Though known for centuries as the Dinka, they actually call themselves Moinjaang, ‘People of the people’. The more numerous Southern Lwo branch includes peoples living in central Uganda and neighbouring sections of DR Congo and western Kenya. According to a myth held by many Dinka sections, the first people to be created by God (Nhialic) were Garang and Abuk. Deng was their first born from whom all Dinka people are descended. The Dinka inhabit the swamplands of the Nile basin. They are chiefly pastoral people, relying on cattle rearing; they also grow millet during the rainy season.
The Dinka are around 3.2 million people, constituting about 25% of the population of South Sudan, they are also the largest ethnic group in the country. They are black African people in origin, markedly differing from the Arab tribes inhabiting Northern Sudan. They are noted for their height, often reaching over six feet. Besides, their women are famously more beautiful than those of other tribes in the whole of Sudan. The Dinka usually marry within their community.
Most Dinka groups retain the traditional Nilotes’ pastoral life, but they have added agriculture in some areas, growing grains, peanuts, beans, maize and other crops. Women do most of the farming, while men clear wooded areas to prepare tilling sites. The sowing begins in May and harvest takes place July-October. The cultivation of soghum, millet, and of other crops begins in the highlands with the early rainy season and the harvest begins when the heavy rains subside. Cattle are driven to the cattle camps by November when the rainfall drops. Animals are allowed to graze on harvested stalks of the crops.
The Dinka have a strong attachment to their cattle. They are highly valued and essential to the traditional lifestyle. They provide milk, cloth, dung to make firewood and houses, urine for medicine and ultimately food. There is a relationship of respect towards cows, which are cared for and sung to. Southern Sudanese livestock keeping tribes do not slaughter cattle for food or meat. They keep cattle for marriage and prestige. When they feel like eating meat, they go hunting for game in the bush. Livestock owners only slaughter their domestic animals for food on special and important occasions such as marriage ceremonies. Some Dinka are fishermen. They have developed strategies for dealing with the annual cycle of one long dry season and one long rainy season.
The Dinka peoples speak a series of closely-related languages which are grouped by linguists into five broad families of dialects for literacy purposes. Northeastern Dinka: Abiliang, Ageer, Dongjol, Luac, Ngok-Sobat, Rut, Thoi. Southeastern Dinka: Athuoc (Borathoi), Bor (Bor Gok), Ghol, Nyarweng, Tuic (Twi). South Central Dinka: Aliap, Ciec, Gok, Agar. Southwestern Dinka: Abiem, Aguok, Apuk, Awan, Lau, Luac, Malual, Paliet, Palioupiny, Rek, Tuic. Northwestern Dinka: Alor, Ngok-Kordofan, Pan Aru, Ruweng.
Each subgroup calls its own tongue by the group’s name and over thirty dialects have been identified among the five language groupings. Some writers refer to these technically distinct languages as one language.
In the broader Nilotic family the Dinka languages are most closely related to Nuer and Atuot. The Atuot are culturally Dinka, but the language is different enough to be a sixth separate language group. Traditional homes are made of mud walls with thatched conical roofs, which might last about 20 years. Only women and children sleep inside the house, while men sleep in mud-roofed cattle pens. The women and older men tend crops on this high ground while younger men move up and down with the rise and fall of the river.
Dinka society is generally organized around sub-section (wut), clans (dhieth), family, or patrilineage (mac thok). While the clan is used to recognize blood relatives throughout Dinkaland, patrilineage dictates village structure. Although people who belong to different clans may share a village, the most common structure for people of a shared lineage is to occupy their own village.
Every clan has a headman known as nhomgol. These men are expected to exercise leadership roles in support of the sub-chief who oversees a section of Dinka. The traditional Dinka political system is structured around the concept of clan headman. A collection of clans headed by clan leaders form a higher political body known as the sub-chief, and several sub-chiefs fall under the position of executive chief, who is the liaison between the government and the people. This is a system that emphasizes unity and harmony despite, and perhaps because of, its inherent individualism, competitiveness, tensions and conflicts.
Central to the Dinka value system is a concept known as cieng, which literally means ‘to live together’, ‘to look after’ or ‘to inhabit’. At the core of cieng are the ideals of human relations, family and community, dignity and integrity.
When men become adults, they no longer refer to themselves by their birth names. Instead they adopt ‘ox-names’ – derived from characteristics of their favourite cattle. Thus, a man may be known as Acinbaai (a man who never leaves his herd of cattle). Children’s names often reflect the circumstances of their birth. (J.K.S.)