generation, many are able to speak, read, and write three languages. But the vast majority of Nuer men and women, although they speak Nuer and often also Arabic, are illiterate.

However most of the Nuer who were able to secure asylum in North America, Western Europe, Australia, and Kenya, for instance, have been able to access education in special programs. For instance some of the Nuer refugees in Kenya were allowed to attend the same classrooms as other Kenyan children.


Nuer music consists mainly of singing. People sing songs they have composed, sometimes accompanying themselves on a simple instrument like the so-called African thumb piano (a small, hollow wooden box with metal tines of different lengths that give different pitches when they are twanged). The rababa, a rural Sudanese stringed instrument, is also often used, in a homemade form made from simple materials: a gallon can, wooden rods, and wires for strings. Whistles and bells are also used in music and dance, but the human voice is the most popular musical instrument. Some songs are widely known and sung in unison, but most are solos. The Nuer do not sing in harmony. Some songs are very rhythmic, and others are more pensive and chantlike. Dancing is usually accompanied by singing and is mostly done for fun.

Written literature is rare, since a system for writing the Nuer language was not developed until the 1930s. But oral literature is well developed, with songs and poetic prophecies passed down through memorization from generation to generation.


Nuer who live in the rural areas must know how to do many types of work just to survive, for they have only themselves to rely on. Children and young men and women herd the cattle. Adult men are responsible for many other tasks and decisions involved in caring for the cattle, as well as slaughtering and butchering. Women and children usually milk the cattle and goats, and women make dairy products. Both men and women grow crops, cultivating with hoes, and children help them. Women process grain, cook food, and brew beer. All adults participate in various aspects of building and repairing houses. Men hunt with spears and sometimes find honey, and everyone gathers wild fruits or nuts when they find them.

For Nuer men living in cities—as many do for at least part of their lives—the most common type of work for pay has been in the construction industry. Often the whole family may live at a construction site for a few months while Nuer workers put the wooden frames, bricks, and mortar of a high-rise building into place. The goal of this urban work is often to save money for buying more cattle when the family returns home.


The popularity of soccer has spread to many areas, but children usually do not have real soccer balls and have to improvise with whatever they can find.


Children and young teenagers often play with small objects they have made from mud, which contains much clay. Because they are cattle herders, Nuer children often form the mud into cows and bulls. In the last several years, with their experience of war, many children have begun to mold rifles with the mud. Given the warm climate, squirt guns would probably be popular, but there are few plastic or other manufactured toys. In addition to the objects made from mud, there are carved wooden animals and rag dolls.

Older teenagers enjoy singing and dancing, especially around the evening campfires. In one particularly athletic dance style, young men repeatedly leap rhythmically straight up into the air as high as they can, trying to make their movements seem nonchalant and effortless. Girls and boys dance as individuals in a group or with partners. Young men and women sometimes sing personal songs to try to attract many dance partners of the opposite sex. In some areas, a popular dance style for young men is a mock duel, in which one dancer “accidentally” leaps backwards and bumps into a young woman whose attention he is trying to get.

People make themselves as attractive as possible for dances, often decorating themselves with flamboyantly colored leggings and beads and carrying special dance rods, flashlights, or other fancy portable trade goods, even including books. One popular type of dance skirt for women and girls is made with twisted grass ropes that hang from the waist to just above the knees and may be decorated with cattle tails or small bells. For dancing, men and boys wear tight shorts, especially ones with pockets, and go shirtless. Sometimes dancers use simple body paints that imitates cattle markings, and they may even decorate a cow or two for a special occasion.

Nuer also enjoy games, including the two-player game of distributing small stones or mud tokens in rows of pits hollowed in the ground, and attempting to win more pieces than the opponent. This game, which is played in many parts of Sudan and other parts of Africa, can be played by people from different cultures who cannot understand each other's language.


The Nuer in rural areas have always been fairly self-sufficient, making and decorating many of their own household items. The carved headrest is probably the most common piece of furniture for the Nuer, something that is light and easy to carry when they hike to the cattle camps but which makes it much more comfortable to lie on a mat or cowhide on the ground. Some people are very skilled at making decorated pottery and the bowls for pipes, while others make aesthetically pleasing and highly functional baskets. Smiths process scrap metals into beautiful spoons shaped like the old-fashioned cattle-horn spoons, make spear heads, decorate pipe stems with brass, and fashion bracelets.


The ongoing post-war resettlement and reconstruction is the main challenge facing the contemporary Nuer people. Many had lost their homes or had to escape the fighting by moving to other countries or to cities. Some had been captured by neighboring hostile groups and forced to work or become part of their captors' families. Others had undergone military training at an early age, deepening the “culture of violence” that has led to small arms proliferation in Nuerland. Others have been psychologically scarred by the tragedies of war and displacement threatens to displace some of their more positive traditional values. Cultural erosion which condemns the immorality in Nuer ancestral life is now being replaced with the culture of unjust banditry and other similar activities. For the Nuer living in cities, poverty, sickness, and insecurity are daily problems. For all of these Nuer, a peaceful and just implementation of the January 2005 Peace Agreement are a major part of their hope for the future.


Nuer domestic groups are based on the ideals of patrilateral descent. Each Nuer village typically contained a patrilineage segment, some of the in-laws of the “ruling” males and an adopted Dinka lineage. The male elders are the “bulls” of the village. People named hamlets or villages after the numerically dominant patrilineal group.

During marriage, cattle and women are—and have always been—the central objects of reproductive exchange and hallmarks of the distinctive Nuer culture. This is seen in the transfer of cattle at the bride wealth exchange, which is considered crucial for the reproduction and survival of the agnatic line. Through the second half of the 20th century, the range of exchangeable objects expanded to include weapons and cash. For instance, bridewealth negotiations were traditionally settled with what Hutchinson refers to as “cattle of girls” (i.e., cattle collectively acquired through the agnatic line's exchange of daughters).

Women, as expected by the society, take pride in the number of children they bear.

Polygyny and wife inheritance are practiced. A man may marry additional wives depending on his economic ability. Widows usually remarry one of their husband's close relatives (such as a brother), without any additional bride wealth. Co-wives, however, do not necessarily reside in proximity; the bride is relocated in the husband's natal family following her intermarriages. Patrilateral residence at marriage further consolidates the patrilineal structure of Nuer communities.

Childrearing is traditionally the responsibility of all the women in the village; while the father takes considerable pleasure in his children, discipline is the responsibility of the mother.


Burton, J. W. “Nuer.” Encyclopedia of World Cultures. Boston: G.K. Hall and Co., Vol. IX, 1995.

Carisle, R. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Mankind. N.Y.: Marshall Cavendish, 1990.

Crazzolara, J.P. Outlines of a Nuer Grammar. St. Gabriel, Modling bei Wien, Oesterreich: Verlag der Internationalen Zeitschrift “Anthropos”, 1933.

Deborah, S. Emma's War. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Kinship and Marriage Among the Nuer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951.

———. The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940.

———. Nuer Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956. Frank, W. J. Nuer Noun Morphology. Buffalo, NY: SUNY: Unpublished M.A. Thesis, 1999.

Holtzman, J. Nuer Journeys, Nuer Lives: Sudanese Refugees in Minnesota. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000.

———. Nuer Journeys, Nuer Lives. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2007.

Huffman, R. Nuer Customs and Folklore. London: Franks Cass & Co. Ltd., 1931.

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

Johnson, D. H. Nuer Prophets: A History of Prophecy from the Upper Nile in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Kulan, G. and Gatluak, P. Nuer-English Dictionary. Nairobi: Sudan Literature Centre, 1999.

Malakal Language Conference. Rudiments of Nuer Grammar: Decisions of Malakal Language Conference Held at Malakal, Sudan in February, 1944. Yambio, Sudan: 1950.

Rejaf Language Conference. Report of Proceedings Held at Rejaf, Mongalla Province, Sudan, 9th to 14th April, 1929. London: Sudan Government, 1928.

Sanderson, L. Education, Religion & Politics in Southern Sudan 1899–1964.London: Ithaca Press, 1981.

Shandy, D. Nuer-American Passages: Globalizing Sudanese Migration. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007.

Vandevort, E. A Leopard Tamed: The Story of an African Pastor, his People, and his Problems. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.

Yigezu, M. “The Nuer Vowel System.” Journal of African Languages and Linguistics, Vol. 16, pp. 157–70, 1995.

—revised by M. Njoroge


views updated May 23 2018




Identification and Location. The term Nuer has been used for over two hundred years, but its origin is unknown. It is likely that the term came from neighboring groups, especially the Dinka. The name is used in both the singular (a Nuer person) and the plural (the Nuer people), but Nuer people call themselves Nath. Along with the neighboring Dinka, the Nuer form a subdivision of a larger East African cultural group known as the Nilotics that also includes the Luo, Shilluk, and Anyuak. The Nuer live in South Sudan in the swamps and open savanna on both sides of the Nile River south of its junction with the Sobat and Bahr-al-Ghazal and along both banks of those tributaries. Nuer territory lies approximately 500 miles (800 kilometers) south of Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. The Nuer are so similar to the Dinka in physical appearance, language, and customs that there is no doubt about their common origin, though the history of their divergence is unknown. The two peoples, despite intermittent conflicts, live in close proximity, maintain continuous contact, have intermarried, and have borrowed cultural patterns from each other. They have an array of myths and legends that speak of their historical unity. Both groups recognize their common origin.

Like all other South Sudanese peoples, the Nuer became part of the Sudanese polity in the 1820s, when the nation-state was taking shape, beginning with the Ottoman invasion from Egypt in 1821. Their incorporation began with the slave trade. Like the other South Sudanese groups, the Nuer have resisted incorporation into the Sudanese political structure. This resistance has led to the development of two distinct parts of the country: the north and the south. Northerners self-identify as Arabs and are Muslim, while Southerners identify themselves as black, African, and, increasingly, Christian. The north has held state power because of its long history of benefiting from contact with the Arabs and then the Turks, the British, and the Arabs again after independence from Britain in 1956.

All these governments attempted to force Nuerland into the structure of a united Sudan. A combination of that effort and neglect of social and economic development in the south have caused rebellions. Two civil wars have ensued, the latest of which continues into the beginning of the twenty-first century. Nuer participation in these wars has two sources. The first is resistance to the authority of the Khartoum government, which keeps them Sudanese but does not provide education and health care. The other is cultural differences such as Islamic beliefs in the north and Christianity and traditional religions in the south. This conflict reflects an uneven distribution of resources that favors the north.

Demography. In the 1930s the Nuer population was estimated at around 200,000. The British colonial government's census of 1952 put their number at 250,000. Sudan gained independence in 1956, but the country had already plunged into a north-south civil war in 1955 that continued through 1972. The first government census after the war indicated that the Nuer numbered nearly 300,000 in a country of 15 million. That number was said to have risen to 800,000 when the civil war resumed in 1983. Over the last eighteen years of the war, at least a quarter of the 2 million estimated casualties are thought to have been Nuer, and their current population is estimated as approximately 500,000 of Sudan's total estimated population of 26 million.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Nuer language is in the Nilotic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family, a branch that includes Dinka, Luo, Shilluk, Anyuak, and a number of other language groups. Linguistic similarities between these groups and a shared vocabulary indicate a degree of shared origin or mutual influence.

History and Cultural Relations

It has been suggested that the Nuer, along with other Nilotic groups, settled along the Bahr-al-Ghazal, Bahr-al-Jebel, and Sobat rivers in South Sudan around the fourteenth century; that is where they acquired their techniques for animal domestication. When other groups migrated southward in search of more elevated terrain to avoid floods, the Nuer stayed where they were.

Cattle are central in Nuerlife and have also affected the politics of contact between the Nuer and other nearby pastoral peoples. Because cattle represent the Nuer's social, cultural, and economic security, they are a constant source of conflict. The grazing plains of the upper Nile have been a major cause of conflict between the Nuer and the Dinka and among the different subgroups of Nuer. Cattle have also dictated the way the Nuer have reacted to state authorities. The successive governments in Khartoum have mandated that cattle in all Nilotic areas be incorporated into the state economy. Taxation was one method for achieving that aim. Requiring the Nuer to pay taxes in cash in a cashless economy where paid labor did not exist ensured that the Nuer would have to sell their cattle. The effort by the north to commercialize Nuer cattle has historically caused the Nuer to challenge the government, including their participation in the current war. Among the Nuer, the government's efforts to commercialize their cattle has been seen as an assault on their identity. There are regional variations between different Nuer subgroups, and these differences have been used by the government to weaken Nuer resistance. Nuer cattle have become monetized and commercialized, and the sizes of their herds have dwindled drastically, causing large numbers of Nuer to seek refuge in disaster relief centers across the country or in Dinka villages to the west.


Nuerland is in the swamps of the upper Nile, and villages are grouped according to the lineage system into the few elevated areas. Because of the environment, the Nuer engage in a nearly constant movement between the cattle camps of the dry season and villages in the few mildly elevated parts of the territory where they grow millet. Their movement is dictated by tot and mai, the two seasons, which are characterized by rain and drought, respectively. Much of Nuerland is flooded during the rainy season between April and October, and this has caused the shifting of villages. During the dry season between November and March, resources become limited and sending most members of the family to the cattle camp is the norm. As a result of this seasonal migratory system, the Nuer have been characterized as transhumant.

Much of the civil war has been fought in the Nuer area, and that has been detrimental to village life. Whole villages were burned, and the displaced populations have moved from one place to another over the last two decades. In their villages, the Nuer build huts with round mud walls and conical grass roofs that are windowless and have small doors that force people to crawl into their homes. Recent oil exploration and development have brought disaster to Nuerland, and more villages have been burned since 1998 to create a secure buffer zone and make room for foreign oil companies.


Subsistence. The Nuer economy is based on a combination of, in order of importance, cattle herding, horticulture, fishing, and collecting wild foods. Cattle are the Nuer's most cherished possession, an essential food supply as well as the most important social asset. Cattle play an important role in rituals. Nuer institutions, customs, and social behavior are directly related to cattle. They are always talking about their animals, and cattle are involved in their folklore, marriage practices, religious ceremonies, and relations with neighbors. The Nuer believe that a cow should not be slaughtered except as a sacrifice to God, the spirits, and the ancestors. An ox can also be slaughtered to feed important guests at marriage ceremonies. In recent times more Nuer have slaughtered their livestock because of the famines that have afflicted the South Sudan, but in general they eat the meat of every animal after it dies.

Almost every Nuer cultural practice and social activity relates to livestock. The circulation of cattle between the members of a lineage dictates kin relations. Cattle and other types of livestock, such as goats and sheep, have a special position in religious ceremonies. Animals are sacrificed to treat illness; as a way of praying for rain, fertility, and a good crop yield; and to appease the ancestors. In addition to their economic utility, cattle are an end in themselves, and possessing and living with them is a Nuer man's ultimate desire. More than any other factor, they determine the Nuer's daily actions and, because of their wide range of social and economic uses, dominate people's attention. Livestock is the currency used in trading transactions.

Although the economy is based on a combination of cattle herding, horticulture, and fishing, pastoral pursuits take precedence because cattle not only provide daily nutrition but have a general social value in all other aspects of life. Traditionally, when there was shortage of food and nowhere to barter, people relied on collecting wild foods and fishing. Recently, the Nuer have engaged in trading as a source of subsistence. Wild foods are abundant during certain times of the year throughout Nuerland. Recent famines, displacement, and loss of assets because of the war have forced the Nuer to make gathering wild foods, trading, and fishing important components of their economy. Besides grain and dried fish, the Nuer do not have nonperishable food items that can be stored for extended periods. The goal of economic activity is to satisfy immediate dietary needs rather than to accumulate wealth. When a household can harvest surplus grain, it converts the proceeds into cattle.

The soil is black cotton soil that maintains its fertility at all times. People may use slash and burn horticulture if soil becomes eroded, which is rare. The main crops are millet (sorghum), maize, and vegetables. Agriculture is typically a horticultural activity in that the Nuer rotate crops and their tools are rudimentary ones, such as the hoe. New tools have been introduced by relief aid agencies to help displaced persons reestablish their livelihoods. The area of land that a household cultivates varies according its labor force. On average a Nuer household grows two acres. When crops fail in one area because of floods or drought, grains can be purchased from areas of surplus within Nuerland or in the towns where Arab traders keep shops.

Commercial Activities. Barter existed in Nuerland before there were markets, and a person who produced surplus food could exchange it for livestock. When the Nuer were introduced to items such as sugar, salt, clothes, medicine, and soap, it was difficult to acquire them since there was no paid labor and no other type of cash economy. The easiest way to buy those goods was to sell livestock in the city, but selling cattle was considered shameful. It was not until the British colonial government imposed a poll tax and insisted that it be paid in cash that the Nuer sold livestock. When Arab traders began to venture into Nuerland to sell a few of those items and later opened shops, grain became available. A few Nuer got involved in trading by selling old oxen in the city and then buying trade items and sometimes returning to the city to purchase more cows. Trading became another means to increase one's herd. However, in the 1970s, when the first civil war ended and reconstruction began, the Nuer found opportunities for paid labor in urban construction projects. Much of the money they made was used to buy basic supplies and cows.

Industrial Arts. The Nuer produce a variety of functional items, including clay pots, mats, decorated gourds used as eating utensils, and baskets. Sewing papyrus into smooth mats is a painstaking industrial art. Mats are the basic form of bedding.

Trade. Historically, trading was not an important aspect of Nuer economic activity until the middle of the twentieth century, when Arab traders went from village to village selling salt, cloth, beads, and medicine. Those items were purchased with small livestock or chickens, and when cash became available, women brewed beer to buy those items. When northern traders realized that the south, including Nuerland, was a good area for business, there was an influx of Arab goods and the markets grew. The Nuer have gotten involved in trading, but it is still largely a male preserve as it involves long-distance travel to acquire the goods, and because of the lack of security, such travel is limited to men. Goods are smuggled out of the north as well as from the neighboring countries of Kenya and Uganda. Over the last decade international humanitarian relief has facilitated trade by providing cargo space on trucks and planes.

Division of Labor. The division of labor is similar to that of the neighboring groups. In general, certain tasks are regarded as being for women and others as being for men, but there is a great deal of flexibility. Women's work tends to take place around the homestead or the village. It includes farming, food preparation, and care for the young and the very old. Men's work takes them farther from home, since it involves looking after cattle. In the field of food production, ideally both men and women plant crops. Women weed, thresh the grain, store and pound it into flour, and prepare meals. Men do the harvesting and graze the livestock far afield. Women, girls, and uninitiated boys milk the livestock. Construction of houses is generally shared. Men build the walls, cut and transport timber, and put up the frame, and both men and women thatch the grass roofs. The only areas of rigid sexual division of labor are milking the cows and cooking. Initiated men never, under ordinary circumstances, cook or milk cows.

Land Tenure. Land is communally owned. Individuals can take, tame, and use as much land as their labor capacity allows, and this continual use entitles people to land. If they move away, it can be taken over by others. When a household moves, it may demand payment from the next occupants as remuneration for the labor expended in taming it and for any dwelling structures that may be usable. The only land that is contested is the grazing plains. However, the actual grasslands are not restricted to any group, although the elevated camps where the people reside are assigned according to lineage.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Nuer are patrilineal, but people are considered to be related equally to their kin through both the mother's and the father's sides. Thus, descent can be best described as cognatic. The Nuer consider kinship the most important basis of social organization. People determine whether they are related by their clan names. The members of a clan share a totem and believe in their descent from that totem. It is also on the basis of clan membership that strong marriage or sexual prohibitions are established and enforced.

Kinship Terminology. Children have to learn kinship terminology at a very young age and apply it strictly in their daily interactions with adult relatives. It is the means by which individuals express respect for one another. Those who do not share an age set cannot address one another by their first names. Kinship terminology is intended to maintain the descent group, and descent organizes domestic life, socializes children, allows the transfer of property and ritual roles, and settles disputes. The responsibilities, obligations, and rights derived from descent membership and expressed through kinship terminology extend to many areas of life. The Nuer use bifurcate collateral terminology.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage and family are the most fundamental institutions and are a universal goal. Polygynous marriages are common. Marriages of members of any local group are usually the best way of creating links through women between persons from different communities. This practice makes maternal and affinal ties in kinship reconfigurations an essential aspect of kinship, as exogamous rules are strongly enforced on both sides. A man may not marry a close cognate. The Nuer consider that if any relationship can be traced between a man and a woman through the mother or father, marriage should not take place between those persons.

Courtship is permitted among people who have established the nonexistence of a consanguineal relationship. Courtship, which is always initiated by men, is the preferred method of finding a mate. After the male initiation ceremony, a young man takes on the full privileges and obligations of manhood in work, war, and play. Courtship and cattle become a young man's major interests, and he takes every opportunity to flirt. When it is his turn to get married, a Nuer man is asked by his family to identify which one of the girls he has courted he loves the most. Once the family has reached an agreement, the elders visit the woman's family to announce their intention and discuss the number of cattle to be paid in bride-wealth. The marriage is brought about by the payment of cattle, and every phase of the ritual is marked by the transfer or slaughter of cattle. Some couples may decide to elope, in which case the question of bride-wealth is settled later, but this method is risky and the two families may end up in a bloody battle.

Marriages are stable, and grounds for divorce are limited; a woman's failure to conceive is one of them. Since marriages involve the exchange of property, which is often contributed by different members of the extended family, individuals are not free to terminate marriages. Decisions regarding divorce are usually subjected to the scrutiny of both sides before they are finalized, as the groom's family has invested materially in the marriage and the bride's family does not want to lose the bride-wealth it has received.

Domestic Unit. A married couple may live with the man's family before moving out to establish their own home. The couple is free to live in a place of their choice, but residence with the man's family is preferred.

Socialization. Children are cared for by both of their parents, grandparents, and older siblings or any other relatives willing to do so. Boys are generally engaged in tasks concerning cattle and with serving the adults at the cattle camp. Girls are expected to identify with their mothers, who teach them about women's roles. Boys usually identify with their fathers, who initiate them into manly activities and teach them their responsibilities for work and war.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Nuer are organized around clans and lineages, with the lineage being a smaller segment of the clan. The degree to which people relate to one another is based on their kin relationship. The narrower the gap in structural distance is, the more likely it is that the relatives will share a village. Those members of a lineage who live in an area associated with it see themselves as a residential group, and the concept of lineage therefore functions through the political system. A clan has a headman. Several headmen are appointed as government subchiefs and serve under an executive chief. Nuer society is segementary. Group size can change according to political circumstances. For example, many clans may form a phratry and reside together if there is a need for collective defense and then break apart when that need ceases to exist.

Political Organization. The Nuer are divided into a number of subgroups that have no common organization or central administration. Those groups may be described politically as tribal sections. Some live in the homeland to the west of the Nile and can be distinguished from those that have migrated to the east of the river. Therefore, it is proper to distinguish between Western Nuer and Eastern Nuer. The Eastern Nuer may be further divided into those tribal sections living near the Zaraf River and those living to the north and south of the Sobat River. In each of these groups there are headmen, subchiefs, executive chiefs, and paramount chiefs. These are all politicized positions that emerged after the establishment of the nation. Traditionally, Nuer political and administrative structure relied on community elders who enforced norms and regulations through respect and fear.

Social Control. Homicide is common and is usually related to cattle. Murder can be immediately avenged or become the basis of blood feuds. The mechanism to deter homicide and revenge is blood wealth, which is payable in cattle. The norm is thirty cows paid to the family of the slain person.

Conflict. The Nuer's relationship with the Dinka has been based on a cycle of war and reconciliation because of cattle rustling or theft. There is a myth in which the two groups are represented as two sons of God, who promised his old cow to Dinka and its calf to Nuer. One night Dinka came and took the calf from God by imitating the voice of Nuer. When God realized that he had been cheated, he became angry and charged Nuer to avenge that act by endlessly raiding Dinka's cattle. Today the Nuer raid cattle and seize them openly by force of arms.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Although large numbers of Nuer converted to Christianity at the end of the twentieth century, the majority remain followers of traditional religions whose central tenet is the worship of a high god through the totem, ancestral spirits, and a number of deities. The high god is called Kuoth and is the source of life; below Kuoth is a host of earth deities. Nuer religious practice involves sacrifices of animals at designated times of the year, such as beginning of the rainy season, the blessing of the harvest, and the end of the year. At these prayer gatherings the religious practitioners call for peace and good human and animal health and fertility. Ancestral spirits are thought to be able to increase the productivity of the land, increase the number of cattle, and provide safety. They are believed to watch over the living, reward good behavior, and punish wrongdoing. They function as mediators between the dead and the living. There are times when the gods need to be appeased, especially when they are angered by human behavior, and rituals are performed on those occasions. All these practices were a source of misunderstanding between the Nuer and Christian missionaries, who initially believed that the Nuer were worshiping idols. However, as a result of the religious conflict between the north and the south of Sudan, Christianity has grown steadily among the Nuer and Christians are currently estimated at 30 percent of the Nuer population.

Religious Practitioners. The central figure in religious practice is the leopard-skin-chief, but there have been numerous prophets whom people have believed in, the highest of whom was Ngun Deng. He rose in Lou Nuer, and his pyramid is the most impressive religious monument in Nuerland. The practices of traditional religious leaders have been regarded as complemented by Christianity, and there is no conflict between Christianity and traditional religion. However, the Nuer believe that there is a contradiction between their traditional beliefs and Islam.

Ceremonies. The Nuer engage in elaborate social and religious ceremonies. Dancing and singing are crucial forms of entertainment, and dances give young people an opportunity to interact and court. Although the Nuer do not conduct elaborate burial ceremonies, the death of a spiritual leader is always marked by a huge celebration in which cattle camps gather and young men engage in mock battles, sing to their favorite oxen, and feast. In the past a well-known spiritual leader might be buried alive to prevent his soul from taking the good health of the whole society with him. When he was thought to be dying, cattle camps were moved to his house and celebrations went on for days, during which time he was kept near the grave until the appropriate time came to bury him.

Arts. The Nuer spent long hours engaging in body beautification practices such as painting the body with cow dung ash mixed with cow urine. Hairstyling is another time-consuming endeavor.

Medicine. Although biochemical medicines are available and the Nuer believe in their efficacy, traditional therapeutic medicine is still highly regarded. It is sometimes the only medical system available because of war. The therapeutic techniques used among the Nuer include various kinds of surgery, dispensing medicinal plants, and bone setting. These are all techniques that can be passed between the generations. Other practitioners whose skills are "god-given" practice healing methods throughout Nuerland. They include diviners who are believed to diagnose by communicating with the supernatural world. They are widely believed in, but the rising number of people who are familiar with the concept of germs, viruses, and parasites and understand the way biomedicine works have started to challenge them.

Death and Afterlife. When a person is alive, his or her soul is thought to roam during sleep. The soul must return before the person wakes up. This is how dreams are believed to happen; dreams are things the soul has encountered while roaming the world. Death means that the soul has failed to come back before the person has awakened, and so, realizing that it is too late to rejoin the body, it goes to join the souls of the relatives who have died before to live with them.

For the original article on the Nuer, see Volume 2, Oceania.


Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1940). The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(1951). Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hutchinson, Sharon E. (1995). Nuer Dilemmas: Coping with War, Money and the State. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jok, Jok Madut, and Sharon E. Hutchinson (1999). "Sudan: Prolonged Second Civil War and the Militarization of Nuer and Dinka Ethnic Identities," African Studies Review 42(2): 125-145.



views updated May 11 2018




Identification and Location. The Nuer speak of themselves as "Naath," or "human beings." Nuerland is located in the southern Sudan between 7° and 10° N and 29° and 34° E. The main channel of the Nile River divides their country into western and eastern regions. Most of Nuerland consists of open savanna and is subject to considerable flooding during the two rainy seasons (April to June and July through October). In 1956 the Nuer were estimated to number in the range of 450,000 persons, with an average population density of approximately 2.8 persons per square kilometer, a figure that varies considerably in the wet and dry seasons.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Nuer speak a Nilotic dialect most closely related to Atuot. Nuer, Dinka, and Atuot have been conventionally defined as a distinct subgroup. There are no significant subdialects of Nuer.

History and Cultural Relations

Nuer living to the east of the Nile speak of their western relatives as "homeland Nuer" and have a consistent oral tradition indicating that their expansion across the Nile, as far as the Ethiopian border, has a 200-year legacy. In the process of this expansion, they forced the Anuak to migrate farther east into Ethiopia, and incorporated many Dinka into Nuer communities. Nuer versed in such matters suggest that at one time three "brothers"Nuer, Dinka, and Atuotonce lived in a neighboring territory. Legends suggest that they parted company to go their own ways following a dispute about the rightful ownership of a number of cattle. Both Atuot and Nuer traditions indicate that this separation and initial migration originated in a cattle camp in what is now termed western "Nuerland." These legends of migration sometimes have mythical properties, but it is prudent to appreciate them also for their historical character. It is certain that the Nuer, Dinka, and Atuot have a common "origin," and archaeological research may indicate that the spread of domesticated cattle in this region of Africa was contemporaneous with the origin of distinct ethnic identities. An especially active period of Nuer eastward migration began in the middle of the nineteenth century. Beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, British colonial policy in Nuerland was aimed at fixing boundaries between the Nuer and the Dinka, thus effectively halting a dynamic process of cultural change that had been unfolding for centuries.


Traditional Nuer settlements take radically different form as a consequence of ecological changes throughout the year. In the rainy season, floods force Nuer to seek narrow strips of land above the flood line. During this period, women are engaged in the cultivation of millet and maize, the staple horticultural resources, and men pasture their large herds nearby. With the coming of the dry season, able-bodied men move their herds away from the elevated ridges, following, with their herds, the course of lowering riverbeds and channels. Thus, at the height of the dry season, the human population is most dispersed. At this time, agnatically conscripted groups live in cattle camps. With the coming of the new season's rains, herders commence a gradual process of transhumance back toward the elevated ridges, away from the rising rivers. Here, wet-season settlements form once again, and horticulture follows the regularity of the rains. Nuer huts in wet-season settlements consist of circular mud walls with thatched roofs. Temporary scaffoldings are made to dry the millet and maize as it is harvested. In the dry-season cattle camp, shelters are made from local grasses, as the need for protection from the elements is less pressing.


Nuer technology is simple in manufacture and sophisticated in suitability to the local environment. Like the Dinka and Stuot, Nuer carry out their economic life in a manner that highlights cultural conceptions of gender and the division of labor by sex. Wet-season homesteads, horticultural produce, and huts themselves have strongly feminine associations, whereas masculine images are associated with tending cattle and manufacturing the corresponding technological items. Staple crops consist of millet, maize, and introduced vegetables and groundnuts where soil conditions allow. Cattle are centrally important domesticates, and Nuer also pasture large flocks of sheep and goats. Nuer men enjoy occasional success in taking game animals such as antelopes, hippopotamuses, and elephants. No crops are produced for commercial or market purposes.


Nuer domestic groups are based on the ideal of patrilateral descent. Kith should in some way be recognized as agnatic relatives. This principle is often confounded by the actual composition of local groups, but the ideal configuration persists across time. Nuer imagine that all adult males can claim ancestry to all other adult males, although in actuality neither domestic settlement patterns nor territorial segments conform to this ideal. Anthropologists continue to disagree about the significance of kinship and patrilineal descent in the organization of Nuer political and domestic life.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. All legal marital unions are recognized through the exchange of bride-wealth, in the form of cattle, between the husband's kin and the rightful claimants of these goods among the family of the bride. A standard ideal of forty head of cattle comprises the expected number of cattle to be received by the bride's family. In Nuer eyes, however, a marriage has not been finalized until the bride has given birth to at least two children. The actual exchange of bride-wealth cattle is thus a lengthy process and can be stalled or broken off by a number of phenomena. Once a third child has been born of the union, Nuer consider the marriage to be "tied." The woman has become a full member of her husband's agnatic lineage, along with her children. Through marriage, the continuity of the husband's lineage has been assured, and, following the birth of two or three children, the wife's role in expanding relationships of kinship has been realized.

Domestic Unit. As among neighboring peoples, commensality is the most consistent measure of moral solidarity at the domestic level. With luck, a woman may give birth to six children during her childbearing years. Co-wives do not necessarily reside in near proximity. When they do, the domestic unit can easily number more than a dozen individuals. Normally the bride is relocated in the husband's natal family following her marriage. Patrilateral residence thus further solidifies the patrilineal structure of Nuer communities.

Sociopolitical Organization

In a classic study by the late E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1940), Nuer political life was characterized as a system of fission and fusion. Lineage groups would bind together in some instances, and, in principle, the Nuer could conceive of all distinct descent groups uniting in this fashion. When disputes were localized, segmentation between smaller patrilineal groups would occur. Localized disputes, theft, or homicide were mediated by individuals called kwar (chiefs), whose words were effective because of their authority rather than their overt power. Chiefs could settle a dispute only once those in conflict agreed to a settlement. The introduction of secular chiefs and courts irrevocably changed traditional custom and usage.


As among the neighboring Dinka, religious thought and practice is a dialogue with a creator divinity the Nuer call "Kowth." This term has a variety of meanings, depending on the context. Indeed, understanding the contextual usage of the term "Kowth" is centrai to an appreciation of the complexity of Nuer religion. Evans-Pritchard wrote that although the Nuer lacked a tradition of embellished plastic arts, their intellectual life was complex. The Nuer believe that all life comes from Kowth and returns to the same divinity at death. The Nuer pray for health and well-being to Kowth, offering sacrifices of cattle in hopeful expectation that their sentiments may be realized. Whereas many individuals become diviners and healers (tiet ), there is no organized cult or hierarchy of religious functionaries. This fact is fully consistent with the aggressively egalitarian Nuer social ethics. Nuer religion is decidedly "this-worldly" in orientation; they do not imagine a heavenly abode awaiting them upon death. Like other Nilotic peoples, the Nuer regard long-deceased ancestors with respect and veneration, but are concerned in their earthly lives with the power of the recently deceased to cause misfortune. In sum, Nuer "religion" attends virtually every aspect of individual and social experience.


Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1940). The Nuer. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1951). Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1956). Nuer Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.



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people who live along the nile in sudan.

The Nuer, who call themselves the Nath, and their associated subgroup the Atuot are among the most numerous of the southern Sudanese Nilotic peoples. They live in the swamps and open savannas on both sides of the Nile south of Malakal in Sudan but have been seriously disrupted by protracted civil war in southern Sudan, waged most intensively since 1983. Culturally, they have a common origin with the Dinka, with common ties of pastoralism, intermarriage, and cultural borrowings. Periodic rivalries and conflicts have also characterized this relationship, including conflicts related to the resistance of the Sudan's People's Liberation Movement to the national government in Khartoum. The Nuer were the last of the Sudanese people to submit to British rule, and then only after a substantial military campaign in 1930, known as the Nuer Settlement. In more recent times the Nuer, some of whom have become well educated and politically active, have played an aggressive role in the southern Sudanese insurgency movement and remain the dominant military force in Nuerland.

see also dinka; sudanese civil wars.


Collins, Robert O. Shadows in the Grass: Britain in Southern Sudan, 19181956. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983.

"Nuer." In Historical Dictionary of the Sudan, edited by Richard A. Lobban, Robert S. Kramer, and Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002.

robert o. collins
updated by carolyn fluehr-lobban